If you identify as being a socially conscious person in today’s age of outrage, you’ve likely experienced the bewildering sensation when a conversation that was once harmless, suddenly doesn’t feel that way anymore. Perhaps you’re out for a quick bite with family, friends, or coworkers when the conversation takes a turn. Someone’s said something that doesn’t sit right with you, and you’re unsure of how to respond. Navigating social situations like this is inherently stressful.
Below are five expert-approved tips on how to maintain your cool and effectively communicate.
#1: Don’t Forget to Breathe
“If you’re trying to speak out in a way that has true power, the first thing you should do is take a deep breath,” Dr. Steven Fabick, Ed.D., a clinical psychologist in Birmingham, MI, says. “Once you do, you’re more likely to speak in a way that’s clear and articulate, and you’re less likely to try and vanquish or embarrass the other person.”
#2: Don’t Be Accusatory
When a disagreement is impassioned and personal, phrases like, “that’s ridiculous,” or “you’re impossible,” often get thrown around. This is called a psychoanalytic interpretation, notes Dr. Jerry Goodman, Ph.D. and Professor Emeritus of Clinical Psychology at UCLA. Put simply, it’s when you label another person to their face — a tactic that can quickly offend people and veer you away from a productive conversation quickly. These interpretations can be non-verbal, too — like visibly rolling your eyes.
If you’re feeling heated and on the verge of giving someone a psychoanalytic interpretation, Dr. Goodman suggests giving yourself some distance before speaking up. You’ll have time to cool down, and will have a greater chance of engaging in a meaningful dialogue.
#3: Don’t Be Preachy
“If we focus too much on being right and on winning, it usually backfires in social interactions,” Fabick says. Try to give people the benefit of the doubt if you can, and keep your lecturing impulse at a minimum.
#4 Avoid Combat Dialogue
“Combat dialogue” isn’t limited to words and phrases that are clearly vengeful — it can include your tone of voice. For example, when a male friend once disagreed with me after I called one of his comments “creepy,” I asked him a series of questions designed to antagonize him. There’s something inherently combative in pointing out the flaws in another person’s point, and Fabick notes that you should avoid getting into the cycle of trying to one-up the other person. Instead, he recommends using “I messages.” For example, imagine you’re in the passenger seat with a driver who is going over the speeding limit. Instead of saying, “Slow down,” or “You’re an insane driver,” try saying, “I’m feeling nervous about how fast we’re going right now.” If you deliver your critique as an “I message,” the other person is less likely to feel attacked.
#5 Avoid 100% Certainty
If you want to have a meaningful conversation with someone, Goodman points out that it’s crucial to avoid certainties. “Certainty is dangerous,” he says. To avoid this, he suggests disclosing your experience and inviting the other person to do the same. Since we can never be 100% certain about how and why another person came to their perspective, giving each other the opportunity to explain is crucial.
When you’re talking it through, Dr. Alisa Murray, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in Kent, WA, says to abstain from absolute terms that could engender defensiveness, like “always” and “never,” which she points out are rarely true. Dr. Murray also suggests taking a moment to convey respect for the other person before continuing on. Saying something like, “That’s an interesting point,” is helpful because it lets the other person know that you’re listening to them without insinuating that you agree. Because after all, the purpose of these suggestions is to communicate respectfully, and allow each conversational partner to truly hear what the other person has to say.