The Middle Ground

The middle groundWhen we're in the grasp of strong emotions like anxiety, getting blind-sided, and/or receiving poor feedback we tend to act on impulse. Often this means we add a poor impression on top of the situation we're facing. Impulse may not serve us well, the other person is probably not reading our minds, either.

    So many times, we end up with poor outcomes and we later regret our words, or actions. Not to mention that our reactions may backfire and make things worse for all involved. In the words of a wise orchestra conductor Ben Zander, it does make a difference what we say. Often it's how we say it that gets us in trouble.

    To get away from our well-meaning impulse, we can do a number of things. Some techniques that have worked for people are:

  • counting to ten slowly in our head in any language. I use Italian for numbers, learned them first in that context
  • breathing deeply or from the diaphragm — breathing helps get oxygen to our heads, which consumes more than any other part of us, and has a calming effect. The diaphragm is the muscle across the bottom of the thoracic cavity.
  • rehearsing what we're about to say in our head first — this is like saving a draft and reading it later. It helps buy time, too.
  • suspending judgement — this means holding off drawing conclusions on what we think we learned, saw, or thought is happening.

    The idea is to find a middle ground between our position, assumptions, and other options we may fail to see at the moment. It helps when we shift our stance from one of confrontation to one of curiosity. Going from hard questions to open-ended statements also helps us learn more, says master negotiator Chris Voss.

    Next time we're in a tough spot, instead of asking something like, “What reasons do you have for saying this?” we may say something to the effect of, “it sounds like you have some reasons in mind…” In other words, we communicate “I'm listening, tell me more.”

    Ben Zander himself often says, “fascinating!” as a first response to information. It's a good tactic to pause and to inject positive energy in our thinking to help us bridge the difference between where we and the other person think are in a conversation or exchange.

    When we're curious about something, we tend to get outside our heads and more immersed into the world around us. It helps us observe more intently, lighten up, and acquire a touch of the adventurous. It's good for the heart.

   Three valuable resources filled with practical advice to go deeper on this topic:


The Happiness Trap, about learning to actively reduce stress, overcome fear, and focus on meaning.

“Emotions are like the weather,” says Russ Harris. Our feelings may end up controlling our behavior and overwhelm our ability to reason and appreciate the actual facts. We see reality through the filter of our own perception, and when emotions run high we may lose the ability to think critically.

We can learn to navigate the fine line on feedback.


Crucial Conversations, about learning to talk off the cuffs, when the stakes are high, because we never do see it coming and we did not prepare for the unexpected.

“When conversations turn from routine to crucial, we're often in trouble,” say the authors. Emotions run highest when we need to keep a head about things most. In many cases, we put ourselves under pressure without data and facts that warrant it. Maybe we're caught in a question or issue we know little about and we snap, instead of taking a moment to ingest the information.

More on improving effectiveness in conversation.


Thanks for the Feedback about learning to take feedback actively, distinguish between the types of feedback we seek/are given to make it more appropriate/useful, and our triggers.

We can learn how to receive feedback better and improve our lot, “Even when it's off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and, frankly, you're not in the mood,” say the authors. When we become better at evaluating, coaching, and appreciating others, our relationships improve, we're better customers and buyers, we're better clients and consultants, collaborators and individual players. All of which makes us good leaders, managers, and contributors.

Feedback comes in three different kinds and each is subject to a set of human triggers.


    Sometimes we make a tempest in a teacup, as the expression goes. Before we go from zero-to-type-A, we can use time tested advice to slow down, consider the issue from outside ourselves, and, if we can't, at least consider our reaction from the inside before sharing it.

    Or we can follow Ben Zander's advice on being thoughtful with words by making a vow, I will never say anything that couldn't stand as the last thing I ever say.” He says we may not get it right every time, but it's a possibility worth thinking about doing.

    Finding the middle ground is also about learning to become more appropriate, to fit the response to the situation. In fact, the one thing skilled negotiators and admired leaders have in common that draws admiration and respect from those around them is the ability to stay calm under pressure, respond instead of reacting.

    It's natural to feel anxious or nervous sometimes, even when not warranted, to feel blind-sided by information or a misunderstanding, or receive feedback that may not suit the context, nor be helpful. We can learn to love the open-ended questions (as needed), and slow down our heart rate just enough to tease out the underlying issues we may not see at first.

    More reviews on useful books at Conversation Agent.