Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Choking Up

During the month of July, we will run “best of” content from the authors. The following article first appeared on January 11, 2006.

Al Switzler is the author of the New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.

Al Switzler is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.


Crucial ConversationsQDear Crucial Skills,

I find myself in the uncomfortable position of “choking up” during some crucial conversations. This is not a frequent occurrence by any means, but comes on when I least expect it. You can imagine how this adds a whole new dynamic to the discussion. I actually have had to say “excuse me while I collect myself,” take a few minutes and a few deep breaths, then resume. It goes as suddenly as it came, but I feel the damage was done. Can you offer any advice on how to deal with this in the moment and after the fact?

Choked Up

A Dear Choked,

Your comments and question are effective reminders that life comes at us fast. Crucial conversations fit right in this arena. Crucial conversations are defined as having “high stakes, opposing opinions, and strong emotions”—and often we don’t have time to plan out these kinds of conversations in advance. What I hear in your comments is that you don’t frequently get emotional, and when you do, it’s about something that matters—a lot. All of that is pretty normal. We’ve run into this dynamic very often when coaching others. Let me share a few points about what we’ve learned.

1. People can get better at catching their own emotions early. Everyone has some kind of response when conversations turn crucial. The difference between the good and the best is how quickly they notice the response and use it as an “early warning sign” to switch to using their very best skills. Think about what some of these early indicators are:

  • Some people’s faces turn red.
  • Some people can feel their pulse—often in their temples.
  • Some people’s breathing changes—it speeds up, or lengthens.
  • People’s voices can increase or decrease in volume.
  • There may be churning in the gut or butterflies in the stomach.

There are any number of other possible reactions—pay close attention and learn to recognize your own early warning signs. What are they? How could you catch them early? The best see these signs as signals and have a little voice that tells them, “Ooh—this conversation just turned crucial; I need to use my best skills.” And they are more likely to do exactly that. The next time you have a situation where you get choked up, review it after the fact and ask, what should I have noticed earlier that would have signaled me to use my best skills? After a few cycles people can make big improvements.

2. Building or rebuilding safety is at the heart of the interaction. I congratulate you on the steps you have taken to restore safety. When a conversation becomes unsafe for you or for the other person, you should rightfully “call a time out.” In Crucial Conversations, we discuss this as “stepping out of the content and rebuilding safety.” The problem is that most of us get hooked into the content. We get so captivated by what is being said that we don’t look at the conditions surrounding the conversation.

Why is this the case? If you are like most people, you have a lot on your plate and are committed to getting things done. You have time pressures and commitments hanging over your head. You might be talking to someone who is verbally slower, or faster, or someone who is more powerful or more determined to argue until they get their way. In such circumstances, content hogs the spotlight. The conditions that make conversations safe can fade from view. When the conditions fail, safety is at risk as people move toward silence or violence.

Catch it early. “I’ve noticed that I’m getting a little emotional here. Could we take five minutes?” Or it might sound something like this: “I’ve noticed that we seem to be debating this issue. I’ve been putting my point forward—perhaps too strongly. I’d like to turn that around and ask more questions so that I can understand your points clearly. Would that be okay?” By fixing the conditions, you increase safety—and the content can flow more freely.

3. It’s never too late to fix relationships that matter. When we lose it during a conversation, it’s never too late to go back and try to fix it. Apologize appropriately and share your intentions. For example, “Last week, when we were talking about budget, I got ‘choked up.’ You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m sorry it happened and I’m working on controlling my emotions. I hope we can continue to have effective conversations in the future. That’s what I’d like.”

In closing, let me repeat that your challenge is one that affects all of us. Learning to control your emotions can lead to significant and lasting improvements.

Best wishes,

Develop Your Crucial Skills

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7 thoughts on “Choking Up”

  1. Kathy Wire

    I work a lot in the field of conflict, and one of the lessons I have learned is that emotions are often essential to the process. It’s OK if someone cries when they are upset; it’s a natural human reaction. Surely, there are some situations in which it won’t help, and may be counterproductive. But in a situation that truly involves high stakes and emotions, I think your approach may be unrealistic. Rather, I would have a box of tissues handy and ratify the emotions involved. Even in a work setting, we are still dealing with people and their lives.

    1. Debbie Campbell

      I so agree with those who have stated that “choking up” needs to be “de-criminalized”. When my employees have reacted this way, it has not damaged our relationship. In fact, in most cases, I respect the passion they feel for the subject we are discussing. Having said that, when I have been the teary one, I admit feeling very uncomfortable. The best supervisors, co-workers and friends are those who have set my fears to rest, by accepting my reaction with grace and warmth.

  2. lynne smith

    I think to have the strength to stop in the moment and to be able to say, I need to collect myself, is incredibly powerful. The writer says, by doing that “the damage was done”. I disagree. Someone with the presence of mind, the strength and wisdom to be able to stop and take the reins like that shows great presence of mind and inner strength. For years I had panic attacks and the first time I did this very thing she describes, it empowered me because it showed me when i felt out of control, i could stop and regain control, and the calmness with which i continued afterwards, gave power to my position. It’s awesome.

  3. Kate

    While I think this article has some good advice in it, I am sorry that it allows an assumption that displays of emotion are bad to continue. I have worked in HR for many years, as well as volunteering as a mediator, and I’m an energetic bodyworker (i.e. reiki, chakra therapy, et al), and in my experience, it’s only when there is room for emotion to be displayed and given a voice that a crucial conversation moves all the parties involved forward in a good way. The tools for crucial conversations are wonderful for maintaining focus, building solutions, and ensuring that emotions don’t hijack the process, but that doesn’t mean the emotions aren’t there. In fact the heart holds the vulnerability and compassion that’s necessary to a mutual conversation that deepens the relationship. Sharing it can be a tremendous gift to the process and to all present.

  4. Linda

    Recently I was told of a saying that fits this scenario:
    “When you are butt deep in alligators, remember that you were there to
    drain the swamp”.
    Hence refocusing on purpose of interaction.

  5. Marilyn

    My wonderful therapist of many years, now deceased, used to tell me, “when your eyes fill with tears, when you least expect it, you are speaking the truth”. It’s been a good guide to me to help me have faith in myself.

  6. David Santiago

    Interesting topic I can relate to it, was an issue I use to experience in the past “choking in conversations.”

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