Picture: iSTOCK
Picture: iSTOCK

EVERYONE has witnessed — or been part of — a conversation meltdown. Destructive conflict will continue as long as both parties treat the other person as a threat. Any substantial interruption of this will return you to rationality.

Here are six actions that can halt, and sometimes reverse, a verbal conflict:

1. Own your part: Simply stop the conversation and take responsibility for your part in its decline. But be sure this isn’t a ploy to provoke the same from the other person. Apologise for compromising your values.

2. Offer safety: People lose control when they feel threatened. Simply generating psychological safety for the other person can help. One of the best ways to do that is by making a commitment to finding a mutually beneficial solution.

3. Point out the default future: Discontinue the conversation and draw attention to the "default future," or where the interaction is heading if it continues on the current path. If you can help the person see the potential consequences, he might be willing to subordinate the need to punish in the interest of a higher value.

4. Talk about rules: If you’re involved in a risky conversation and don’t establish agreements for how you’ll talk, there will be nothing to keep unintentional provocations from escalating. Step away from the topic and discuss the rules of engagement.

5. Change the pace: A fast-moving conversation reinforces feelings of panic or threat. Slowing it down can change the feeling. You can quiet your voice, suggest a timeout or agree to take turns in the conversation.

6. Refocus on agreement: When people feel threatened, they tend to focus on areas of disagreement. You can change the tone of a conversation by saying something like, "Can I pause for a moment and point out what we both agree on?" Then slowly and sincerely enumerate common interests, beliefs or histories.

(Adapted from "What to Do If a Conversation Is Turning Loud and Aggressive" at HBR.org.)

© 2016 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp