How to Handle Emotional Conversations

Four steps to mediate and solve emotional disputes in your family business

Originally published at Farm Futures on 3.10.2022. 

A couple of weeks ago, Liz and I gave a presentation hosted by PDPWs Dairy Signal. It was a live-streamed conversation with farmers, and the topic was How to Get Your Communication Unstuck. We took questions from the audience, and one question stuck out.

We hear a version of the question often, so if you have it, you are not alone. The question dealt with how to deal with the emotions that sometimes come up in tough conversations.

Below is the question plus a couple of tips to help you if you ever find yourself having an emotionally charged conversation.

Question: What do you do when someone has already jumped off the emotional ledge? 

Answer: The easiest and best thing is to "Deal with the emotional issues before emotions become THE issue." i.e., before they feel compelled to jump off the emotional ledge. Sounds simple, right?

There are many reasons why people can take a full emotional leap, and some of the reasons may have little to do with the issue that is the final straw. 


Sometimes people respond emotionally that is far outside what would seem usual. It's often a sign that the issue at hand isn't the real issue. It's just the proverbial last straw. If you are surprised by someone's action, you need to start peeling the onion layer by layer by asking questions and allowing the other person to get everything out. As a mediator, I call this getting perspective. 


So, what is the purpose of getting the other's perspective and getting everything out? The reason is to understand the other person's NEEDS. Conflict and emotions arise when needs are not met for one reason or another.


If you understand someone's need, you can collaborate or facilitate a solution. Does getting someone's perspective and underlying need mean you have to agree with them? Absolutely not! It just means you are trying to solve the real issue and not the symptoms.


This approach might seem like a free for all, but after mediating emotional disputes personally, I can attest it works if you take the time. 

Step 1: 

Everyone speaks freely about how they see the issue uninterrupted for as long as it takes. No one interrupts the person giving their perspective or asks questions. When giving a perspective, each party only speaks about how they see the issue. They don't put words in someone else's mouth or make assumptions about others' motives. Sentences like "You think I still want to control this farm from my grave, and you don't trust me" are examples of impugning someone's motives and putting words in others' mouths. If this happens, it should be nipped in the bud. Gently.

Step 2: 

When everyone finishes giving their perspective on the issue, open up the discussion to clarify questions to make sure the message is clear. Don't debate or try to solve anything, but make sure that all the information and perspectives are open. Keep asking each other questions to make sure the surface issue isn't masking something else and deeper. Keep gently probing until you all agree the real issue is on the table. Real solutions can only come from diagnosing the real problem and need.


Step 3: 

Finally, get a consensus by asking whether it's a good time to work on solutions. No one can force anyone else to collaborate. It must be voluntary. Sometimes even after perspectives, it's not a good time to jump into problem-solving because the emotions are just too raw. In this case, close out the meeting with a set time and date for coming back into a problem-solving session. Though rare, sometimes parties aren't interested in joint problem-solving. They just want to continue the fight. It's good to know upfront whether everyone truly wants a solution.


Step 4: 

Create joint solutions that solve the NEEDs identified from the perspectives part of the meeting. Every answer should solve a need and issue, not the symptom.

The process above is straight out of mediation 101, and I have seen it work. Having these crucial conversations is hard work. It takes patience and some communication skill. If the issue to too volatile, the stakes are too high, or the emotions too raw, get a qualified coach or mediator.