How to Clean Up a Messy Conversation

How to Clean Up a Messy Conversation
Life is messy. Or as Susan Scott puts it, “Life is curly.” Having successful conversations is a learned skill, but even for those with a lot of training, conversations don’t always go the way we planned. And when they don’t, they can potentially impact our relationships in ways that are less than peachy.

After a conversation, we may leave behind what we at Fierce call an emotional wake. The emotional wake can be either positive or negative and is experienced by either one or all parties involved. It tends to show up as an afterglow, aftermath, or aftertaste. In the case of an aftermath or aftertaste following a conversation, frustrated thoughts, confusion, or waves of guilt may arise. These feelings are an indicator that a rupture or miscommunication may have occurred that we need to address.

So why is it important to clean things up after a messy exchange? For starters, an unsavory emotional wake falls under the umbrella of what’s considered “poor communication,” which can be costly for organizations and relationships if not repaired. Due to miscommunication, businesses with 10,000 employees are each losing $6.2 million annually on average, according to a study from IDC. Second, repairing conversations strengthens relationships and builds emotional capital with others, leading to higher levels of trust, contentment, and happiness.

So you believe you’ve “botched” a conversation. Perhaps you lost your temper, became defensive, were dismissive, laid blame, or simply said something you didn’t mean. Now what?

To start off on the right foot when we find ourselves wanting to backpedal, we need to accept that the moment has passed. We can’t go back, but we can take a positive step forward. Here’s how:

1. Acknowledge (and communicate) your perceptions.

How did you feel after the conversation? How do you perceive it went? Communicate your perception to the person with whom you conversed. Deliver an apology if you feel it’s appropriate for the circumstance.

2. Ask for feedback.

Ask how the conversation occurred for them. This will give you (and them) the opportunity to determine how you each perceived the situation, whether it was perceived the same way, and how you can improve your approach next time. This is a good opportunity to explore and be curious about the other person’s perspective.

3. Re-set your intention.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of skipping this step and assuming the other person understood our intent, but our intent is often far clearer to us than it is to the other person. Express to the other person what you intended and how the original communication wasn’t an accurate representation of that intention.

4. Be kind to yourself.

Aspire for things to go well with any conversation you find yourself in, but don’t expect perfection. And, don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself. When we fall, we have the choice to either fret about falling or have a sense of humor about our own human foibles (to which none of us are immune).

Were you on the other end of the conversation? Follow these same steps in reverse and approach the person who you think left an aftermath or aftertaste in their wake: communicate your perceptions, offer feedback, ask for clarity about their intention, clarify your own intention, and approach the situation with kindness.

Every conversation comes with risk, but it’s important to ask yourself: what’s at stake if we don’t have it? If we pass up on opportunities to have difficult conversations, we also pass up on opportunities to improve our lives, our organizations, and our relationships.

Muster up some fierce courage, set a positive intention, and move forward. Let life be curly.

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