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I have scheduled a phone call with someone I have not spoken to in over two years. The only reason I am talking to them now is because it is very important to my family that I have a cordial, preferably friendly, relationship with this person (although this person is not related to me). I currently have very strong and very negative feelings about this person. My goal in talking with them is to understand what their attitude towards me is now, which will determine whether or not I try to rebuild the relationship. This is a personal relationship (as opposed to professional) and we are peers in terms of age, social status, cultural background, etc.

I am concerned because of what happened during a recent phone call with a different person, who I had similar emotions about. It was difficult for me to respond rationally and calmly in real time. (I already have trouble with serious discussions even when it's not a personal, emotional topic, because it takes me a while to process and decide what my position is and come up with the right wording for it.) I ended up losing my composure shortly into the conversation. I had been doing okay keeping emotion out of my voice despite growing more and more distressed, until they pushed the right button and it all came out.

I don't like being that sort of person. I also don't want them to think they have the upper hand, or for them to walk away saying they are the better person because I had an emotional response and they were ~just trying to talk~. (I mention this because my family has done this in the past to invalidate or ignore what I had to say.) I had enough self-control that I didn't say anything I regret, but I wish I had not been so emotional while saying it.

It's worth noting that anger is only one of these emotions - there is also fear, distrust, sadness, disgust. So while anger management techniques may be useful, I'd appreciate answers which take other negative emotions into consideration as well.

Things I tried:

  • Rehearsing what I want to say - helped me remember to address my points, but I was still too emotional - even when rehearsing I'd get very upset imagining the conversation
  • Playing through possible responses in my head - see above, didn't work; I was unable to predict new information they revealed and how they acted overall (I expect this to be even more of an issue with the upcoming call due to the time between when I last interacted with them)
  • Ending the conversation - I hung up when I initially lost it, saying I clearly was unable to have a conversation about it, but they immediately called me back and insisted we couldn't keep not talking about the issue. I see their point; it's kind of a catch-22: I don't want to talk because I'm still too angry about it, but I'm still angry about it because we haven't talked and resolved it.

(I am open to suggestions on better rehearsing and acting out scenarios, though. Maybe there are more structured approaches to try or resources I haven't utilized, rather than e.g. yelling at an imaginary person during my commute..)

The biggest problem with the upcoming call is that I don't know how they will act. Maybe they'll apologize and try to fix things -- or maybe they'll laugh in my face and tell me I'm a terrible person. I won't know until I talk to them.

I'd like to prepare some strategies before having this conversation, in case it does go poorly. What can I do to de-escalate high emotions during the conversation? What techniques can I use to keep it from escalating in the first place?

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    Answers will probably depend on who you're talking to and why. – apaul Sep 20 '17 at 14:21
  • @apaul34208 What sort of details would be important? I tried to describe the situation as much as I felt comfortable doing so. I am talking with this person to understand what their attitude towards me is now, which will determine whether or not I try to rebuild that relationship. – Em C Sep 20 '17 at 14:26
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    How you would/could deal with a former business associate would be very different from how you would deal with an estranged family member and both cases would be different from talking to a former lover. Context usually makes a big difference in these situations. – apaul Sep 20 '17 at 14:30
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    @EricaGrant If you have an answers/recommendations, please post them below. And posting links sending users elsewhere to find that information isn't terribly helpful to the folks while are trying to build this site. Thanks. – Robert Cartaino Sep 20 '17 at 15:22
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    The point of asking for details is to include them in the question. If you dont feel comftorable sharing these details publically, then this site might not be the place to get advice on this issue. – user288 Sep 20 '17 at 20:08
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First and foremost: Is it possible to have this conversation in person rather than over the phone?

  1. I've found it difficult to snap on people when I am talking in person.
  2. I've also found that it worked better to talk in person because there is no "hanging up". Either of you could just walk away, but the two parties involved are still around. If either of you realize right away what you did was unnecessary or harsh, you can take it back and get back on track easier.
  3. Reading facial cues might help you keep your calm. It may help you see their point or at least hear it out. It will definitely help you be more empathetic to their feelings.

But if that is not possible, here are a few options:

  1. Think of a few side topics to discuss. If you feel like you're about to snap, go to your side topic. Deviate out of the situation as quickly as possible. You are not trying to be subtle about it. You don't need to sneak in a different conversation. You could just change the topic to something casual for a few seconds. You can even tell them something like "I am sorry, I need to not talk about this for a minute if you want me to not snap on you. How are things with you?".
  2. Go to a public place when you have this phone conversation. Like a coffee shop or a park. But somewhere outside preferably. Surround yourself with something pleasing. Pick a nice Saturday afternoon, a sunny day, and a park with birds chirping around (that is just my idea of pleasing, yours may differ). Don't go somewhere where you CANNOT be loud if you need to. Pick a place that hinders your temper getting the best of you, not prohibit it.
  3. Rehearsing what you want to say is good, but don't think through all the situations you'd be in. When you lose your temper, one of those many imaginary situations you had thought of is going to pop out of nowhere and you'd throw that in their face. Or even if you don't do that, if they say something and you're about to lose your temper, you'd assume what they meant by it because you thought about how they'd say something like that. They might have been saying something completely different.
  4. If what they say genuinely upset you and not just anger you, try telling them how it upsets you. If you're not much of a crier, that is fine. But definitely voice your opinions. You don't need to tell them why you're upset because I am pretty sure they already know it. Just tell them how upset you are.
  5. If you get upset just rehearsing the conversation, then don't rehearse it. For 3-4 days before the conversation, do something fun and happy. Do something that makes you feel good about yourself. Try to get yourself in a happy mood when talking to them. Helps you forgive easier that way.

One other important thing to remember: if you're not ready to forgive them yet, that is fine. But if you tell them something that makes them feel like you might forgive them if they just talk to you about it, they'd be more comfortable hearing you yell at them. That is where telling them how upset you are helps. You're hurt and want to vent it out. They need to know that and not think you hate them and it is irreparable.

There are always the cliche ways to do this, like:

  1. Count from 50 to 1.
  2. Take 3 deep breaths.
  3. Smile or walk.

But I don't know about those, they've never worked for me. It usually gives me a few seconds to think of the best yelling words I can use and I yell after a 30 second pause! Something that I've done before though, seemed very effective:

Put your phone on mute and yell!

I know it sounds silly, but put it on speakerphone or headphones so you can look at your phone and be easily able to hit mute. When they say something that ticks you off, put it on mute and yell your heart out! If they are still talking, they'd know nothing. If they've been waiting for your response, just tell them "hey sorry [some random reason for your silence]". But this gets it out of your system and they didn't hear it! :)

I hope this helps.

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    It may be possible to do it in person but to be honest I am not sure yet if I want to see this person again :/ This is really helpful though, I wish I had thought of the mute button trick for the last call! – Em C Sep 20 '17 at 16:00
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    @EmC yeah people hardly use the mute button feature. I had a gig working in a call center for a month in India (I know I know, how stereotypical). Everyone did that when the customer pisses them off! If you hear dead silence when talking to support, know that they're yelling at you :D – Crazy Cucumber Sep 20 '17 at 16:14
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Although this question has a great, accepted answer, I'd like to add another technique/approach to handling such conversations.

I recently had to have a conversation that I knew I'd be emotional about. To prepare, I decided to write out the points I wanted to get across and questions I wanted answered. I ended up having these notes in front of me as I had the conversation. It helped me stay on track as to what I wanted answered and what I wanted to express to the other person. It helped keep my emotions in check because I could just look down at my notes and focus on what I needed to get out of the conversation.

The conversation went incredibly smoothly and emotions were not heightened on either side.

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Plan on having several conversations with that person, using each one to work up to the topics which one or the other of you are going to find to be confrontational or unpleasant. There's no need to put everything that needs to addressed into a single phone conversation.

Call the person, exchange pleasantries, and then have a short conversation which reacquaints the two of you. Don't force things, and avoid bringing up topics which you know or suspect are going to make you or that person angry or upset. Surely you have many commonalities that you can discuss; and there are always updates on family members, that person or your careers, events concerning people who you both know, and even the weather if things get slow. From that conversation, get a sense of how things are between the two of you and then leave future conversations open.

if or when the two of you decide to talk again (as it is important that you BOTH see the need to have a relationship of any consequence. Extrinsic needs are not as important) then if the conversation turns towards the areas where you see there being conflict, then let it happen SLOWLY. Don't get angry or upset; listen to that person's point of view and determine where their perceptions of things or of you don't match your own. When they finish, state your own feelings and impressions about the matter, in a civil and an adult tone. Don't get angry, or too emotional, as that may cause you to say things which are not going to be beneficial as far getting your points across. Again, listen to what they say in response.

If THAT conversation goes well, then either begin a regular phone/email/video chat schedule with that person. Make sure that it is something that THEY want to do, not just something that others are pressing them to do. As you become more comfortable, you both will begin to unburden yourselves of the things which caused your rift, and you may become friends or even close when you do so.Even if you don't, then you'll at least become civil, and that should be a minimum that your family members should be seeking. After all, YOU get to decide with whom you are going to be friends with as that always your prerogative.

Finally...if things don't work out, then they don't work out. Again, your family or loved ones cannot dictate to you who you are supposed to be friends or closer with; that's your decision. All that you can do is attempt to lower the tensions between you and the other person and hope that they have an interest in doing the same. Anything else that occurs beyond that is a bonus.

  • Great answer- I'm still curious about how OP can prevent from getting mad themselves or prevent the other person from making the OP mad. Why are regular phone calls better than one? – ElizB Oct 24 '18 at 19:05
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I would make an assessment of why it is you are having this phone call, and what you hope to realistically gain from it.

You say the person is obligated by certain circumstances, and has not tried to contact you, otherwise.

My goal in talking with them is to understand what their attitude towards me is now, which will determine whether or not I try to rebuild the relationship.

Well, they hurt you badly, never bothered to try and contact you again, until forced to. I think it seems pretty clear that they are not interested in continuing a personal relationship with you. Whether you think you want to try or not may not matter, if they have no interest.

I'd also question why you'd want to rebuild a relationship with someone who'd hurt you and then put you on complete communication blackout for two years.

I currently have very strong and very negative feelings about this person;

and for someone you have similar feelings towards

I ended up "snapping" shortly into the conversation... To be honest I think they deserved to be screamed and swore at, and it felt good to get it out...

in addition to the anger you have towards the person

there is also fear, distrust, sadness, disgust.

It seems like you are a person who can harbor resentment towards someone and feels justified in releasing that in a verbally abusive manner. You may want to consider if this might factor into why someone would not want to have further contact with you after ending a relationship.

Given the bitterness and resentment you harbor towards that person, why do you want to bother seeing if there's something worth salvaging? I'm getting a sense that you are seeking some kind of validation that the other person was a heel two years ago, and that you are in the right. Hanging on to stuff like that after so much time is pointless and self-destructive, and borders a bit on the obsessive.

I've also noticed strong judgement about how you were wronged and this person deserves to be thought of so horribly, but you feel justified in being abusive towards others, verbally, without really questioning your own character for being that way. You only seem to assess it as something that interferes with other objectives you might have had for that conversation, as opposed to what it says about how you treat people.

I'm not sensing any desire or effort in trying to see things from their perspective or to look at anything you might have done, or anything about the way that you are that might have contributed to the falling out. Sometimes the way people interact with each other creates conflict, just because that's how the personalities bump up against each other. It doesn't have to be someone's fault, or it can be both people's fault.

Is the reason for this call to reach some kind of closure over what happened two years ago? If there's some unrelated issue (you have an old pair of their boots, they have your favorite music collection that they borrowed at that time), then stick to that.

If you are looking for validation, for them to realize how wrong they were and how right you are, and for them to beg to be allowed back into your good graces, then I'd suggest you are only setting yourself up for more frustration.

I'm a person who is extremely stubborn, myself, and competitive, and when I'm in a disagreement with someone, I tend to not want to let it go until they acknowledge that I'm "right." I constantly need to ask myself "why does this matter? Is it important enough to alienate someone over?" Usually, the answer is "no," and stepping back and making that assessment, on my own, usually helps me to drop what isn't important, and to avoid pointless, needless conflict and drama.

Now, maybe they did do something that is objectively unspeakably horrible to you, in which case, ignore the stuff about what you contributed to the problem. My answer is based on the somewhat sparse details about the situation, and filling in the gaps as best I can.

  • I think you missed the part where I said I don't want to be like that. I want to see if we can have a cordial relationship where I don't feel physically ill being in the same room as them. If that can't happen I will lose my family relationships. FWIW I have never raised my voice at this person. – Em C Sep 20 '17 at 20:17
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    No, I didn't miss that. I saw you say that you don't want to be like that because it will allow them to think they are better and that they "won." I don't see anything regarding about not wanting to be like that because that's not who you want to be, period. You never mentioned that this was, specifically, a family member. That's pretty germane to getting advice that can help. With limited information, I can only offer something of limited use, and there's a good chance I miss the mark entirely. Take it with more than a grain of salt if what I'm missing hinders the applicability. – PoloHoleSet Sep 20 '17 at 20:21
  • ^^ The last two sentences of that? That's me fighting my natural impulse to want to argue it out, "prove" I'm right in everything I wrote, and be declared the victor. I stepped back and asked myself if validating the reasons for my answer were actually productive or not, especially for you, who are asking for help. It's not easy for me to be reasonable when my efforts are challenged, but we can fight our own tendencies. – PoloHoleSet Sep 20 '17 at 20:26
  • This person is not family, but it's complicated and messy and I don't really want to air all my dirty laundry here. I appreciate your effort to help. I realize I do hold on to resentment and I am trying to work on that, but I am not asking for help with the situation itself, just the phone call. – Em C Sep 20 '17 at 20:29
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    I like the heart of this answer, as self-reflection and looking to our own actions and potential responsibility is something so rarely practiced. That said, I think it could have been phrased better if you opened the "It seems like you are a person who..." paragraph with something like, "I am this kind of person and I think I see it in you, too," so it comes off more as hard-learned guidance from one peer to another. As it is, I read the judgement first, then the personal relatability after. Some people probably prefer it as-is, though, so just something to think about for next time! – user3457 Sep 20 '17 at 22:51

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