By Michelle Thomson


Most business requires negotiations and a reliance on others to accomplish set goals. Be they co-workers, customers, suppliers, or countless others, we choose to work with them, and they choose to work with us. Part of making these relationships function effectively is to be able to give and take timely feedback.

What happens when a team member does not meet an agreed upon deadline?

  • Is the typical reaction an emotional one, including (a) annoyed frustration, (b) just doing the job oneself, or (c) ignoring the event and letting it remain undone?
  • Or is there a calm assertion of boundaries and an engagement in constructive conflict to resolve the issue?

Delays in touchy discussions may unnecessarily complicate relationships between co-workers or managers and their staff. Even so, a lot of us avoid them.


Two concepts can be particularly helpful to keep in mind:

1. Validation

Validation is a capacity to respect both one’s own experiences and those of others, even when faced with possibly conflicting or uncomfortable ones. Validation enables us to readily honor diverse feelings, views, attitudes, and beliefs, without requiring us to agree with them. This concept focuses on what we and others are actually experiencing, not what we feel we should be experiencing. For instance, “I am feeling curious right now.” Or, “I understand you expected John to follow up with the supplier.”


2. Reactivity

Awkward conversations can trigger discomfort in some or all of the participants. If and when we notice this happening, it may be a good idea to pivot the direction of the discussion to see if it lowers reactivity. If not, we may want to delay further conversation until a later time. Reactivity beyond any individual’s tolerance threshold may limit their abilities to effectively comprehend and participate in triggering conversations.

Signs of Reactivity:

  • Defensiveness
  • Blaming of oneself or others
  • Invalidating other people or their perceptions
  • Dissociation
  • Avoidance
  • Out-sized responses
  • Sudden changes in the emotional field
  • Redirecting the conversation
  • Averted gazes
  • Bodily tension
  • Strained tone of voice
  • Changes in posture or breathing, Sweating, Fidgeting, etc.


Here are some suggestions for developing a capacity to engage in potentially stressful discussions:

Step 1: Affirm your actions are aligned with your goals. Consider if your behaviors confirm your understanding of leadership, including balancing possibly conflicting goals such as (a) developing yourselves and your team and (b) stewarding the company.

Consider giving positive feedback as it is earned during the normal course of business. This generally strengthens existing relationships resulting in awkward conversations tending to feel less disturbing.


Step 2: Start to recognize tension and relaxation in your own body, voice, words and thoughts.  Keep in mind, less than 10{9c76b36c77f029029a2471a2ee36782ab485e6535333bf2fc9b9f4f7f1916a51} of communication is through words. The bulk is by body language, vocal tone, context, etc. Also, people may sense and react to one another’s emotional states.

You or others may find awkward conversations trigger anxiety. If anxiety joins the discussion, even if it is a subtle presence, it may be felt by others. It may transfer from one person to another in cycles of reactivity until one of those involved notices and stops the pattern of reacting in favor of thoughtfully responding.


Step 3: Consider a habit of periodically recognizing and validating your own feelings, views, attitudes and beliefs. Becoming more familiar with them generally enables almost spontaneously greater skills in validating others. Regularly validating others often strengthens relationships.


Step 4: Periodically review how your behaviors reflect personal values. Consider whether the workplace has normalized an environment of respect or are there some tacitly accepted instances of disrespect?


Step 5: Keep in mind your highest priority regarding the issue at hand. Recognize others have their own highest priorities. Theirs may be different from yours.


Step 6: Notice, accept, and appreciate how you and other people have different perspectives. Differences in view may add to organizational strength by reducing blind spots, for instance.


Step 7: Practice coming up with at least two alternative explanations as to what you believe happens on a periodic basis. It may be useful to consider groups of people functioning as a system. Therefore, one person’s behaviors are generally in reaction to those of others. See if you can think of one scenario where another’s seemingly illogical actions seem logical.


Step 8: Solicit feedback on the experience of others during awkward conversations with you, if appropriate. Ask what worked and what did not. This step typically requires strong pre-existing relationships.


Strong, responsive work relationships results, in large part, from developing mutually beneficial interactions. However, conflict is inevitable. The above strategies provide a structure for giving others constructive feedback in a manageable way, instead of overwhelming them or inadvertently passing judgment on them. Building this conversational capacity is a practice. It develops over time. Exploring some of the ideas outlined in these steps, helps us better understand what perspectives, priorities, values, and attitudes, we can bring to discussions. These suggestions can help you more easily notice potential points of conflict and more comfortably bridge them.

Some sources on communication pathways and emotional contagion:

Mehrabian, Albert (2009). “”Silent Messages” – A Wealth of Information About Nonverbal Communication (Body Language)”Personality & Emotion Tests & Software: Psychological Books & Articles of Popular InterestLos Angeles: self-published. Retrieved April 30, 2019.

Hsee, Christopher K.; Hatfield, Elaine; Chemtob, Claude (1992). “Assessments of the Emotional States of Others: Conscious Judgments versus Emotional Contagion”. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology11 (2): 119–128. doi:10.1521/jscp.1992.11.2.119.


Michelle Thomson

Principal, Clear Ripple Consulting.

Michelle is a seasoned financial executive with experience advising boards, senior corporate executives, investors, and business owners on business strategy, transactions, and operations.

Along with graduate and undergraduate degrees at Wharton and the Booth School of the University of Chicago, Michelle pursued graduate level studies focusing on Buddhist philosophy and science of mind at Naropa University. She currently consults on a broad range of topics around decision-making. Contact Michelle at: