graphic of a series of ears with the word "Listen" written above themYou’ve got a critical co-worker…team members attacking each other…a boss who’s impatient with you…an incensed client. My guess is you feel overwhelmed and a little bit scared in challenging situations like these. How can you get these people to calm down, listen to your side of the story or be open to your suggestions?

It’s possible to shift the energy and tone of the conversation toward a constructive outcome in these and similar circumstances within minutes.

The key is in knowing what to say and how to say it.

Chances are you’ve tried all sorts of responses in the past to deal with such uncomfortable and unpleasant behaviors: pleading with the person to listen to reason, explaining your rationale, making excuses, becoming defensive, walking away, persuasion and even listening to a degree. None of it has worked quite the way you hoped or wanted.

You’re smart and capable. You’ve learned more people skills than the average person (just by reading this blog J ). You’re a kind and caring person and a good listener. And yet, there are still some people, especially in emotionally-charged situations, that you just can’t seem to reach.

How frustrating.

There is one secret that many therapists and hostage negotiators know to de-escalate tough situations, gain buy-in and turn the tide toward mutual understanding and problem-solving.

Listen to really “get” where people are coming from.

When they see that you get them, they’re more likely to trust you and take the conversation in the direction you’d like it to go.

First, though, let’s acknowledge that you have to bring yourself to a point where you can rise to the challenge.

Pull Yourself Together First

Mark Goulston in his book Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone calls this “Move yourself from Oh F#@& to OK.”

Goulston says you have to learn how to move your brain from panic to logic. He suggests teaching yourself to quickly go through a 5-step process:

  1. “Oh F#@&” the reaction phase—this is a disaster
  2. “Oh God” the release phase—this is a huge mess and I’ll have to clean it up
  3. “Oh Jeez” the re-center phase—I can deal with it but it won’t be fun
  4. “Oh Well” the refocus stage—I won’t let this ruin my life/career/relationship and here’s what I’ll do right now to make it better
  5. “OK” the re-engage phase—I’m ready to tackle this in the most effective way possible

As with any new skill, you have to practice these steps. Walk yourself through them whenever you’re facing a difficult interaction. Do it silently in your head if you’re around others, or take a few minutes and write down the thought-process that fits your situation. Talk yourself through the steps out loud.

Here’s an example.

Imagine you’re in a team meeting where your boss—let’s call her Jane—loses it. A major customer went to a competitor. Jane’s blaming all of you for the problem and threatening disciplinary action if everyone doesn’t shape up and put in the hours to make sure this never happens again. While you agree that your group could have done some things better, you also know the competitor has a product the customer prefers.

  1. Think or write: “this is a disaster. My job’s on the line here. I’m scared.” It’s important for you not to deny how you’re really feeling.
  2. Take slow, deep breaths through your nose as you feel your feelings. “Oh, God, why is this happening? I feel powerless here.” Keep breathing and begin to think the word, “RELAX.”
  3. Keep breathing and with each breath count down through the list: Oh, F#@$, Oh God, Oh, Jeez, Oh, Well, OK.” Do this a few times. You’re talking yourself back from the ledge.
  4. Now begin to think about what you can do to control the damage and make the best of the situation. What is a helpful question you could ask? (see below for suggestions)
  5. OK. Now ask that question or do whatever it is you thought would help.

The more you practice, the better and faster you’ll get. That’s the goal—to move through these phases quickly enough to make a difference during the interaction. It can be done. You can do it.

Open with Genuine Empathy

Here’s the paradoxical answer to how to talk so people will listen when they’re upset: don’t talk, listen.

Begin with a statement that shows you ‘get’ or are sincerely trying to ‘get’ what the other person must be going through. Put yourself in her shoes and imagine what she must be feeling.

In our example with Jane, you might say something like, “I’ll bet you feel that none of us have had your back for a while now. That you’re in this alone and not sure you can count on us to improve customer service. Is that right?”

Notice the check for accuracy question at the end.

I predict Jane will pause. This isn’t what she expected. She might nod or acknowledge you’re on the right track, “This team hasn’t been performing at the levels needed to retain major accounts.”

Now, her acknowledgement still sounds like blame. She’s angry and won’t be able to respond differently yet. It’s a physiological impossibility because she’s still trapped by her emotional, reptilian brain—stress hormones like cortisol are streaming through her body. You have to walk her back from her emotional edge, just as you did yourself but with slightly different techniques.

So next you say, “Tell me more.”

Yes, you invite her to talk more about her view of the world. It is important that you understand it from her perspective to have any chance at all of improving the present toxicity in the meeting.

As you listen, guide her with questions that refocus her negative emotions toward constructive descriptions of the problem. Before you ask those questions, show you’ve heard her. Really heard her.

“I hear you saying that one of the areas for improvement is more frequent follow-ups with our customers, right? What else do you think our team should do to retain our largest customers? What can the company do?”

Remain focused on Jane’s issues until you see that she’s calm and rational again. By then, if you’ve been genuine and she’s felt understood, she’ll likely begin asking you for your thoughts.

By the way, if any part of what she’s saying about the team is true, an apology is a powerful mediator. Make it count by showing sincere remorse and offering restitution. “I know we haven’t always followed all the customer service protocols. In this case, we lost an important customer.” Turn to your team mates and say, “Let’s talk about what we will do differently going forward.”

Close with Clear Steps Going Forward

Make the necessary commitments with each other for moving on. Identify the steps or actions each person will take in the immediate future. Agree to check back within a reasonable time to see how it’s going. Make adjustments if needed.

You may not be able to change another person, but you can change the dynamic of any interaction for the better. It only takes one person to take the first step. Let it be you.

What’s your secret for getting people to listen to you when they’re upset?