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How to Control Your Emotions During a Difficult Conversation

Conflict is an inevitable part of any professional environment. It’s hard not to get emotionally worked up during a tense conversation. After all, a disagreement can feel like a threat, triggering a “fight or flight” response. However, managing these emotions is crucial for maintaining productive discussions and positive relationships. In this article, I’ll share strategies to help control emotions during difficult conversations, allowing for more constructive and less stressful interactions.

Understanding the Fight or Flight Response

When faced with a conflict, our bodies prepare for battle. Your heart rate and breathing rate spike, your muscles tighten, and blood moves away from your organs. This response, known as “amygdala hijack,” leaves you in a state of heightened emotional and physical alertness. Unfortunately, this isn’t helpful in a professional setting, where rational thinking and calm communication are key. Recognizing this response is the first step towards managing it effectively.

Breathing: The Power of Mindfulness

Simple mindfulness techniques can be your best ally during tense situations. Focusing on your breath helps you stay centered and calm. Notice the sensation of air entering and leaving your lungs. Count your breaths – either by inhaling and exhaling for a count of six or by counting each exhale until you reach ten and then starting again. This practice diverts your attention from panic and helps stabilize your emotions.

Physical Awareness: Grounding Techniques

Remaining physically still during a difficult conversation can cause emotions to build up. Moving around can help activate the thinking part of your brain. If you’re seated, consider standing up and walking. If this feels inappropriate, try subtle movements like crossing your fingers or pressing your feet firmly on the ground. This grounding technique, known as “anchoring,” can also be useful in other stressful situations, such as public speaking or during flights.

Mantras: Mental Anchors

Repeating a calming phrase to yourself can be remarkably effective. Amy Jen Su, managing partner of Paravis Partners, suggests using mantras like “Go to neutral,” “This isn’t about me,” or “This will pass.” These phrases can help shift your focus from the emotional turmoil to a more neutral, business-oriented mindset.

Labeling Your Emotions

Acknowledging and labeling your emotions can create a psychological distance from them. Susan David, author of Emotional Agility, recommends identifying your thoughts and feelings explicitly. Instead of thinking, “He is so wrong about that and it’s making me mad,” try, “I’m having the thought that my coworker is wrong, and I’m feeling anger.” This cognitive distancing helps you see emotions as transient data points rather than overwhelming truths.

Taking a Break

Never underestimate the power of a break. Pausing a heated conversation allows you to process your emotions and return with a clearer mind. Offer a neutral reason for the break, such as getting a cup of coffee or a glass of water. This not only gives you a chance to calm down but also signals to your counterpart that you’re committed to continuing the conversation in a constructive manner.

Managing Your Counterpart’s Emotions

Remember, you’re likely not the only one feeling upset. Your counterpart may also express anger or frustration. While it might be tempting to advise them to breathe or take a break, it’s usually more effective to let them vent. Visualize their words going over your shoulder rather than hitting you directly. Show that you’re listening without feeding their negative emotions. This can help de-escalate the situation.


Conflicts with coworkers are challenging, but they are also opportunities for growth and understanding. By employing these strategies – breathing, physical awareness, mantras, labeling emotions, and taking breaks – you can transform tense conversations into productive discussions. Remember, staying calm and composed not only benefits you but also helps maintain positive and effective workplace relationships.


  1. Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Bantam Books.
  2. David, S. (2016). Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. Avery.
  3. Jen Su, A. (n.d.). Managing Partner, Paravis Partners.
  4. Brett, J. Professor of Dispute Resolution and Negotiations, Kellogg School of Management.

By implementing these practices, I hope you find your way from feeling overwhelmed to remaining cool and collected, enabling more productive and positive interactions.

Mario Roecher

As an expert software engineer, manager, and leader, I am passionate about developing innovative solutions that drive business success. With an MBA and certifications as a software architect and Azure solution architect, I bring a unique blend of technical and business acumen to every project. I am deeply committed to integrating artificial intelligence into our solutions, always with a keen eye on ethical considerations to ensure responsible and fair AI deployment.

Beyond my professional pursuits, I am also an extreme sports enthusiast, with a love for windsurfing, mountain biking, and snowboarding. I enjoy traveling and experiencing new cultures and advocate for agile work models that prioritize flexibility, collaboration, and innovation. Let's connect and explore how we can drive transformative change together!