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How to stay calm during a difficult conversation at work

How to stay calm during a difficult conversation at work
Marie Ryan

Marie Ryan


We’ve covered preparing for a difficult conversation and how to handle it. How do you stay calm during the conversation? This step is crucial. Your reputation depends on it. In this article, we explain techniques from HR managers, business leaders, and meditation experts to help you stay calm when it counts.

Focus on your breath

If you’ve ever done meditation, you’ll know how powerful mindful breathing is. When you’re in a stressful situation, your heart races and you breathe faster. By slowing it down, you’re telling your body that it’s ok. You’ll relax. When your emotions are running high, take slow, deep breaths. 

Box breathing: Count in for 5, hold for five. Breath out for the count of five and don’t breathe in for the count of five. This takes a few seconds and helps calm you. You can do it while the other person is speaking, or pause. Later in the article, we’ll talk about the power of silence. 

Know your triggers

We all have triggers and hot button topics. Do you know what yours are? If you don’t, they could be used against you. If you know what your trigger topics are, when they come up, you’ll be better able to recognise them, take a deep breath and move on. Don’t take anything said in the conversation personally. Take a note and move on. Reflect on it after the conversation. 


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Check-in with your attitude

If you’ve read the previous articles, you’ll have a positive intention that you keep referring to. 

Check-in with yourself throughout the meeting, to see if your attitude changes. It’s easy to lose sight of the end goal when you’re under pressure. 

Questions to ask

  • What do you want now?
  • Where is the conversation going?
  • How can you move back to the right direction?

Focus on your toes

In challenging situations, we’re stuck in our heads! This makes you seem less present. During the conversation, think of your toes!. Are they flat or curled? How do they feel in your shoes? Can you wiggle them? When you focus on your toes for a moment, you’re back in your body. It takes you out of the rush hour traffic in your head and lets you regain clarity. 

Take a break

If the conversation is going nowhere or if emotions are running high, take a break. Excuse yourself to go to the bathroom, give a ten-minute tea-break, or reschedule the meeting. 

Some meetings are unproductive and there’s no point staying there if the issue isn’t going to be resolved. You never know what inspiration will strike when you take that short break. It gives you a chance to think through your thoughts, reflect on your performance and theirs. It’s a reminder that the conversation is no big deal. When you’re finished, the world outside the meeting room continues as normal. 

Drink water

When you have a difficult conversation, have a glass of water. It helps your voice. You get a break whenever you take a sip and you can say you need to get a refill when you need a longer break. Avoid coffee and tea as they are too stimulating. 

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

It’s easy to avoid difficult conversations. You bury your head in the sand and hope the issue goes away. Give it enough time and it will either go away or escalate into a much bigger problem. 50% odds seem like a good bet. 

If you do this constantly, you’ll have to do fire-fighting all the time, to solve problems bigger than they need to be. You won’t develop or grow. 

When you take on bigger challenges, they are difficult and uncomfortable at first then you get used to them. Learning to ride a bike or drive a car once seemed impossible. Now you do both easily and well. 

When you have a difficult conversation, you know it will be uncomfortable and that you’ll get through it. When you have to do it again, it will be a little easier. Working in HR you get to do a lot of rewarding things, like hiring people for their ideal role, training and developing. Advising managers on best practices to help their teams. You’re also the person they turn to when things aren’t going well. A team member has an illness that they don’t really want to discuss but have to anyway. A team leader has an underperforming  team member. You’ll need to get used to being in complex situations, differing perceptions and vagueness. The only way to get used to it is through practice. 

The power of silence

When you go to a party, scan the room to see who’s there. Who do you think is the most confident? Is it the person talking over everyone, about all inane things? The person sitting in the corner on their phone?

Or the person listening to people, making quiet and interesting conversation? The most confident people are quiet. They don’t need to fill every silence with nonsense. They don’t need everyone to like them. 

Silence is powerful. Use it. 

When you’re in a difficult conversation, it’s ok to be quiet and still. It lets you and the other person process their thoughts and choose their words carefully. 

When you reflect on challenging conversations, there’s more meaning in silences than much of the chatter.

Speak slowly

Take a deep breath before each sentence and speak slowly. This helps you keep your breath in check and your heart rate normal. It makes you feel calmer. 

The other person has time to listen and understand what you’re saying, and think before they respond. Speaking slowly gives you time to find the right words. 

Be honest about how you’re feeling

If you’re feeling bad during the conversation, acknowledge it, and move on. If you try and block it out, it has the opposite effect. Name the emotion, discomfort, anger, disgust. Then move on. 


Keeping calm during conflict is a skill that can be learned. The best way to learn is to do it. The techniques in this article will help you stay calm when it counts.

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