Quick Tips For
Taming Tense Moments
by Jamie S. Walters
Webster’s Dictionary defines "tense" as being in a state of mental strain. For some, tension is a stressor that can be debilitating, for others, if not excessive, it provides an invigorating rush of adrenaline or creative friction that propels them through challenges to accomplishment or creative expression.
When it comes to interpersonal and group communication, tension isn't usually an optimal influence. The following sampling includes tips to help you minimize or more skillfully diffuse unhealthy or unconstructive tension, or, if appropriate, harness certain types of tension to work for you as a creative catalyst.
When tension threatens your mindset, skillfulness and equilibrium
In addition to causing sweaty palms, a flushed face, and a racing heart, tension can derail an otherwise calm, focused mind — which negatively affects an interaction, and perhaps even the future of a relationship. A collection of tense interactions also contributes to a tense environment, which can have negative effects.
Refining your communication and centering skills can help you navigate through difficult conversations in a way that ends up being productive, and even positive, which are beneficial to relationship.
If you find your own (or someone else's) level of tension rising, and sense that an interaction is about to go badly off-track, try these tactics:
- Take an inner-pause: Put both feet on the ground, take a deep breath, and refocus on your purpose and intention for the interaction. Then, you can ask a question to learn more about what's really going on; or simply speak honestly that you're feeling yourself getting tense and want to take a minute to explore what that's about.
- Take an actual break: If you’re unable to refocus your mindset, excuse yourself for a two-minute break. Standing up and changing venue for a moment can help recalibrate the tension that is gathering — literally shake it off if you need to. Rejoin the meeting or conversation refreshed, having allowed a moment for all parties to 'step away from it' for a few moments and recalibrate.
Caveats: Be aware of using this tactic to avoid conflict in your conversation, or find yourself exiting from any conversation that gets even mildly uncomfortable. If your tension stems from a perception that all conflict or controversy is to be avoided, leaving the room can intensify the conflict in the interaction or relationship.
Again, increasing your skillfulness 'tool kit' will allow you to more confidently voice your perspective and courteously hear those of others, even if a conversation gets passionate.
Of course, if there is a threat or possibility of physical or verbal violence, removing yourself from the interaction as quickly and calmly as you're able to is wise.
- Get clarification: Many instances of tension are rooted in misunderstandings, personal filters, projections, or assumptions. Before building your tension to the flash-point, center yourself and ask for clarification about the comment or action that you believe is causing your reaction.
Frame your question(s) with you honest intention for asking and with a mindset of curiosity, not blame. For example, "I think I may have misunderstood what you were saying. Would you mind repeating what you've said?"
- Distinguish creative tension from more problematic forms of tension: Sometimes tension or 'creative friction' precedes and is required for a creative breakthrough, and should be "played out" rather than extinguished prematurely.
This is often a type of tension familiar to artists, writers, entrepreneurs, and others who go through periods of creative tension — incubating new ideas or potential opportunities — in order to create something where nothing previously existed. In this case, the best solution can be to allow the order to emerge from the chaos on its own, rather than trying to force a specific conclusion simply because you are uncomfortable with the creative tension.
- Identify opportunities: In our interactions with others, such as those that occur in the workplace, tension can signal an opportunity to become more skillful or learn something valuable.
For example, when we're tense and can identify the root-cause, we might learn something about ourselves that leads to greater mindset or interpersonal skillfulness. A tense moment might also be an opportunity to ask a question and learn something about a colleague's perspective, where we might otherwise have closed our mind (and become tense). And tension, facilitated skillfully, can also be a development opportunity for others involved in the conversation.
- Take mindful action: One terrific discussion about tension or anxiety attributed its cause to the friction between thinking and doing. In some cases, you might feel tense or anxious because you know you have to make a decision or take action and may be delaying doing so, or procrastinating for something that has a looming deadline. There are times when thoughtfulness may be the wisest choice, and a timeline needs to be extended; and times when intuitively guided 'right action' just needs to happen, sooner rather than later.
If it seems to be the case, allow a space for intuition to speak, or have a 'lightning round' dialogue to generate 'gut level' decisions about right action. You can also write down three to five things you can do immediately to take the action or lead toward a decision you may be avoiding, again, inviting and allowing intuitive guidance and inherent experience to guide your decision.
When tension gets the best of someone else
A group dynamic can shift in seconds when someone hits an unproductive level of tension — whether due to 'pushed buttons', oversensitivity, unskillful comments by one or more participants, or other reasons — thus keeping the group from moving forward, and possibly damaging group relations.
Even though the individual experiencing internal tension is the only person who can diffuse or navigate it, there are facilitative-communication strategies and tactics you can use to help guide individuals and/or group to a more productive level of emotional expression and authentic contribution:
- Acknowledge and ask: Tension builds if not addressed, and there are usually signs — body language, facial expression, voice tone, word choice, or an energetic or intuitive 'read' of the group (you've heard the saying, "You could cut the tension with a knife"? That's an energetic or intuitive 'read').
If you believe that someone has reached a critical point of tension that's not conducive to creative thinking, indicate that you’d like to address your perception that tension may be mounting and need honest diffusing, and get agreement from the group. Acknowledge the situation (that it seems as if there's some tension around the topic of discussion) and ask if your perceptions are on track.
With the group — and especially the person whom you feel is tense — determine whether you want to explore and resolve this now, or wait. Ideally, the facilitator has created and maintained a 'safe space', so that individuals will feel comfortable or at least safe in expressing the cause of tension.
- Take a break: Sometimes tension mounts because people have been sitting or cooped up for too long a stretch, and simply need a break to stretch, take a quick walk, take a few deep breaths, get some water.
Again, do not employ this tip to avoid conflict or curtail creative tension, but rather, to allow everyone to gain perspective instead of jumping up the ladder of inference and make assumptions. (See other articles at Ivy Sea about the 'ladder of inference' and assumptions.)
- Redirect: Some instances of tension can be dealt with masterfully by using a seemingly simple redirect of the conversation, such as using an appropriate humor to 'lighten up' or deflate a tense moment, or by doing some quick inquiry or providing more information to unveil an assumption that might be causing misunderstanding.
- Refer back to the ground rules: If you believe that the tense situation is caused or fueled by someone breaking the dialogue ground rules that have been communicated, use the agreements that you established up front to diffuse the situation.
For example, if someone is making personal attacks or snide remarks rather than voicing his perspective on the issues under discussion, the facilitator would revisit the ground rules and ask the person to restate his perception about the issue.
This is one reason why it's important to establish and communicate ground rules at the beginning of any conversation, dialogue, or meeting that holds the potential for tense moments.
Can tension sometimes work to your advantage?
Certain types of tension are a natural part of or byproduct of passion, creativity, or genuine care about the issue under discussion.
Harness this passion or creative energy when it arises and steer it towards the discussion at hand. How? Identify the tension, what spurred it, what deep 'caring' is behind it, and how the group can reinvigorate itself around those topics. Think of this type of tension as a catalyst for spirited debate and lively brainstorming.
Unproductive tension, which goes hand in hand with unhealthy stress, contributes to preoccupation, miscommunication, fatigue, lowered morale, absenteeism, mistakes, and illness.
By Jamie Walters, Founder, Ivy Sea, Inc. and Author, Big Vision, Small Business. Copyright 2007, all rights reserved. This article is reprinted with permission from the Ivy Sea Online VIP Collection. For more information, visit Ivy Sea Online.
Jamie S. Walters is the founder of Ivy Sea, Inc., the author of Big Vision, Small Business and the producer of Ivy Sea Online. Jamie and Ivy Sea helps people to find their own pathways and connections to the authentic and Spirit-full life -- conscious enterprise, mindful transformation, skillful communication -- and then integrate those insights into their own entrepreneurial or livelihood endeavors, leadership styles, and organizational transformation efforts.
Some Related Articles:
How to Speak About Tough Topics in Tense Times
Safety Check: Creating a Safe Meeting Environment
Using Inquiry in Tense Conversations
Our Belief Systems and Misunderstandings
Engaged Listening and Enquiry
Creating Norms: A Simple Method for Managing Group Conflict
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