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Challenging Conversations: When to Walk Away

You know that old song, “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers?

You probably do, especially this part:

You gotta know when to hold ‘em.

Know when to fold ‘em.

Know when to walk away.

Know when to run.

When I start thinking about difficult conversations and when to pull the plug, that chorus totally rings true.

Knowing when to walk away from difficult conversations can be tricky because we’re trying to find the balance.

When things feel like they are getting out of hand, generally there are two reasons we feel compelled to run. It’s critical to be able to recognize the difference so we can deal with things appropriately.

Check this out:

Scenario #1: You’re Ready to Run

In one scenario, you may feel like you want to run away because things are getting uncomfortable and you don’t want to face it. Or you may just want to end the conversation because you feel frustrated.

While this is a totally normal response to conflict, the problem with our “flight” mechanism in that scenario is that often when the conversation starts to get uncomfortable, it’s actually a really good thing because it may mean we are getting down the to the heart of the matter. This is why we need to pause and take in what is actually being said versus focusing on our own feelings of discomfort.

Having said that though, there IS a difference between feeling uncomfortable because it’s not going perfectly smoothly, and feeling uncomfortable because the wheels have completely fallen off the bus and things may get volatile.

Scenario #2: You Want to Pull the Plug

In a second scenario, you start to feel like you need to pull the plug because things are realllllly starting to get out of hand. It may start to become increasingly difficult to get the conversation focused back on the key points.

One telltale sign that things are going in the completely wrong direction is when you attempt to redirect the other person and they won’t drop it. The other person is trying to keep you engaged in a back and forth that is not productive and may try to harp on one particular point you’ve made.

How do you know which is which?

If you reach a point in a conversation where you feel like YOU are becoming reactive and are no longer able to be effective using the communication tools to diffuse and redirect, then it’s time to consider cutting the conversation short.

Once we start getting emotional about the conversation, our “fight or flight” response kicks in, and our ability to be calm and rational is greatly diminished. So it’s much better for both ourselves and the other person to decide to regroup and continue the conversation later.

If you reach this point, some phrases you can use are:

“I’m not comfortable with how this is going. I think we need to take a break.”

“I’m starting to feel reactive and we’re no longer being productive. Let’s revisit this later.”

“I feel like we’re not fully engaging the way we need to be. Let’s talk about this later.”

Find whatever phrase you can use that feel comfortable, and then exit stage left.

Now, you can fully expect that the other person may not want to let it go and will try to keep reeling you back in. That’s where you just need to say “I’m not able to discuss this right now.”.

You need to get really clear and firm that ending the current discussion is your bottom line. Then, physically walk away and choose to be done for now.

The one thing to remember here is that you have so much more power and control than you think. You can maintain your power by staying calm and focused.

You can do this! Keep yourself in that calm and confident place, even if it means you have to walk away. You’ve got this.



See Diane's Fearless Conversations Blog for more tips, tools, and strategies for succeeding in difficult conversations and getting what you want need and deserve out of work and out of life.


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