Three Steps to Manage an Emotional Conversation

by | Jun 21, 2015

The work day started as usual —a long, tedious commute for a meeting-packed day. Lost in thought, I strode past our administrative assistant, Melinda, and into my office intent on reviewing and prioritizing the day’s actions before interruptions started. Just as I sat down Melinda appeared in my doorway and asked to come in.

“Of course,” I said as I noticed her nervousness and the fearful look on her face. Instinctively, my brow furrowed like hers. Tears glistened in her eyes caused me to lean forward with concern.

“Melinda, what’s wrong?”

Barely controlling her emotions she said, “Why don’t you ever say hello to me when you walk past my desk? Don’t you like me?”

I was stunned by her statement; impressed by her courage to speak up; and mortified by my behavior. Her tears came faster now. My chest constricted as though I was the upset one.

Looking back, I see mirror neurons at work. Mirror neurons are imitators. They activate when they observe actions, facial features and postures. They are an integral part of creating empathy and relatedness. The more people imitate others, the more they tend to be empathetic. Consequently, when mirror neurons mimic the expression of another person, we tend to also pick up that emotion. Mirror neurons act quickly and largely subconsciously. However, with awareness, we can use them to transform difficult emotional conversations such as mine with Melinda. Let’s break the interaction into three parts:

• Reflect: Imitation of the emotion
• Relate: Make a connection
• Reverse: Use your expressions and posture to change the emotion

Reflective words and emotions help people feel heard. Mirror neurons naturally cause you to reflect expressions, postures and resulting emotion as long as you don’t suppress the reaction. Further, reflective language like, “what I hear you saying is…” or “I sense you are worried/happy/concerned…” explicitly acknowledges the situation and emotion. Research shows when one acknowledges emotion it helps to calm the fight/flight response of the amygdala. That’s a good start.

After reflecting, it’s time to relate. Your embodiment of the other person’s expressions and postures creates similar emotions for you. The result is an empathetic connection or relatedness. Relatedness creates trust and supports collaboration. With a basis of trust – developed from empathy – there is opportunity for honest and clear communication. What is really going on? What are the issues and feelings? Thankfully, with Melinda, mirror neurons helped us bond so we quickly heard and understood the upsetting issue.

After establishing a trusting relationship, you can manage your behavior – facial expressions and postures – to positively impact the other person. Their mirror neurons will pick up your behavior. If you want to create calm in the conversation, embody it. Slow the conversation, slow the volume, relax your posture, sit back and smile. The mirror neurons in the other person will register, imitate the behaviors and slowly transform their emotion.

“Oh, Melinda. I’m very sorry that I caused you to feel this way. I was in my own, little world. It’s not a good excuse.”

“I thought you didn’t like me.”

“No, not at all.” I smiled at Melinda and relaxed in my chair, “You’ve given me a gift today. I would not have realized how my behavior was impacting others if you hadn’t told me.” Her body began to unwind from its tense posture. Tentatively, she smiled back. “You’re welcome,” she said demurely. My smile grew bigger. She looked up with a sincere smile. We took deep breaths – almost together – and sat for a moment.

“I promise my behavior will be changed from now on.” And it was. Every morning, I smile and say hello as I bustle into my office. She smiles, too.


Author Byline: Founder and CEO of Blue Fjord Leaders, Shelley Row P.E. CSP, was named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top 100 leadership speakers. Professional engineer and former senior executive, she was recognized as one of the best minds in advanced traffic management systems.

Recommended Reading

Leadership Insights Newsletter with Shelley Row

Get stories on leadership, decision-making, and personal & professional development.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Featured Blog Posts

Get a Free Copy of

The Handbook for Technical Leaders

Ten Top Skills for Managers