Feeling Powerless in Challenging Conversations?

Have you ever felt powerless in a meeting when the conversation turns into an emotionally charged diatribe?  

Here are a few seemingly magical steps that you can use to turn around unproductive and damaging diatribes in just minutes.


Imagine that you are leading a meeting. One of the agenda items is: rising health care costs. Your intention is to brainstorm creative solutions. One person, who also happens to have seniority over you, begins a rant about health care. He opens with a rational, but off-topic story about the history of health care costs. He then quickly digresses into unproductive blame-placing, finding fault and even making a few accusations about ungrateful employees. You can see that others in the meeting are becoming uncomfortable but because of his cache within the organization, no one will interject or disagree. You begin to question your leadership ability as you see all opportunities for productive problem-solving and creative solutions going down the drain.


These situations happen in both business and social settings. If you're currently a leader or hoping to be one, you'll likely be faced with a similar dynamic someday soon.


So, what would you do? How would you stop the rant while regaining footing and holding space for positive dialogue?


You could firmly and quickly call him out on his behavior. Or shut him down. This is not advisable. It may stop the rant, but the reaction is unpredictable and won’t build relationship with him for the future. He will most likely be embarrassed and feel shame in front of his colleagues. He may lash out based on this. And everyone in the room will likely think, “Whoa. I’m not sharing my thoughts. I may get called out next.” Brainstorming, creativity and innovation get shut down. Trust is negatively impacted.


Instead, try these magically simple and highly effective steps.



Step One: Breathe

Raise your hand if you knew I was going to say that! Those of you who have participated in my workshops or coaching already knew I was going to say BREATHE. Feel your heart rate lower and oxygen go into your brain. Problem solving and critical thinking skills will increase. Experience gratitude as you shift yourself from feeling powerless to feeling curious and empathetic. Pay attention for shifts in the energy in the room. Click here for a simple exercise to help you transition to this space easily and quickly.


Step Two: Interject

Create a break in the momentum with a simple, clarifying statement: “Hey, wait a second. Let me make sure I understand what you just said.”


Step Three: Shift Power

He will stop and listen without resistance because you are giving him what he (and everyone) wants…to be acknowledged and heard. You have now shifted the balance of power. Notice that you are talking and he is now listening for what you are going to say.


Step Four: Show Up

Begin with: “Here is what I’m hearing you say. Things feel a little out of control on health care. Tell me where I’m wrong.” This moves him even more deeply into listening mode. It also takes care of the possibility of your missing his point entirely.


You will create space for empathy. Everyone in the example above is balancing their own emotions with their empathy for both parties. In essence, they are flipping back and forth imagining how they would feel if they were him and how they would feel if they were you. It is time for you to show up as the peaceful, productive and empathetic leader who can facilitate a face-saving outcome!


Step Five: Toss Out a Hunch

Use the power of paraphrasing to toss out a hunch. Paraphrasing allows you, as the leader, to stand out as responsive rather than reactive. “Here is what I’m hearing you say. You are feeling frustrated that health care costs are negatively impacting the budget. I’m sensing that you are feeling things are a little out of control. Tell me where I'm wrong?”


You don’t have to know for sure what he is feeling but tossing out your best hunch begins the dialogue. He may respond with: “No, I’m not feeling out of control. I’m feeling disappointed that we will probably have to make employees pay more out of pocket.”


It doesn’t matter if your hunch is right or wrong. It isn’t about that. It is about getting to the place where he can express what is really feeding the diatribe and you can steer that toward a positive, problem-solving group dialogue.


“I hear you about not wanting to make employees pay more out of pocket. Let’s start brainstorming other solutions.”


This is just one of the tools available if you want to be skilled at facilitating dynamic and impactful dialogue within your organization, team or personal life.


Click here to find out how you, your team or organization can learn to Hold Positive Space in Challenging Dialogue.


Questions? Click here to schedule a phone call with Beth.