What happens when someone exhibits anger towards us? We usually react with corresponding anger. We get defensive and feel the need to defend ourselves. The result is that we quickly become polarized and entrenched in our positions and our relationship with that person becomes compromised.
What if we were able to disarm an emotional and reactive discussion and shift it to being both responsive and productive? How would that change the focus – and the outcome – of the argument? And to what effect?
The next time conflict raises its head, be curious and seek to understand with these simple and powerful questions:
1. “Can you help me to understand why you feel this way?”
This question sets a conversational tone. Rather than responding with defensiveness and anger, you are showing an interest in the other person’s feelings. The goal is to understand what has caused the hard feelings. This question can be very disarming and can lead to a reasonable conversation.
2. “What is your concern?”
When ruled by our emotions, we often have difficulty expressing what is truly bothering us. We “say things in anger” that are not necessarily cogent to the problems at hand. The goal of this this question is to gently shift the conversation from high emotion to the underlying reason why a problem has arisen.
3. “What is the problem we need to solve here?”
Once we understand the concern driving the anger, we can shift the conversation to defining the problem that must be addressed.
4. “How can I help you?”
A compassionate question. Who doesn’t want help when upset? This question allows your family member or colleague feel safe enough to vocalize her or his needs.
5. “How can we resolve this question in a mutually acceptable manner?”
This question is future-focused. It gently shifts your family member or colleague to both envision and express a desired outcome. This opens the door to pro-active problem solving by inviting her or him to explore the idea of safe, comfortable, mutually acceptable outcomes.
A Few Thoughts about These Questions
- Using these questions will, at first, be challenging: These questions are powerful tools. The challenge is in being able to use them in moments of high conflict. You’ll have to fight the urge to meet high emotion with your own high emotion. My best advice is to first use this approach when you can anticipate a problem. Being aware of these questions will create the presence of mind to use them effectively.
- Show no resistance: No matter how much you are tempted to “jump into the fray”, focus on the other person’s needs and not your own. Don’t lecture or become defensive, even if you feel you have the right to be. Honor the fact that, right or wrong, your colleague or family member is in a bad way and needs to be heard. Fight the urge to be defensive. You’ll have plenty of time to express yourself later.
- Being curious means listening to understand, not listening to respond: Your strategy is to simply ask questions that allow the other person to speak. Rather than reacting with your own justifications, listening allows you to gain useful information that can be used to help both parties achieve mutually beneficial outcome.
- Be aware of your tone of voice and your body language: How you deliver these questions are as important as the words being spoken. Speak as one who is truly curious and wants to learn. Be aware of your tone of voice and your body language. Is your tone aggressive or curious? Is your body language relaxed?
- Be compassionate: We have all had a bad day. We have all misinterpreted other’s actions. We have all felt slighted. We’ve all made mistakes. “Nuff said.”
- Seek mutually acceptable outcomes: Always my best advice. Always seek solutions that are beneficial to all involved.
These simple but powerful questions are, what those of us in the conflict resolution field call, “centering questions”. With them, you have the ability to disarmingly shift interactions from being emotional and reactive to being responsive and productive. So, when conflict raises its head, be curious, seek to understand and have a productive conversation.