How to Self-Regulate During a Difficult Conversation

Self-regulation is a person’s ability to calm rising emotions as they experience them. Daniel Goleman, known best for his expertise on emotional intelligence, noted self-regulation as one of the five key components of emotional intelligence, along with self-awareness, internal motivation, empathy, and social skills. In practice, self-regulation is the series of steps taken during an intentional pause between a felt emotion and the consequential action. If a person is able to create a pause between what they feel and how they are about to act as a result of that feeling, they are allowing the possibility of self-regulation to take place. If done correctly and with genuine intention, self-regulation can significantly influence the outcome of a conversation. So how do you self-regulate? Here are some of the steps you can take to effectively self-regulate during a difficult conversation:

  1. Deep breathe. Take a deep and slow breath from your nose. Not a shallow breath that only goes to your chest, but a deeper one that goes all the way to your stomach and fills it up. Then release it slowly from your mouth. Deep breathing helps to center the limbic system, also known as the emotional brain, which is responsible for impulse control. Take these deep breaths as many times as necessary to calm the rising emotion (usually about 1-3 breaths do the trick if done properly). If you feel awkward or uncomfortable doing it with your partner watching, let them know! Tell them you need a moment to calm down to continue with the conversation. Your partner will likely appreciate this effort.
  2. Self-talk and/or self-soothe. As you take your deep breaths and begin to feel calmer, you can engage in self-talk (i.e., gentle reminders in the form of phrases, sentences, or healing words that you can say to yourself) and/or engage in self-soothing touch (i.e., any touch that brings you comfort, such as gently stroking your own hand). From this place of relative calmness, ask yourself what exactly you are feeling. Ask yourself till you find a vulnerable emotion, i.e., an emotion that hurts to feel or feels scary to express. Anger is usually impulsive and easy to express. Dig below the anger to find the emotion that hurts or feels uncomfortable, such as “fear”, “shame”, “sadness”, “loneliness”, “anxiety”, etc.
  3. Choose your response. Decide how you would like to respond now that you are self-regulated and self-aware. You may choose to share your vulnerable emotion, e.g., “I’m afraid of [xyz] happening when you say [abc], or if it feels unsafe or uncomfortable to share, you can respond in any other rational manner of your choosing. If you find yourself becoming impulsive and reactive again, take a deep breath and repeat the steps.

To illustrate, lets imagine a couple, Anna and Jacob, who enter a discussion about moving homes. Typically, they avoid this topic because of the fights they get into. Anna hates their home because what was supposed to be a temporary dwelling has now become a more permanent one. Jacob, on the other hand, doesn’t see any need to move. Anna becomes angry when Jacob doesn’t seem to acknowledge their initial agreement and keeps reiterating that there’s no need to move. Anna recognizes that she is becoming angry and feels the urge to yell. Anna knows from past experiences that Jacob tends to shutdown and walk away when she yells. She decides to pause, close her eyes, and take a deep breath. She begins to feel calm and decides to do it one more time.

Once she feels the anger go down, she asks herself why she feels so angry. She realizes that she feels betrayed and hurt. She feels betrayed because she trusted Jacob to honor his word of moving to a better home after a year of saving up. She feels hurt because her trust is broken. She feels safe enough to share this, and says to Jacob, “I feel betrayed and that makes me feel so angry towards you. I thought we had an agreement and now I feel confused and hurt because I don’t know what to make of it when you don’t acknowledge that agreement.”

Jacob, who normally would have shutdown and walked away, was able to hear the pain in Anna’s words and realized it is wrong of him to not acknowledge the initial agreement they had together. He responds, “I know we had an agreement. And I see now how important that agreement was to you. But given our financial circumstances at the moment, I’m rethinking things. And I need your help in understanding that things have changed in the last few years and we can no longer afford what we thought we could afford.” Anna responds by saying, “Even if things have changed, I still feel hurt. It seems like you made the decision on your own and disregarded our agreement. I wish you would have spoken to me honestly and kept the door open to this discussion so we could’ve decided together on better ways to save up and move at some point.”

In the example above, you can see how differently the conversation went between Anna and Jacob when usually it would’ve ended with Jacob walking away and Anna chasing after him angrily. Self-regulation isn’t easy, especially when you are doing it for the first few times. But the more you do it, the better you become at it. It starts to become more like a habit than an intentional act. So the next time you find yourself in a heated argument or a difficult conversation, remember to self-regulate by taking deep breaths, engaging in self-talk and/or self-soothing touch, and choosing your response instead of acting impulsively.

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