How to Communicate when Emotions Run High

how to communicate when people or situations are emotionalTo say emotions are running high right now is an understatement. And that’s why it’s so important to be intentional when you communicate. The smallest slip up in your words, body language, or response could mean a colossal blow-up simply because the people you are speaking to are overly sensitive and emotional.

I have no desire to choose sides, make judgments, or comment on the news. What I do want to do, however, is to offer a few ways in which you can be considerate of other people’s emotions, viewpoints, and experiences, so what you say or write has the effect you desire.

How Communication Happens

Communication takes a broadcaster and a receiver. Someone has to share a message, and the other person has to “get” it. If that doesn’t happen, communication doesn’t occur. In fact, miscommunications happen instead—and that’s often when problems arise.

While real communication can be used to influence people negatively, it can also have a positive impact. Indeed, it can create peaceful interactions and greater understanding between diverse groups.

When you communicate intentionally, you’ll find yourself experiencing less negative feedback, misunderstanding, and judgment in response to your spoken or written words. Of course, you can’t control how someone receives your message; therefore, your communication could get blowback from the receiver. This is especially true when the receiver’s emotions are running high or has a closed mindset or set way of seeing the world.

Yet, your communication has more chance of bridging the gap when you share your message intentionally and apply proven communication strategies.

I hope these 10 tips help you navigate the tough conversations you may have now or in the future.

1. Choose your words carefully.

It’s incredible how one poor word choice can cause someone to get upset. While you should stand up for what you believe—even speak out about it—it’s essential to do so without blame, judgment, anger, or callousness.

Someone made a remark on Facebook that sounded anti-semitic because of one word used in the post. When I commented, it sparked a conversation that did not end well.

She would have been better served had she communicated what she wanted to say in a manner that didn’t point a finger at a religious group. That said, I could have responded with more tact and understanding. I could have chosen my words better.

I’m usually quick to speak and write, and sometimes that gets me into trouble. While I offer this advice, I also take it to heart.

2. Be clear about what you want.

Don’t assume that people know what you want. Communicate your needs and desires clearly. In fact, studies show that it’s important to over-communicate if you’re going to be understood.

A neighbor got upset when I stopped to pet his dog, who had run over to me. He didn’t clearly state that he didn’t want me to touch the dog. Therefore, I didn’t understand immediately and did, indeed, pet the dog. He had to repeat his desire twice before I “got it.” The incident left him angry, and me upset.

Clearer communication on his part would have helped. Then I would have known before I ever touched the dog that he didn’t want me to do so.

3. Listen well.

Human’s tend to not hear what’s being said but, instead, what they think is being said…if they are listening at all. It’s important to listen well, so you understand the words being spoken.

If I had listened more carefully to my neighbor when he spoke to me—rather than focusing on the little dog coming toward me for a pat—maybe I would have understood what he wanted. If I had focused on him and his words, I might have received his message: Don’t pet my dog.

If I had listened more carefully to his words, I would have understood his concern. I also wouldn’t have felt angry and judged—and judged him in return. And maybe, if he had listened to me more carefully, he would have heard—and believed—that I sincerely thought I’d done nothing wrong.

To listen carefully requires that you be present. If you are thinking about something else—like I was thinking about the dog approaching me—you won’t hear the other persons. You also won’t perceive their unspoken cues.

4. Be understanding.

Compassion requires that you put yourself in another person’s shoes and understand them. You must see the world through their eyes and comprehend how they feel. When you can do that, your communication—and relationships—become more peaceful.

Thinking again about my neighbor and his dog, had I done a better job of listening to him, I would have gained insight into his emotional state. I would have understood his concern, which would have helped me feel empathy for him.

When we feel compassion and empathy for others, it’s harder to judge them. But first, we have to understand them. So, at all costs, try to be more understanding of others when they voice their beliefs, feelings, or concerns.

5. Have patience.

When emotions run high, it’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind this causes. When that happens, you are likely to find yourself communicating fast…too fast.

Your communications—and relationships—will benefit from a pause. Take the time to respond rather than react. This one action can mean the difference between the creation of a relationship rift or a deepening of the very same relationship.

I should have paused before responding to that lady’s Facebook post. Had I done so—rather than reacting, my response might have been more thoughtful and compassionate, which would have gotten a very different reaction.

The same could be said of my reaction to my neighbor. Had I just taken a deep breath—and considered his position—before opening my mouth, the outcome might have been totally different.

6. Be kind.

Before you speak or write something, remember one thing—always: be kind. You can be kind in both word and deed, and it’s amazing how quickly kindness can change the tone of a conversation.

I know that can feel like a tall order with so much polarization going on at the moment, but it’s possible to be kind to everyone—even people who disagree with you, have different beliefs, or have opposite values.

During a heated Facebook debate, a friend of mine—someone I respect—mentioned that he held an opposing view to mine. He asked if I was going to unfriend him. (I had unfriended someone else for just that reason.)

I had to stop and think that through. It was easy to unfriend someone I hardly knew…but a friend and colleague—someone who had helped me enormously over the years? That was not so easy.

At that moment, I realized that unfriending people for their opinions and beliefs was unkind. We don’t all have to agree, but we do have to be kind. I didn’t unfriend him, and I re-friended the other person.

7. Forgive.

It can feel enormously challenging to forgive someone who takes the life of someone you love, who is prejudiced, or who strikes out at you physically or verbally. But it’s possible with understanding, compassion, and empathy.

I try to keep in mind that people are always acting on their beliefs and doing the best they think they can. We each respond based on our past experiences and world view. Terrorists, school shooters, and rioters—just like you and me—communicate through their words and actions. They want to be heard and often feel that the only way they can be heard is by acting out in some way.

When you understand that—and that they have underlying motivations that may be different from yours but important to them—it’s possible to forgive. And forgiveness does not necessarily mean condoning someone’s behavior. It means understanding why the person spoke or behaved in the manner they chose.

I’ve heard tell of parents whose children are murdered and end up forgiving the murderer. That seems impossible, but it isn’t.

I have relatives whose actions or words have been hurtful to me or to others. I forgive them. I don’t have to like what they did—or even who they are—but I can forgive them and do my best to get along.

I ran into a woman with whom I had partnered in a project several years prior. The project had not ended well. In fact, I had to hire a lawyer because she claimed rights to my intellectual property. She acted as if nothing had happened. Hanging onto my hurt and anger only hurt me—not her, so I forgave her and went on my way feeling much lighter.

Without forgiveness, you’ll find it extremely difficult to communicate with those who you feel have hurt you or others. And the underlying emotions of hurt, anger, judgment, resentment, and hate will color every conversation you have with these people—and it’s outcome. Plus, you’ll continue carrying the negative emotions, which always affects you—not them.

8. Be a role model.

If you want your conversations to go smoothly, and if you’re going to be an agent of change when it comes to communication, role model the behavior you want to see in others. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Consider how you would like others to speak and behave during a conversation. Then talk and act that way—not just during the conversation, but every time you communicate.

Role models have influence. People look up to them and are motivated and inspired to act as they do.

I’ve seen role modeling work when I communicate with my children. If I remain calm and clear as I speak, they find it easier to stay calm and clear as well. But if one of us gets upset and raises his or her voice, the other may respond in kind. Before I know it, we are having a blow-out argument or an enormously emotional encounter. If, however, I continue to role model calm, clear communication, my child settles down and returns to a “civil” conversation.

When you decide to have a tough conversation with someone, or you engage in what you know could be (or already is) a heated discussion, show up as the most amazing communicator you know. Speak and behave in a manner befitting that person you respect for their communication skill. Allow them to be your role model. That’s an effective approach as well.

9. Actions Matter, Too.

Communication is never just verbal. Non-verbal communication, like body language, plays a massive role in whether a conversation goes smoothly or a message gets heard.

For instance, crossing your arms while you speak to someone does not tell them you are open to hearing what they have to say. Looking at something else instead of at the person with whom your speaking in the eyes tells them you are disinterested or don’t care. Scowling indicates that you are angry, as does a raised voice.

I often think my husband is angry or upset because of the tonality he uses when he speaks. I ask, “What’s wrong,” and he doesn’t understand why I think something is amiss with him. He and my son get quite loud and forceful with their voices when they feel passionate or adamant about a subject. When they speak in that manner, I assume they are angry, which makes it hard for me to continue talking with them.

Be aware of all times of your behavior when you speak. This includes how you hold yourself and your vocal quality. These are things that can be intentionally changed to suit any conversation you need or want to have.

10. Take Responsibility

It’s easy to blame others for communication issues. But you won’t improve your ability to communicate with others—even the people you find most challenging to speak with—if you don’t take responsibility for your part in the conversation.

Consider all the previous tips. If you aren’t doing one or more of them when you speak with others, the reason your conversations go South might be your communication style.

Again, I have family members that I find difficult to speak with for a variety of reasons. I can blame them all day. I can excuse myself by focusing on their judgment, negativity, or unwillingness to speak honestly. That won’t help me improve my relationships —or have pleasant conversations—with them.

For that to happen, I have to take responsibility for myself and how I approach these relationships and conversations. I have to be sure I choose my words carefully, speak clearly about what I want, listen well, have understanding and patience, demonstrate kindness and forgiveness, am a role model, and pay attention to my verbal and physical actions. Only then can I know with certainty that I have done all I can to communicate in a way that fosters healthy, peaceful relationships.

Do Your Best to Communicate Well

Despite a degree in public communication, I don’t consider myself a master communicator or expert in this subject area. Most of the time, I see how I fail to use most of the 10 tips I listed above. But I know they are the keys to communicating well in tough times—or at any time.

All you and I can do is our best. Try to put even one of these tips to use the next time you need to have a tough conversation or improve a relationship. Commit to practicing them daily in your regular communications and in situations where people’s emotions run high. Watch how your relationships and ability to communicate improves.

What helps you communicate well and peacefully when you find yourself having tough conversations or speaking with highly emotional people? Tell me in a comment below. And if you know someone who would benefit from reading this post, please share it!

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Photo courtesy of Etienne Boulanger

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