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Institute advises how to have critical conversations in times of heightened stress

Cate Zenzen  | 

Conflict Management

The challenges of 2020 have contributed to a heightened feeling of stress, anxiety and tension for many people. Consequently, these emotions can make interactions with those we disagree with even more difficult. In consideration of the current cultural climate, the Institute for Conflict Management hosted a virtual seminar in the fall that included tips on having meaningful, non-judgemental conversations. 

The 90-minute session was hosted by Institute Director Matt Milligan and Professor Tracy Allen, and featured a discussion led by industry professionals, George Brown and Eric Golden, who recommended the following:

Take a break. When a conversation gets particularly heated, the best thing to do is take a deep breath. Not only does internal meditation give the parties a chance to understand what has just been shared, but it also prevents each person from saying something they might regret. 

“Compassion begins with each of us. Take a break and let the body absorb before it reacts and attacks,” said Allen. 

Choose words wisely. Phrases that indicate a willingness to listen and understand the opinion of the other party will foster a healthy conversation instead of hostile or emotionally charged. Rather than saying, ‘I disagree,’ use, ‘I have a different perspective.’ The experts recommended never responding with a contradictory statement as in, ‘I understand how you feel but…’ It disconnects the conversation. Say instead, ‘I understand how you feel and I have a different perspective,’ to respectfully continue. 

“I try to figure out words to use to let them know I understand, like, ‘I hear you,’ ‘I feel you,’ ‘Tell me more and help me understand where you are coming from,’” said Brown. 

Practice active listening. Golden emphasized to viewers the significance of perspective taking, particularly in a time where any conversation has the potential to become highly emotional. This technique includes expressing curiosity in a non-judgemental manner, actively listening to the other person, summarizing their response and showing respect for their opinion. Active listening is critical, as it demands the listener pay attention to both the emotions and content tied to the conversation. 

Identify the goal. When two parties disagree, the objective is often to prevail in the discussion. In the heat of an argument, a person will say whatever they can to disprove the opinion of the other, and it is natural to become overprotective of our egos. Rather, approach such conversations with an intention to understand and learn from the other party. The key to a civil discussion is ensuring the emotional and psychological safety of both sides. 

“Make people feel safe in sharing their views in order to have a meaningful conversation. It’s ok to feel the way we feel, people are entitled to their perspectives,” said Allen. 

Allen, Brown and Golden emphasized persistence, patience and perseverance in this time of tension and stress. The challenges of life are ever-present and so too are the discussions on such challenges. Yet with a keen awareness of how to calm our own heightened emotions, and how to better understand the position of the other party, we can engage in conversations that may actually help us learn more about the world. 

For more information about Lipscomb’s Institute for Conflict Management, visit