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During disagreements, escalation to all-out conflict can be avoided if you know how. Heated discussion usually makes differences worse, the meta-conversation is a step to avoid that.

Heated discussion can be either the cause of conflict or the result of it. Either way, there’s a basic step that you should take when discussions get heated, or are likely to.

I call it the meta-conversation; a conversation about the conversation. In other words, you talk about HOW you are going to have the ensuing conversation, BEFORE you discuss whatever the needs to be discussed.

Done this way, you set up the relationship for the task ahead –having a tricky conversation – to reduce the likelihood that it’ll go wrong.

How to

  • Call a halt and create a separate conversation (later when calmer, if necessary)
  • Focus on the relationship – how you both act and speak to each other
  • Set your boundaries, joint responsibilities, and agree to keep it respectful
  • Deal with pre-judgments on both sides
  • Establish both sides’ need from the conversation (not what they say they need because they are angry)
  • ‘Surface assumptions’; clear up misunderstandings about motivations
  • Establish rapport and a non-threatening base for further discussion
  • Demonstrate sincerity and ‘best intent’ on both sides.

All this might seem like a tall order when the two of you are headed for a clash, but it need only be a discussion of a few minutes. In short, the aim is to establish positive intent and to establish or reinforce trust on both sides.

The alternative is to fight. Escalation to a win/lose situation is rarely a good strategy because contests like that, in the long-run, simply produce two losers and a relationship which may be permanently damaged.

3 Responses to “The Meta-Conversation; a Step to Avoid Escalation”

  1. I like this and will be sharing it with staff, there is so much stress and pressure in the NHS at the moment these situations seem to be happening more often and can usually be taken back to a single conversation where it all headed south. Hopefully we can avert some of the future ones with this advice, thanks for sharing this.

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