Learning to pause when things go sideways: a guide for tense conversations in teams

Most teams know when a conversation in the group may be heading into difficult territory, coming unstuck or going skewwhiff. Interpersonal tension might be rising. Someone’s body language or facial expression shows they’re frustrated. The person who’s usually vocal goes quiet. Or perhaps you all start talking over each other. You’ve become oppositional and people have stopped listening to each other. Sometimes it’s as subtle as a shift in the energy in the room – hearty debate slips into interpersonal confrontation.

Great leaders, and teams with high trust and psychological safety, not only notice when this happens, they have the courage to slow down, pause and address group dynamics as they’re happening, rather than ploughing on ahead with the conversation. Charging ahead with the ‘what’ of the meeting when clearly there’s something else more important to attend to can lead to unresolved conflict and a blow to trust building and cohesion.

I’m not talking here about healthy debate on the issues. Great teams encourage that – deliberately and constructively bringing forth differing perspectives and having tough conversations about the work. What I’m referring to here are those more uncomfortable situations, when things like psychological safety becomes wobbly, heightened emotions are present, or when someone – or a group of members – is feeling anger, hurt or fear, but not naming it.

If you can collectively and individually have the courage to name what you’re noticing – first and foremost in yourself, but also what you’re sensing in others or in the group – then this can help to prevent assumptions, hurt, friction between relationships and lowered trust festering.

Caveat: to do this safely you must have a certain base level of trust within the team – or be the leader of the group who has done some work on the basics like establishing agreed behavioral norms.

It’s tricky territory. Sometimes we sense tension and assume it’s one thing, but we have made some wrong assumptions. Maybe we feel it, but nobody else does. That’s ok too. There’s nothing wrong with that – you now have useful data and can self-reflect on why that is.

If you can get into the habit of checking things out (as long as there’s sufficient trust and safety within the team) then this will deepen your connection and trust – as well as your cohesion and performance as a team.

Remember, relationships are forged under pressure when the heat is on. Has this team experienced enough heat to forge better relationships? What would happen if we could use the heat to create a stronger team?

Here are some tips and tools for doing this:

  1. The Three Ns – notice, name and next steps

The first approach is a model I have come up with called The Three Ns – notice, name and next steps. It might seem self-explanatory, but you can read more about the steps involved and a few things to watch out for here.

  1. Other phrases or techniques to use:
  • “What is the common denominator in all our apparently different views?”
  • “I sense some stuckness. What is happening for others right now? Can we stay with this for a moment?”
  • “I’m feeling x. I’m not sure why, but I think that it may be an opportunity for us to pause moving ahead. What do others think/feel?”
  • “Can we just pause the “what” of this conversation for a moment to check in with each other on “how” each of us feels the conversation is going?”
  • “What are we noticing is happening in this conversation right now?”
  • “As I sit with you here, I’m feeling uneasy. I’m curious, what are you experiencing right now?”
  • “Let’s take a moment as we’re moving into ‘below the line’ territory. What are people’s concerns about how we are having this conversation? Are we sticking to our agreed behaviours?”
  • “I noticed than when I said x, you sat more upright and folded your arms more tightly. I’m curious what is happening for you?”
  • “I’m noticing…..”  “I’m feeling…” “I’m sensing…”

Paraphrase to check your understanding of what the other person is saying or thinking. Slow the process down to hear between the words, tone of voice and body language of the people in your team. Whoever is facilitating or chairing the meeting can also pause and invite the team to dig deeper to understand each other’s interests, rather than their positions. Interests are the underlying needs or concerns that people use to generate their positions.

As a leader, it takes courage and can feel risky in these heightened moments. But when I’ve seen teams with a good base level of trust pause and investigate further, it’s taken them to a next level of trust, cohesion and performance. So, next time you’re in a meeting with the team you lead and you’re sensing a skewwhiff moment, have the courage to pause and check it out, rather than plough on.

1 Comment

  1. […] We've all been there. The meeting where everything goes off the rails and then there's the awkward tension in the room. What do you do? Suzi McAlpine provides a guide for tense conversations in teams. […]

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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