Julie Thorson

Testing our leadership skills, especially our communication skills, is certainly difficult these days. Effective communication is always a challenge, but when our emotions are running high and exhaustion is setting in, staying aware of who we are and how we influence others remains extremely important. 

In Living Leadership today, I plan to break down four choices we each have when responding to others, specifically four choices we have when responding to someone who is frustrated, angry, scared, hurt or simply ticked off.

In all transparency, working with people when they are feeling this way can become a challenge not worth fighting, especially when they seem to be coming our way more frequently because of the overall frustration with life. 

So, let’s break it down. The way I see it, you have four choices. It’s figuring out what option in the heat of the moment suits the exchange best. 

  1. Escalate
  2. Deflate
  3. Acknowledge
  4. Silence

Escalate: This is the one that most of us fall into when we aren’t disciplined. We defend, argue, raise our voices or even get nasty. We try to top the point by making an equally or even higher response which most times gets us nowhere.

We defend, defend, defend without really listening. In our field, many times, families are not upset with us but are hurting because of the situation — hurting because of loss of control. Escalating by defending doesn’t serve anyone well. If you don’t recognize you do this, maybe it’s time to take inventory of your communication style. 

Deflate: This is the most challenging. What can you offer to bring the person who is mad down? How can you do this while still acknowledging the frustration and hurt. Maybe you are wrong? Did you even give that a thought? It’s no easy task, but with practice, it is doable. 

This, I believe, is where body language and direct eye contact matter. You need to stay focused on the moment, make eye contact, be sincere, and lean in to physically show you are interested and listening. You cannot check your phone, be distracted, or check out of the conversation. Perhaps repeating the point back to solidify understanding is the best course. Paraphrasing is also helpful to make sure you truly understand how the other person is feeling. Ask for clarity. 

Acknowledge: Don’t go up or down. Just meet them where they are and acknowledge their feelings. Again, this takes practice and patience. Is there more to the argument? Are they hurt? Did they lose our trust? 

Recognize where they are, read the room. There are some things you cannot fix; you can only see it from their perspective and acknowledge their feelings. Better yet… apologize.  Apologize sincerely. Many times that goes a long way. Technically, we might not have done anything wrong, but they are mad and have feelings that are important. A sincere apology can help. 

Silence: Be quiet. Use silence. Think before you react. Don’t talk just to talk. Carefully consider your words, your posture, your eye contact, your impact. Consider all those things and, if you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything. Sit in the moment. Those moments of silence are where true understanding can happen. Think, don’t just react or respond. Use your head to consider your role, your actions, and your goal in the moment of the dialogue. 

Putting this together today was a great reminder for me, too, that we don’t always get it right. But when we are intentional, the outcome is always better. 

Some might feel these four choices are too conservative, but I would argue they give us the best chance of moving forward in a healthy way. During the moments of truth, when you find yourself in intense conversation, you have choices, and these are the four choices I use most often. 

I’m sure there are other obvious answers, but for me these are the four I find myself going to. I certainly don’t always get it right, but these four have served me well, especially when emotions seem to have control of the conversation. There is always a choice. 

There are nine words total in this month’s famous quote, all of which appear in the above column. Have you figured out who the leader is? I’ve quoted the same national thought leader in every 2021 column. 

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Julie Thorson was the 2018 recipient of the LeadingAge Dr. Herbert Shore Outstanding Mentor of the Year award. Thorson is currently a coach for the Leading Age’s Larry Minnix Leadership Academy.  Her “Living Leadership” blog was named the 2016 “Best New Department” Bronze Award winner by the American Society of Health Publication Editors. The president and CEO of Friendship Haven, a life plan community in Fort Dodge, IA, Thorson is a coach’s daughter at heart. A former part-time nursing home social worker, she is a licensed nursing home administrator and completed Leading Age’s Leadership Educator Program last summer.  

The opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News guest submissions are the author’s and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News or its editors.