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8 ways to handle a negative conversation during troubled times

With the country mired in fierce politics and heated rhetoric, how do you stay civil in your own corner of the world?
If you feel your interaction with someone spiraling into negativity, there are ways to get back on track.
If you feel your interaction with someone spiraling into negativity, there are ways to get back on track.Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

With the country consumed in fierce politics and heated rhetoric ahead of the midterm elections and hearings to decide the fate of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, it may be hard to stay civil in your own small corner of the world.

“It’s difficult for anyone to escape being influenced... because it is all around us,” Kathleen Kelley Reardon, an expert on persuasion and interpersonal communication, told TODAY.

“It’s very difficult to deny the existence of an increasing acceptance of and participation in meanness.“

If you find yourself stuck in a negative conversation at work or at home, step back and realize you have the power to turn things around.

Reardon, professor emerita at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, believes in the 75 percent rule — you are 75 percent responsible for how others treat you.

In a conversation with another person, you’re already 50 percent responsible, she said. With the right approach, you're even more in charge — an important skill.

“Conversations are building blocks of relationships,” Reardon noted.

If you feel your interaction with someone spiraling into negativity, here are eight strategies to get back on track:

1. Be aware of your buttons.

Even if you're not aware of what sets you off in a negative direction, you can be sure others have been observing you and know when to press your buttons.

"We make ourselves very predictable," Reardon said. "Other people will begin to realize that you are really a creature of your pattern and they can manage you."

If someone sees you are sensitive on a particular issue, for example, and knows you'll come out fighting if she brings it up, she can manipulate you into that action. Be aware of what's going on and snap out of your pattern.

2. Put what’s being said in a different light.

If someone characterizes your discussion as a “fight,” you might counter by saying: “No, we’re having a discussion,” or “This is a debate, not a fight.” Reframing an interaction this way can completely alter what the person does or says next.

“Communication is a lot like chess,” Reardon said. “That means that every choice one person makes limits the other person’s choices. So if you reframe it as a discussion, then the rules both parties know for discussion call for more civility and more listening.”

3. Rephrase what someone says about you.

Be aware of how someone characterizes you in a conversation. If someone refers to you as stubborn, for example, you could respond with, “I'm persistent.” It’s the same set of behaviors, but “persistent” is admired, whereas “stubborn” is not.

If someone criticizes you for being outspoken — “You certainly have a lot to say!” — you might counter with: “I’m passionate about the subject and someone had to speak up.”

Women in particular tend to apologize and feel badly about coming on too strong or talking too much, so they have to be particularly careful of not going along with the course of that negative conversation, Reardon said.

4. Use a past shared experience to help a problem that exists now.

There have been good times in most relationships, whether in business, friendship, or among family members, so if you feel negativity now, bring up another time when things were better.

You might say: “We’ve always worked well together, but something has thrown us off track today, I’m not sure what it is. I know we can do this effectively because we always have,” Reardon advised.

This approach accomplishes two things:

• It alerts the other person you’re both going down a negative track.

• It compliments the other person and your relationship. You remind your friend or coworker that you’ve been able to work out some difficult things in the past, which defines your relationship in a positive way and suggests you can do it again.

5. Ask a question.

People choose words quickly and may make a mistake. Asking a question about what they really mean allows you to alert them something is off and gives them the opportunity to clarify.

It also keeps you from assuming too much.

“This is so frequently overlooked nowadays,” Reardon noted. “People are poised, especially in political discussions, to defend their corner.”

Learn how to separate offense from insult. It’s extremely easy to offend somebody without even trying. But an insult is much more intentional, where somebody purposely wants to demean you or make you feel bad.

You might say: “I feel slightly offended by this and I’m not sure I’m supposed to. What were you saying here?”

6. Don’t give up too much power in a conversation.

Rather than allowing yourself to feel inferior during an interaction, feel good about what you’re contributing, Reardon advised.

Sometimes, other people are so dominant in a conversation and talk so much that you’re doing all the listening. While you think you’re being polite, your silence may be giving the erroneous perception that you’re not interested or that you’re not paying attention.

To politely signal that you want to be heard, you can say, “I need to interject here for a moment,” or “Something you just said made me wonder.”

7. Make the start of the conversation positive.

If you plan to bring up a contentious issue, organize the conversation so that this negative topic doesn’t come up right at the beginning and cast a shadow on the rest of your interaction.

“Earlier parts of the conversation have a halo effect on the latter part,” Reardon said.

You might say: “There are four issues here and we agree on three, so we only have one left to work on.” That way you’re defining your conversation as three-quarters positive already.

8. Revisit the conversation another time.

If you know you’re not going to handle this talk well right now, try to take another stab at it later.

You might say: “It’s late in the afternoon and neither one of us is at our best, I think we should save this last part for tomorrow.”

It’s one way to nudge a conversation from negative to positive territory.

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