“Look out, she’s going to blow, Captain!”

Have you ever had a conversation that began harmlessly, but ended up with you in the hot seat?  You can tell the person is quite upset, but can’t understand their approach to save your life.  Like a pressurized tea kettle, they just begin angrily blowing off steam.  Criticizing, exaggerating, belittling; maybe you earned it, maybe you didn’t.  In either situation, good leadership doesn’t allow for venting back.  It’s in that moment we have a choice.  Let’s face it, venting is largely unproductive which only further complicates an appropriate response.  So having a couple healthy options on hand can make the difference between success and failure.  Here’s a few I find helpful:

  1. Own what’s yours – whatever percentage of their complaint is accurate, admit it and apologize if necessary.  Don’t apologize for what you didn’t do, but don’t dismiss their entire complaint just because some (or most) of it is inaccurate.  Many times this is the silver bullet.
  2. Get clarity – it’s natural to go on defense when we’re attacked, especially when it’s unjust. Instead of immediately going into survival mode, ask questions and make sure you understand exactly what you’re being accused of.
  3. Ask what you can do – sometimes there is literally no point, they just want to vent.  If that’s what you determine, it’s reasonable to ask “What do you want me to do?”  Depending on how well you manage your tone, this can help bring clarity and closure.  It puts action steps into play which you can then appropriately respond to.

Conversations don’t have a rewind button, so we only get one chance to respond. Good or bad, people will remember the choice we make.

What are some ways you’ve learned to defuse a potentially explosive conversation?

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