5 signs your conversation is about to turn toxic

Difficult conversations are often unplanned and sneak up on us. Spotting the signs that your conversation is about to turn toxic gives you a chance to stop your automatic reactions so you can change course, even in the heat of the moment.

Here are five sure-fire ways of spotting that a conversation is turning toxic.

Not getting Involved

Build your awareness of the signs you’re about to move into conversational ‘silence’ or ‘violence’

1. Your body starts to give you signals

When you’re about to get “hooked” into an unproductive conversation there are obvious changes in your body.

You’re suddenly leaning forward, making strong hand gestures, speaking faster with a strained tone of voice. Your stomach starts to clench up.  You start to interrupt and cut other people off.

I’ve discovered my shoulders act like a conversational thermometer, rising higher as the tension increases!

Learning to spot these signs has helped me recognise when the conversation could start to become unproductive.

2. You are certain you’re right

Feeling certain can feel powerful. Being right is important. Tragically it’s times when we feel most certain that we are most at risk of being wrong.

Around topics that are important to us, we often use defective reasoning strategies. One approach is to reason based on how we feel. Since I feel certain that I am right, what I believe is correct!

Rather than being clear about our reasoning and the evidence we have for our views, we simply “ask ourselves” – “Are my intentions good? Do I feel like I’m right?” – without realising that even ‘evil’ people are likely to think they have good intentions.

3. You’re stuck in a repetitious point-counterpoint discussion

When the conversation feels like it’s going around in circles it’s a good sign that you or others have been emotionally triggered. In a group situation you’ll often notice that only a couple of people are speaking and they are just taking turns telling the other person their point of view.

You may notice that you’re acting like an Obnoxious Foreign Tourist – if you weren’t understood the first time, just say it again, but this time louder and with more force!

When you spot yourself about to state same points again, you are probably in this situation.  Often a simple change of strategy, such asking a question can break the conversational arm wrestle.

4. You’re in a heroic struggle for truth or justice

When discussing topics close to strongly held belief or values, the focus of the conversation can become a battle for your “truth” or “justice”.

Particularly when we learn new ways or looking at the world (Agile, Lean or Systems Thinking) or new behaviours (pair programming, test driven development) it is often difficult to accept that others do not share our beliefs.

While intending to be helpful and avoid bad outcomes, we often become stuck in our own world view and lose our curiosity in how others see the world. The outcome is that we can come across as religious zealots and end up embarking on conversational “crusades” to protect our sense of truth or justice.

5. You focus on how the other person is causing the problem by being mad or bad

In difficult conversations you can start to focus on how the other person is the source of the difficulty. You may start assuming nasty motives or stupidity to others who don’t share your views – “is this person incompetent or just plain dumb?”.

You can become blind to your own options in a conversation by thinking that they have control over your behaviour or your feelings – “they’re backing me into a corner!” or “they’re making me feel guilty!”.

Noticing that you’re starting to think like this gives you an opportunity to shift perspectives to test if there are joint contributions to the problem and test if the discussion can shift from a win/lose fight to one of mutual help.

Awareness is the first step …

Spotting signs that we are about to get hooked into a toxic conversation is an important skill that allows us to stop and make more productive choices about remaining in the conversation.

When you feel yourself about to hooked it is a good time to stop and get curious. What might the other person be seeing that you’re missing? See if you can solve the puzzle of how their beliefs and interests lead them to see things differently.

What other signs do you look for? Let me know your views in the comments.

Benjamin Mitchell's Twitter ProfileHi, I’m Benjamin. I hope that you enjoyed the post. I’m a consultant and coach who helps IT teams and their managers consistently deliver the right software solutions. You can find out more about me and my services. Contact me for a conversation about your situation.

Image Credit: Not getting Involved by TarikB, on Flickr






5 responses to “5 signs your conversation is about to turn toxic”

  1. Badri N Srinivasan Avatar

    HI Benjamin,

    As you have indicated, a key point to note when conversations are becoming toxic is to first have an awareness of the nature of the conversation and how it is impacting the member. An awareness of the double loop learning concept helps us to focus on the reality rather than on the perceived reality by using the ladder of inference.

    1. Benjamin Mitchell Avatar

      Hi Badri,
      Thanks for your comment. I agree that thinking about our reasons for wanting the conversation and how it might impact the other person is important.

  2. fxvega Avatar

    Hi Benjamin,

    I like Badri’s comment on being aware and open to double-loop learning. Your #4 and #5 points definitely resonate with me. In a tense moment, I “try” to remind myself that each of us is a product of our own individual experiences which influence and frame what is “truth” for us. I’m not saying each of us should “invent” our own truths, but in a tense conversation, learning about the other persons experiences can reduce the tension (even if we still disagree). This leads well into your #5, watch for labeling others or others labeling you, nobody is a “monster” because they think differently :>). Great post, good reminders!

    Take care,

  3. Dan Avatar

    Doh! I’m trying to recall how much of that applies to the conversation we had in the pub after the Agile London meeting. Unfortunately beer enhances my belief that I’m right and willingness to champion my own cause!

    1. Benjamin Mitchell Avatar

      The blog was written yesterday morning so any link to our conversation was purely coincidental. 🙂

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