In the first part of this series, I described the cooling effects on an overheating conversation of taking responsibility for one’s role in verbal escalations. Here are some other powerful methods of preventing conversational fires to add to your repertoire.

Social scientist Joseph Grenny perceptively notes that people lose control when they feel threatened. If you have a differing view about an issue when suspicions or threats are in the air, you’ll be lighting a match to explosive fumes if you proceed to share your opinion. You will likely find it much more effective to offer psychological safety by making a personal commitment to finding a mutually beneficial solution. That doesn’t mean abandoning the issues that matter to you, but it does mean acknowledging the other person’s needs and committing to an outcome that works for both of you.

When a lot is at stake, people frequently are caught up in the “whys” of their contribution without taking heed of the “hows” of making the conversation work. This is when pointing to the “default future” can be valuable. This avoids allotting blame and highlights the proximity to that “overheat zone” I mentioned last time, applying an emergency brake. Simply saying, “I don’t like where this is going, and my sense is that you don’t either. Can we try a different tack?” may salvage the discussion.

Speed increases friction, and the ensuing heat can fuel feelings of panic or threat. Reduce the pace of the discussion by slowing your speech down and lowering your voice, or agree to take turns speaking.

Get the agreement/disagreement proportions into perceptive. People who agree on 90 per cent of the issues can become extremely angry over the other 10 per cent. Refocus attention on agreement. Grenny suggests making a comment such as, “Can I pause for a moment and point out what we both agree on?”

Slowly itemising the common interests and commitment can prevent the fire from bring out of control and help to prevent conversational meltdowns. As Grenny puts it, “Disaster is far less inevitable than it often feels in the heat of the moment.”

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