Simmer Down! Language Hacks to Dial Down Tense Conversations

 By Lauren Sergy

Of course people are stressed.

The demands of work and life leave many of us frazzled at the best of times, and I don’t think anyone would categorize 2020/2021 as “the best of times.” With so much existential angst and chaos, a note of tension is creeping into our words more and more often. It’s hard to keep it out of our voices, and harder still to not pick up on it from others. We’re like guitar strings, stretched tight and buzzing quietly in response to every bump and vibration around us.

That guitar-string like responsiveness is the big thing to keep in mind when looking to manage or even turn down the temperature of a conversation. We humans respond to and often amplify one another’s feelings and non-verbal cues. A snippy response to a curt comment can quickly take a discussion from a simmer to a boil, particularly when our patience is already stretched as tight as it can be.

We often downplay how important our language is in situations like these. Stressed-out brains tend to focus on emotions, which usually just leads to more tension. We lost sight of what we say, and unintentionally slip into more aggressive language.

Thems fightin’ words!

Shifting the focus from our feelings to our language helps us not only get out of our own heads but also helps de-escalate a potential war of words with the people we’re speaking with. These strategies don’t revolve around winning an argument (trying to win in a discussion rarely results in good outcomes). Rather, they focus on shifting attention – both our own and others’ – away from confrontation and towards collaborative problem-solving. They put up their verbal fists, you gently re-direct them.

There are a few ways of practicing this verbal jiu-jitsu. Here are my favourites:

1) Take yourself out of the conversation.  I don’t mean walk away! I mean that, as much as possible, you avoid referring to yourself or the other person. I call this depersonalization, and it involves avoiding the use of personal pronouns – you, I, me, your, my. It’s the difference between saying something like “The way you’re applying the fertilizer is wrong” and “the fertilizer wasn’t applied correctly.”  Or “I don’t think we should go with Option A” and “Option A may not work because…”. When we remove those pronouns, it makes the conversation and issue less personal. It makes it easier to avoid feeling defensive or confrontational.  The person isn’t the problem*; the problem is the problem – so let’s speak about it that way.

2) Ask the other person questions. Feeling heard helps improve relationships. Asking the other person open-ended questions that invite them to explain their opinions or tell their story not only helps them feel heard but can also help them (and you) verbally sort through your thoughts.  Showing interest in the other people you’re speaking to is the first step towards collaboration, and it’s always easier to take that first step yourself. Questions like “could you tell me about XYZ?” or “what are your concerns about ABC?” or a simple “tell me more” are extremely useful here. Just be sure to then close your mouth and really listen to the person. Give them time to answer without cutting in or interrupting.

3) Focus on the future. Tense is one of my favorite language hacks in tense situations. In this case, I’m referring to grammatical tense. As much as possible, use the future tense when discussing a problem or issue. When we’re feeling stressed, confrontational, or defensive, we often slip into past tense speak: “This is what happened…” “I asked them and they said…”. In stressful situations, past tense is usually the language of blame and finger-pointing. Future tense, however, is the language of problem solving: “Here are some alternative products we might use,” “we could try this new technique,” “what other options could we explore,” “could we look into the following?” This strategy will take some doggedness on your part, but the idea is that when people are slipping into the past tense name-and-blame style of speaking, you redirect their attention gently back towards the possible solutions and alternatives. It helps a conversation become more collaborative and far more productive.

None of these strategies are a silver bullet for instantly solving every heated conversations. There’s no absolutes in communication, and stress creeps into our conversations for a wide variety of reasons. But I’ve found these to be extremely effective in-the-moment tools for when you need to dial town the tension to a more manageable level.

We’re stressed enough as it is. With a little attention to our language, we can help each other take that stress down a notch – it’s something we all need and deserve.

*Okay, even if the person IS the problem, it’s more productive not to refer to them as such.

Let us know your thoughts or experiences on this topic in the comments below!