Emotional Conversations - Part 3


Great communication is needed for challenging leadership transitions, but it is also needed for good changes like adding products, reorganizing your structure, or relocating your offices. In this 3-part series on communication strategies, we've discussed the importance of the meeting before the meeting and communication sequencing. When leaders fail to communicate their decisions to the right people, at the right time, in the right order, they risk losing the trust of their employees and co-workers.

The third and final principle of great communication that we're going to talk about is less about the entire organization, and more about one-on-one communication.


Either now, or recently, you’ve been in conflict with someone. It is a tense relationship. You dread talking to that person. You avoid seeing him. It may not be too bad right now, but occasionally it heats up. Maybe it’s someone on your team. Maybe a staff member. Maybe a customer.

I’m right, aren’t I? I know I am, because we all have those types of working relationships. And many times, because we don’t like to face these people or talk to them, we resort to e-mail communication. And nine times out of ten, that just makes the relationship worse.

You should never e-mail when you are in any type of relational conflict with another individual. What is the alternative? Talk with him or her in person so that you can see their eyes, watch their body language, and discern their mood or disposition.

Tim Sanders wrote, “Over email, I have no earthly idea what you intend...It wouldn’t be surprising that you and I can get crossways in the up and down world of business. Stuff happens. If we are 100% over email, bad stuff happens to relationships when day-to-day stuff happens.”

He advised readers to take all communication with that individual off-line for one week. Use the phone or have face-to-face meetings, use no e-mail or texting for one entire week, and see if the relationship improves.

I think it is pretty good advice.

There is also some good advice found in a biblical Proverb: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).

Nearly every week I have meetings, conversations, or e-mail exchanges where I have to remind myself of this principle. They are the types of interactions that could end in a very bad place. Emotions are high, the tension is thick, and many times I’m aware that the outcome rests squarely on my shoulders and my choices.

I’ve seen so many situations where a conversation gets out of control and hurtful words are said in a moment of anger, all because a leader didn’t know how to defuse the situation with a gentle answer (or perhaps because the leader chose not to). I wonder how many staff members have been fired and friendships completely severed because neither individual knew how to minimize the damage through carefully chosen words. I meet people all the time who won’t even speak to a former employer because of the pain.

If we were able to reverse time and observe the conversations that preceded a broken relationship, I wonder how many times we would find that this one principal was ignored.

When I’m in these emotionally-charged situations, I try to remind myself that…

  • I don’t have to say everything that comes into my head.
  • I don’t have to have the last word.
  • As Steven Covey popularized in his seven habits, it actually helps if I seek first to understand rather than to be understood.
  • E-mail is a bad tool for resolving conflict. It almost always escalates the tension.
  • Phrases such as “you always” and “you never” are rarely helpful.
  • Questions are always better than statements.
  • I really don’t know it all.
  • The issue is probably not the issue. If I listen, I might learn the real issue.
  • It doesn’t matter how obvious it seems to me; I do not know the other person’s motives.

This is not a skill to master. Rather, it is a discipline to embody.

In summary,

1.    Every time you are introducing change, don’t skip the meeting before the meeting.

2.    Every time you are managing a crisis, remember to sequence your communication.

3.    And every time you feel your heart racing and emotional dashboard red-lining, refuse to email. Go see the person face to face.

Each of these principles, when practiced, will help leaders become better at communication. Spend time making the best decisions you possibly can with the information you have available. But then spend most your time focusing on communication.

That is where the battle is won or lost.