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The Art of Emotional Control: Strategies for Managing Emotions During Challenging Discussions

In the realm of professional relationships, difficult conversations are inevitable. However, the way we handle these conversations can significantly impact the outcomes and the overall workplace environment. The ability to control our emotions during these challenging moments is crucial for effective communication and conflict resolution.

Today we will explore practical strategies for managing emotions during difficult conversations, including deep breathing, self-affirmations, emotional labeling, and the power of taking breaks. By implementing these techniques, individuals can interrupt the instinctual "fight or flight" response, foster self-awareness, and create a more conducive atmosphere for productive dialogue and resolution.

Controlling Your Emotions During a Difficult Conversation

In the heat of a conflict, it is natural to experience a "fight or flight" response, which can hinder productive communication. However, by interrupting this automatic reaction and employing certain techniques, we can pave the way for more constructive discussions. Here are some strategies for managing emotions during difficult conversations, including deep breathing, self-affirmations, emotional labeling, and the importance of taking breaks.

  1. Deep Breathing and Body Focus: When faced with a challenging conversation, it is crucial to take a moment to pause and regain composure. One effective technique is deep breathing. By intentionally inhaling and exhaling slowly, we activate the body's relaxation response, counteracting the fight or flight instinct. As we focus on our breath, we shift our attention away from the immediate emotional turmoil, allowing for clearer thinking and better emotional regulation.

  2. Self-Affirmations: Another powerful technique to control emotions is the use of self-affirmations. By repeating a mantra inwardly, such as "This isn't about me," "This will pass," or "This is about the business," we remind ourselves of the bigger picture and detach from personal emotions. These affirmations help reframe the situation, reducing the likelihood of becoming defensive or reactive. By reinforcing a positive mindset, we become more open to understanding differing perspectives and finding common ground.

  3. Emotional Labeling: Labeling emotions is a valuable tool to distance ourselves from the immediate intensity of our feelings. Instead of reacting impulsively, we can consciously recognize and articulate what we are experiencing. For example, transforming "He is so wrong about that and it's making me mad" into "I'm having the thought that my coworker is wrong, and I'm feeling anger" allows us to observe our emotions from a more objective standpoint. This practice fosters self-awareness and emotional intelligence, enabling us to respond thoughtfully rather than reactively.

  4. Taking Breaks: In the midst of a difficult conversation, it is essential to recognize the value of taking breaks. Stepping away for a few moments allows us to process our emotions and regain perspective. The longer the break, the greater the opportunity for emotions to subside and for us to approach the discussion with a calmer mindset. By granting ourselves the time and space to reflect, we can prevent escalating tensions and promote more constructive dialogue.

Some Examples

To illustrate the practical application of these strategies, let's consider a scenario where a team is discussing a contentious issue:

  1. Deep Breathing and Body Focus: Before the meeting, each team member could take a few moments to practice deep breathing exercises. By consciously focusing on their breath, they can enter the conversation with a calmer and more centered demeanor. This allows for better self-regulation and the ability to listen attentively to others' perspectives.

  2. Self-Affirmations: During the discussion, participants can silently repeat affirmations that remind them of the common goal or the shared purpose of the team. For instance, someone might affirm, "We are all working towards the success of the project." This helps shift the focus away from personal biases and towards finding solutions that benefit the greater good.

  3. Emotional Labeling: If emotions begin to escalate, team members can practice emotional labeling internally. For example, instead of reacting impulsively to a colleague's statement, they can consciously acknowledge their emotions by saying, "I'm feeling frustrated because I perceive this idea as undermining our progress." This allows for a more controlled response, fostering a climate of understanding and respect.

  4. Taking Breaks: If tensions rise and emotions become overwhelming, it is essential to suggest taking a break. This break can range from a few minutes to an extended period, depending on the intensity of the emotions involved. During the break, individuals can engage in activities that help them relax and regain composure, such as going for a walk or engaging in a calming activity. Returning to the conversation with a renewed perspective helps prevent further escalation and promotes a more constructive dialogue.

Other Activities to Relax and Regain Composure

When it comes to taking breaks during a difficult conversation to relax and regain composure, there are various activities one can engage in. The choice of activity depends on an individual's preferences and what helps them personally to unwind and refocus. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Physical Exercise: Engaging in some form of physical activity can be highly beneficial for releasing tension and reducing stress. Whether it's going for a walk outside, stretching, or doing a quick workout, physical exercise helps to redirect energy and clear the mind.

  2. Mindfulness or Meditation: Taking a few moments to practice mindfulness or meditation can have a calming effect on the mind and body. Techniques such as deep breathing exercises, guided meditation, or focusing on the present moment can help bring about a sense of inner peace and clarity.

  3. Listening to Music: Music has a powerful impact on our emotions and can be an effective tool for relaxation. Listening to soothing or uplifting music can help shift our mood and provide a mental escape from the intensity of the situation.

  4. Engaging in a Hobby: Taking a break to engage in a favorite hobby or activity that brings joy and relaxation can be highly rejuvenating. Whether it's reading a book, playing a musical instrument, doing puzzles, or any other hobby, it allows for a mental break and helps to recharge.

  5. Connecting with Nature: Spending time in nature has a therapeutic effect on our well-being. Taking a break to step outside, breathe in fresh air, and soak in the beauty of nature can bring a sense of calm and perspective.

  6. Journaling: Writing down thoughts and emotions during a break can be a helpful way to process and reflect on the situation. It allows for self-expression, gaining insights, and organizing thoughts, which can contribute to a clearer and more composed mindset.

Remember, the key is to choose activities that resonate with you personally and bring about a sense of relaxation and rejuvenation. By consciously engaging in activities that help you regain composure, you can return to the conversation with a refreshed perspective and a greater ability to navigate the difficult discussion.


Mastering the art of controlling emotions during difficult conversations is a skill that can strengthen professional relationships and drive positive outcomes. Through practices such as deep breathing and body focus, self-affirmations, emotional labeling, and taking breaks, individuals can interrupt the automatic response of fight or flight, paving the way for more productive discussions. By incorporating these techniques into our communication toolkit and nurturing self-awareness, we foster an environment that values open dialogue, empathy, and respect. Remember, it takes practice and a commitment to personal growth, but the rewards of improved relationships and effective conflict resolution are well worth the effort. Let us embrace these strategies and cultivate a workplace culture that thrives on constructive communication and collaboration.


Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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