Difficult Conversation? Don’t Forget Your Oxygen Mask

Difficult Conversation? Don't Forget Your Oxygen MaskDifficult Conversation? Don’t Forget Your Oxygen Mask!

You’re sitting in an aeroplane with your three year old son.

Suddenly, the plane starts to jolt and rock. You feel dizzy, it’s hard to breathe.

The little boy starts wheezing and crying with pain. You can feel panic rising.

From above oxygen masks drop down. Grabbing one you rush to ease the small boy’s gasping but just in time, you remember the flight attendant’s mantra “secure your own mask first

It’s easy to get focused on the other person.

Whether it’s in caring for them as in the scenario above or arguing with them when you get stuck in a difficult conversation.

But it’s a mistake. In the airplane, the pressure drop reduces the level of oxygen in your brain. You can no longer think straight. It’s the same physiological reaction when someone is being disagreeable or arguing unreasonably with you.

Imagine you are giving feedback to a team member. He doesn’t like what he’s hearing, starts defending, it’s not his fault, it’s not fair, you didn’t support him enough.

You can feel frustration rising. Why doesn’t he get it that his work isn’t up to scratch? Why can’t he see that you are trying to help him improve? You try to reason with him.

He’s not listening. A knot of irritation spreads slowly from your stomach. The tone gradually rises as you both get more annoyed.



Emotions like anger and frustration cloud our thinking. We go into fight or flight mode. Adrenaline and cortisol are released which lower oxygen and glucose levels in the brain. We become less rational, more reactive.

When the tension is rising, it’s time to don your oxygen mask. Landing a ‘difficult conversation’ safely needs you to be calm and composed, not irate and indignant.

How to keep calm when tensions rise:

Here are some strategies to stay calm, centred and in control in a ‘difficult’ conversation.


  • Learn to recognize the physical signals of early arousal:

Become aware of the subtle changes that take place in your physiological state, body language and tone of voice.
Does your stomach clench, does your neck heat up or tighten?

Do you become more animated, raise your voice or are you more likely to become quiet, close down?
Being able to notice the early signs of getting irked and irritated will make it easier to inhibit and manage this response.

  • Take 3 or 4 slow, deliberate deep breaths:

It sounds clichéd but deep breathing counteracts angst-inducing stress hormones. Focused, mindful breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and the relaxation response.

  • Find a way to take either a physical or mental ‘time out’:

Going into listening mode can be a way of ‘buying time’ for you to regroup mentally. Perhaps ask a question, ask them to repeat something.

While they are talking, do your deep breathing. If the situation permits, find a way to take a short time-out: ‘Can I just have a think about this for a couple of minutes and come back to you?’

  • Count to ten:

Yes, your mother was right.
Counting to ten works in two ways. It slows us down, we are less impulsive. It also distracts us – as long as we are focused on our counting 1 – 2 – 3 … and not on what’s bugging us.
Combine it with deep breathing, it’s a simple but powerful way to instantly soothe simmering feelings.


  • Adapt a fly-on-the-wall perspective:

Imagine you are an observer looking from a distance at the situation. Our tendency is to become immersed in our feelings, even afterwards, getting stuck in rumination which further feeds our anger. But a ‘self-distancing’ approach can minimise and dissipate angry feelings in the heat of the moment.

  • Reframe or reappraise how you are viewing the situation:

It’s been said that in a ‘difficult conversation’, the most important conversation is the one you have with yourself – before, during and afterwards.

Research shows that we can influence our emotional response by reframing or reappraising a situation or event. Practice statements or ‘self-talk’ that you can reach for when you are feeling triggered.

‘I am calm and in control’ or ‘This isn’t about me, it’s their issue’ – these work for me. But it’s an individual thing, you need to find some sentence that works for you.

  • Know your own hot buttons:

If you know the kinds of words or behaviours likely to trip your switch you will have a better chance of not reacting. It’s useful also to know why this button is hot for you – what meaning do you take from it.

What sets you off? I’m kind of allergic to people adopting a ‘victim’ stance. For me, it signals someone who doesn’t want to take responsibility for themselves and their situation. So I need to do lots of deep breathing when someone behaves in this way.

In summary:

There are many ways you can use to keep you in a mindful and clear state of mind if tempers start to rise. You need to find the one(s) that work for you.

And it’s not that you should just ignore or tolerate all sorts of unhelpful or inappropriate behaviour from others. Sit there passively while they steamroll you into doing what they want.
It’s just that staying calm and unruffled when it’s actually happening means you can be more strategic and mindful about what you say and how you respond.

No more ‘I should have, I could have…’ afterwards.

Just clarity and peace of mind.

Are you in ‘Parent’, ‘Child’ or ‘Adult’ Mode (or all 3!) at Work?

Transactional Analysis“But what if you needed to give her a telling off…”

This was the comment of a participant in a recent ‘Difficult Conversations’ training session with a group of managers. The discussion was around the room layout and whether the manager should sit behind a desk or not, when giving negative feedback to an employee. His frame on the “telling off” prompted me to look at the interaction through the lens of Transactional Analysis

It’s tempting to believe that how well (or badly) people respond to negative feedback to simply be a product of their own personality quirks. Transactional Analysis however tells us that the outcome of these interactions is predicated not only on the attitude of the receiver of the feedback, but also on the mindset or attitude from which it comes.

Developed by Canadian born Psychiatrist Eric Berne in the 1950’s the theory is that all human beings possess multi-faceted personalities and that these different aspects of their personalities are susceptible to change whenever we relate to one another. Berne identified three observable and distinct core ego states, which he defined as Parent, Adult, and Child.

Three Distinct Ego States

The Parent state has its origins in the behaviours, thoughts and feelings assimilated (and emulated) from parents or other parental figures and is formed by the influences that affect us as we develop through our early childhood. The Parent state can be that of the Nurturing Parent whose qualities are positive and affirming or Critical Parent, representing the authoritative, disciplinarian and prohibitive aspects of parenting and society.

The Child state is the ego state in which we behave, react and perceive in a similar manner to how we did as a child. Child state interactions can include anger, tears and tantrums, in a reprise of the feelings and emotions from our childhood. As with the Parent state, there are two possible aspects to the Child state. They can either rebel against any kind of authority (Rebellious Child) or they can conform, adapting themselves to the wishes of those around them (Adaptive Child). In the Child state, our responses are primarily driven by the emotions we are feeling. On the plus side, the Child state also reflects a more light-hearted, free-spirited and spontaneous aspect of our behaviour.

These two, often conflicting ego states are kept in check by the Adult state, through which we are enabled to draw on our comprehension and analysis of our environment – both internal and external. The Adult state has the capability of calling upon the resources of the other two states and achieving a balance between the two. The Adult state is open to here and now and is characterised by respect for the other person as an equal and an awareness of all life experience, as opposed to just the parent or child experience. All of us have the potential to behave from Parent Child or Adult ego state and even in one interaction, we might alternate between these states.

Workplace Interactions and Transactions

Back to the example above where the manager has to give negative feedback, his use of the ‘tell off’ frame has overtones of Critical Parent. This in turn can evoke either form of the Child response – the Adaptive Child being submissive and apologetic accompanied by feelings of shame and low self-esteem; the Rebellious Child being resentful and defensive.
Playing things out a little further the Adaptive Child response might then prompt the Manager’s Nurturing Parent ‘Ah you’re not so bad after all, come now, dry your tears’ or even more of the Critical Parent ‘If you don’t … then I will have to…’. In the former, the Critical Parent-Adaptive Child interaction might seem to be effective but in the long run, does not allow the employee to develop their own Adult ego state. In the latter, conflict will ensue, the Rebellious Child pushing back and each becoming more polarised in the relationship.

Alternatively, the manager can approach the situation with an Adult ego state although this is certainly no guarantee the interaction will be plain sailing. Just yesterday a Manager I was coaching was reviewing how a ‘difficult conversation’ she had prepared for with an employee on her team. She planned and succeeded in framing her interactions from an Adult state of mind e.g. being calm, factual, objective, non-blaming or judgmental albeit giving a key message about expectations around objectives not having being met.
Despite this the employee had a Rebellious Child reaction, saying it was unfair, raising her voice, counter-arguing and saying she would go and report the situation to HR (whom perhaps she perceived as a Nurturing Parent?). The Manager herself felt positive about the fact that she had not reacted by either backing down or rebelling herself ‘well I am the Manager’.

Of course the employee also has the prerogative around which ego state they can respond from. The Adult state response to the Critical Parent would be to listen, invite details and clarification and if necessary apologise and amend their actions. An Adult response to feedback neither resists and defends nor does it self-flagellate and become overly dependent on the approval of others.


A harmonious, professional working environment is only achievable, in the context of the theory of transactional analysis, by all members of the workforce seeking to ensure that their behaviour is either predominantly “Adult” or reflects the more positive aspects of their “Parent” or “Child” state.

Failing to ensure that the more positive ego states predominate risks creating (and maintaining) a workplace where (unresolved) conflict, hostility and misunderstanding are in constant evidence, with the inevitable impact on morale, efficiency and productivity.

Thanks to my colleague Treasa Kenny who introduced me to Transactional Analysis when we collaborated in a recent team facilitation

Got an issue you are grappling with…? Mary Rafferty’s services include coaching, mediation and training in conflict related areas such as mastering difficult conversations and navigating tricky relationships.
Check out some more resources here or download the Complimentary Guide in the sidebar.

All Conflict Leads Us Back To Ourselves

Conflict leads us to ourselvesAll Conflict Leads Us Back To Ourselves. Many years ago I worked quite closely with another colleague. Overall, we had a pretty good working relationship, but some disagreements also as to how things should be done and what the best course of action was to take.

I remember clearly at times finding those disagreements quite difficult: my colleague didn’t really like to talk things through in a lot of detail, her style was more along the lines of stating her view and then sticking to it. My perception was that nothing I said seemed to be heard or taken on board.

Frustrated one evening, I called my sister to let off steam. She listened patiently for a while as I harped on about the situation and how irritated I was about her lack of openness to my viewpoint, how I saw things… ’You know’, I said indignantly, ‘what really bugs me is that she always thinks she’s right’. There was silence for a moment and then she spoke.

‘You know Mary, I think it’s you who always thinks she’s right…’
Her unexpected words sank in. Bang…my bubble of anger was burst. She had nailed it and helped me to realise that at some level I had started to doubt my own viewpoint. My colleague had tapped into my own lack of confidence in my position. My frustration and vehement arguments were more about convincing myself than her.

In difficult conversations and conflict, we have a tendency to project our negative feelings of anger and irritation onto the other person:‘I’m angry because they are so narrow-minded and won’t see it my way’. Yet if we think it through enough, we will find that all roads lead back to ourselves. The first person you need to engage when you’re feeling triggered or annoyed with someone, is yourself.

Get clarity on the part you are bringing to this emotional response because that will better help you manage it. And taking responsibility for our own reactions is an essential first step in moving out of confrontation and into problem-resolving.