Effective communication is an important part of any manager’s toolkit. But how can you have a productive conversation when emotions begin to escalate? You first need to diffuse the situation, says executive coach Kathy Ryan.

Ryan, author and founder of Pinnacle Leadership Institute, gave her advice during a webinar hosted by Insurance Journal’s IJ Academy (in 2016).

Ryan emphasized the importance of recognizing nonverbal cues that hint at rising emotions and offered communication tools to help when those emotions threaten to take control of the conversation.

Ryan noted that nonverbal cues can speak loudly. While people will occasionally tell you their emotions outright by saying “I am angry” or “I’m very hurt by what you said,” more often you need to rely on nonverbal cues such as tone of voice, gestures and facial expressions, she said.

Is their voice loud, or does it have an edge? Are they making eye contact with you? Are they flushing or beginning to sweat? Are their gestures out of character—whether too large or abnormally small? Are they leaning forward in their chair or leaning back, maybe indicating that they’re disengaged or feeling defensive?

These nonverbal cues are indications of emotions that may get out of hand and make a productive conversation impossible, Ryan said. To help keep the conversation on track, she offered two communication tools that she has found valuable in both her personal and professional life: I-Statements and Active Listening.

  • I-Statements

An I-Statement allows you to deliver feedback in a way that minimizes the chance of triggering a person’s defenses, she said. It’s a way of phrasing your feedback as an expression of your feelings or beliefs so that it doesn’t feel like a personal attack.

How does it work?

Ryan offered an example of standard feedback: “I just overheard your interaction with Bob. I’m very concerned. You were rude, and you were dismissive toward him.”

This statement will likely make the individual defensive, she said, leading to an emotional response. You will end up spending most of your time arguing whether or not the individual was rude and dismissive, rather than problem-solving, she advised.

Rephrased with the I-Statement tool, the feedback becomes: “I just overheard your interaction with Bob, and I’m very concerned. I believe you were rude and dismissive toward him.”

Ryan said this small change removes some of the finger-pointing by making the feedback your beliefs or feelings. In order to argue against the feedback, the individual will have to argue your right to have the feelings, which most adults will not do.

Instead, people are generally moved to ask, “Why do you feel that way?” or “Why do you believe that?” They are now inviting more feedback, and you can have a discussion.

Ryan said other examples of I-Statements can include: “In my opinion…,” “I think that…,” or “My perception is…”

  • Active Listening

Active Listening will help you acknowledge and de-escalate emotions when they start to ramp up, Ryan said. It’s a way of listening to someone that clearly communicates that you’re hearing what the other person is saying and not saying, that you’re reading their body language, the tone of their voice, and are fully focused on them.

Ryan said Active Listening consists of four fluid elements:

  • Acknowledge the individual and their feelings. The goal is to respond in a way that shows that you hear and understand what they’re telling you and encourages them to talk more. Ryan said you can do that verbally by saying something like, “So, you had an argument with your co-worker. Tell me more about that.” You can also give nonverbal cues that you’re listening: nod your head; make eye contact; keep your body facing toward them; lean forward in your chair to show that you’re engaged in the conversation. The important thing is to really listen, she said. Don’t try to multitask. Don’t be distracted if your email dings or your phone rings.
  • Summarize to demonstrate that you’re listening and to check your understanding. When there’s a break in the conversation, repeat or paraphrase what the individual has said. This allows you to check that you’re understanding what they’re saying and provides the individual an opportunity to clarify.
  • Empathize and reflect back your understanding of the individual’s emotions. If they use feeling words, repeat those words back to them. Resist the urge to add your opinion or advice—if the individual feels like you’re judging their emotions, they will ramp it up and try to defend themselves, she warned.
  • Probe further by asking for details. This sends the message that you’re interested and present in the conversation.

When Things Escalate

Sometimes emotions continue to escalate despite your attempts to diffuse the situation. Ryan identified four levels of emotion, using a pyramid to illustrate, and offered advice on how to deal with each.

Level 1—The base of the pyramid represents the most common emotional conversations you’ll have as a manager. The individual may be using phrases like “I’m angry” or “He hurt my feelings,” but nonverbal cues are subtle, Ryan said. At Level 1, you can recognize that an emotional response is taking place, but it doesn’t impede the conversation at all.

Use Active Listening skills to help acknowledge those emotions, she advised, as 9 times out of 10, just identifying the individual’s emotions accurately is enough to drain the energy out of them so you can get back to a productive conversation.

Level 2—At this level, emotion is unmistakably a part of the conversation, Ryan said. It’s not subtle anymore. The individual is using verbal and nonverbal cues to vent their emotions. They may use strong language, get red-faced, speak loudly or look agitated.

But the emotions at Level 2 are still temporary, she noted, and the conversation can continue as long as the individual’s venting is obviously productive and allowing the emotional energy to drain. Use your best Active Listening techniques to acknowledge the emotions and help the individual stay focused, she recommended.

Level 3—At Level 3, the conversation gets overwhelmed by the emotion. Body language and tone may be aggressive or dramatic. The individual may stand or pace from excess emotional energy. They may get defensive and be unwilling to accept responsibility. They may verbally attack you.

You need to clear the emotions before you can proceed with the conversation, Ryan said. Put your agenda aside and use your Active Listening skills.

If the emotions continue to escalate, warn the individual that the conversation can’t continue unless they can calm down. Most people ramp back down when they see there’s a boundary out there, she said, adding that you should remember to use a firm but calm voice. If the individual can’t manage their emotions, take a time out and try again later.

Ultimately in Level Three you are able to calm the individual down so that you can proceed with a productive conversation.

Level 4—It’s rare for a conversation to get to Level 4, Ryan said, but it’s important for a manager to know how to handle it.

She called this level “the show-stopper.”

The intensity of the emotion is now preventing a productive conversation. The individual is no longer able to control their emotions, and safety becomes a concern.

If you’re seeing highly aggressive language or volatile behavior, you need to stop the conversation, Ryan advised. You’ve already warned the individual in Level 3. Explain that the conversation is no longer productive and that you’re going to end it for now. Let them know that you’ll be in touch about the next step. Often in these situations the individual says or does something that has an impact on their employment. If you fear for the safety of yourself or others, have the individual escorted out of the building. Ryan also recommended putting people on alert ahead of time if you have reason to believe a conversation will get out of hand.

To access the webinar on demand, click here: “Dealing With Emotions in the Workplace.”