Communication skills 101: How to stay cool when things heat up

September 29, 2017

By Jan M. McLaughlin

Puzzle piece revealing words "Anger Management" for communication skills[1]
It is important for pool, hot tub, and landscape professionals to be able to maintain their cool, even if a customer, potential client, or co-worker loses their temper.

When things go awry on a jobsite, industry professionals may blame the heat and their reaction on a tiny part of the brain. Called the amygdala, it is one of two almond-shaped groups of nuclei located deep and medially within the temporal lobes of the brain. The amygdala holds emotional memory (e.g. fear, anger) and ‘helps’ one to react without thinking.

That said, it is important for pool, hot tub, and landscape professionals to be able to maintain their cool, even if a customer, potential client, or co-worker loses their temper. To be able to apply the tips and techniques presented in this article, think of a recent exchange with someone where the conversation got heated. Focus on the interaction, why it was not pleasant, and how the situation was handled. It does not have to be a catastrophe, but simply a situation when after it was over, it was known it should have been handled differently.

Four essential communication skills to practice

There are four essential factors in communication—intent, criteria, content, and process. In every situation that may arise, each of these elements should be related to one’s profession, as well as their personal life. With a particular situation in mind, explore each of these factors individually.


Archery targets with arrows in the bulls eye representing good communication skills[2]
A good conversation is more like archery, where one must take careful aim if he/she wants to hit the target.

The first essential factor is intent. This comes down to what someone wants to accomplish in the exchange. So often, a conversation is like a pinball machine—the lever is pulled and the little steel ball just ricochets off different pegs. Lights and bells go off, and the ball runs into the gutter.

A good conversation is more like archery, where one must take careful aim if he/she wants to hit the target.

Therefore, to avoid ugly situations, intent should be determined first. It is easy to lose sight of this when a conversation gets heated. To stay cool, focus on what the outcome should be.

Criteria, expectations, or needs

The second essential factor is a combination of synonyms: criteria, expectation, and need. These are the relevant points to take into consideration, as everyone brings different criteria to the same situation. Some may want things right now (e.g. an upset customer whose hot tub is not working), others want things to be perfect (all professionals have encountered this person), while there are those who want to avoid conflict at all cost.

The conversation often breaks down when these relevant factors have not been communicated clearly. When each party is careful to communicate their intent and criteria—making sure to understand each person’s criteria—the result is usually positive.


The third essential factor is content (what the discussion is about). If intent is not clear and criteria are not understood, the content can become the battleground. This is when things really begin to heat up and how arguments typically start.

When this happens, it is easy to be pulled away from the initial intent. Some common deviations[3] include:

Should anyone of these deviations occur during an exchange, any focus on intent is lost.


Two workers showing good communication skills[4]
When each party is careful to communicate their intent and criteria—making sure to understand each person’s criteria—the result is usually positive.

The fourth essential factor is process. Many are unaware of this factor as it deals with how each party is communicating with one another. It involves body language, facial expressions, tone, and choice of words. Should a conversation take a turn for the worse, both parties can be at fault for any one of these. In fact, these are what the amygdala reacts to should someone lose his/her temper.

According to Dr. Albert Mehrabian—in his book, Silent Messages—if communication is incongruent, people will rely on what they see to decrypt the message they receive. Take for instance, a scowling face or the rolling of the eyes… when someone communicates in this manner, 55 per cent of the message the other party receives will be based on facial expressions and body language.

Then it comes down to what the person hears. Depending on the type of conversation, the tone, volume, pace, and pitch of someone’s voice is what gets many people extremely angry—especially when someone is using sarcasm combined with dirty looks. People depend on what they hear for 38 per cent of the message they receive. This leaves the words, which many often worry about the most, for a mere seven per cent of the message.

These statistics refer to face-to-face conversations where communication is incongruent. If the message is incomprehensible, people will look beyond the words for meaning. Therefore, it is important to make sure tone and body language are in agreement with the message.

Employ active listening

One way to avoid a heated conversation is to practice active listening skills. This involves far more than just being a party to the conversation. Active listening includes three key elements: clarifying, pacing, and backtracking. These can be used to make sure both parties are in sync with one another, making it easier to empathize. Concentrating on these also helps keep the conversation on track, staying out of the “yeah, but” mode, while also serving to prevent any overreactions.


This involves asking open-ended questions—who, when, where, what, how and why—to gain a better understanding of someone’s position to move toward a solution. Information that is more valuable can be gained using open-ended questions, as they cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” It is a good idea to avoid “why” questions because they can be perceived as accusatory, making someone become defensive.


Pacing happens naturally when each party is comfortable with one another. When someone is uneasy in a particular situation, he/she will rear backwards and do the opposite of the other person. When pacing, subtly mirror the communication style the other person is using, not only their posture, facial expressions and gestures, but also the pace, volume, and energy of their voice. Be careful not to mimic them, however.

A junior high school cafeteria is a great example of this. When someone leans in and starts to talk in a low voice, what does everyone else do? They lean in and start whispering. It looks like a huddle. Now, if the kid who loves to spread gossip walks by what does everyone in the huddle do? They all rear back and start talking in a loud voice about something innocuous. This type of pacing, with respect to communication, can be seen every day.

This type of communication is also often found in the service and/or sales industry, as it can be beneficial to mirror a customer’s sense of urgency. For example, if a service technician remains too calm, the customer may sense they have not been heard. Further, if a customer is speaking too quickly, a sales rep will have the tendency to slow the conversation down to get them to do the same. Unfortunately, this tactic, in some cases, can upset some people.

Instead, start the conversation at the customer’s pace by offering them a benefit for doing whatever is needed in the specific situation, and then slow the discussion down. For example, a service technician would start at the customer’s rapid pace and say, “I want to make sure we get your hot tub fixed as quickly as possible.” Then, he/she would gradually slowdown as they say something like, “May I ask you to show me where the shutoff valve is? Then, I can get the process going.”

Visualizations (such as relaxing in a hot tub) can help one keep his/her cool[5]
Visualizations can help someone keep his/her cool when faced with a stressful situation or person. One can practice this technique by thinking of a place where he/she feels calm.

The third factor in active listening is backtracking. This is similar to paraphrasing, but rather concentrating on using some of person’s actual words (i.e. essence words). These can also indicate the potential hot spots in a conversation. They are often easy to identify, as these words will be emphasized. By repeating someone’s essence words, they feel heard. The risk someone takes when paraphrasing is they will often change what was said into his/her own words.

Backtracking is an essential technique when dealing with an especially aggressive person. They put great credence in their words; therefore, to make them feel heard, it is important to use some of their essence words when asking questions or summarizing what they have said.

Often, these three communication techniques occur simultaneously—pacing and backtracking while asking clarifying questions.

Exercise verbal aikido to keep cool

The goal of Aikido (a form of martial arts) is to neutralize an attack effectively while maintaining the safety of the attacker and defender. Aikido uses the energy of the attack itself to immobilize the aggressor. For instance, if one pushes, the other pulls, and vice versa; however, should someone push or pull back, it creates conflict.

Selective agreement

The technique of selective agreement involves listening for something in what someone is saying that each party can agree on. Too often, people look for ways to correct or disagree with the other person. The following are some examples:

Instead of: “Are you kidding?”

Use: “Interesting idea; how would you see it being put into action?”

Instead of: “Never heard of anything like that.”

Use: “I hadn’t thought of that. Would you give me
an example so I can understand more clearly?”

Instead of: “Well, of course.”

Use: “I agree. And, I’ve also noticed that…”

A good fallback phrase is, “You may be right, _______.”

The problem is, the latter is often followed by a “but,” which wipes out everything that was said before that. One way to avoid this is to use “and” instead. If using “and” in a response is not grammatically correct, all that is important is to simply think “and.” Doing will help to avoid saying “but.” This simple rule helps people to be better listeners.

Limited response

Limited response is the second technique, and is the best way to respond to sarcasm. When someone throws out a sarcastic remark, it is as though he/she is casting a fishing line with a big hook on the end. The tone is what hooks people. To overcome this, repeat—in one’s head—what they said, only this time without the tone. Then we can respond to the seemingly neutral remark with an equally neutral remark.  This allows someone to respond to the seemingly neutral remark with an equally neutral reply.

Intentional innocence

The final technique, intentional innocence, can be difficult to achieve if someone’s goal is to win or be right. It is all about acting innocent and letting what the other person said simply pass over.

Using psychological and physical techniques

Everyone is human; therefore, it is important to practice calming techniques that can be used when faced with a situation where things have heated up. Psychological and physical practices can be employed to stay cool. Some psychological techniques that can be used include visualizations, symbols, and intercepts, while physical methods include breathing and laughing.


Visualizations are used to spectacular effect by Olympic athletes. Downhill skiers picture the run they are about to take—not about how they might fall.

One can practice this technique by thinking of a place where he/she feels calm (e.g. hiking in the mountains, fishing, on a beach, reading a book, playing music, or soaking in a hot tub). The purpose is to be able to recapture the feeling they have when they are there. In fact, actors call this ‘sensory recall,’ and use the technique to get into the mood of a scene or the emotions of their character.

Visualizations can help someone keep his/her calm when faced with a stressful situation or person.


Cue card for communication skills regarding body language[6]
Fifty-five per cent of the message the other party receives is based on facial expressions and body language.

Symbols, which can take many forms, can help someone stay grounded. For example, think of the movies about World War II where soldiers had a picture of their loved ones in their helmet. If a heated conversation is on the horizon, practice this psychological technique by having a symbol nearby to help give a particular situation perspective.


This technique helps someone keep their cool by stopping himself/herself before they get angry. For example, this author will say, “Stop Jan!” to herself when she is concerned she is about to get angry. In fact, she has even been known to say it aloud to the surprise of others around her. Another example this author’s colleague suggested was picturing a glass wall between themselves and the difficult person. Then, with a paint roller in hand, paint all of the glass until it is opaque and they could no longer see the person. They are not doing this literally, of course. It would only upset the other person more.

Remember to breath and laugh

Two good physical aspects to keeping one’s cool are breathing and laughing. Many people hold their breath when they are upset. It can be hard to remain calm, however, when there is no oxygen getting to the brain. Finally, laughing is one of the best ways to relieve stress. In fact, some say it is great exercise for the internal organs. Of course, do not laugh at someone who is upset… that will only escalate the situation. By practicing some of these techniques, it will become easier to co-exist with those who are more difficult.

[7]Jan M. McLaughlin, CSP, is a speaker and trainer who offers programs for professionals who are looking to influence the positive responses they receive. She specializes in impression management, customer service, communication, and presentation skills, and presented on these topics at the 2016 International Pool | Spa | Patio Expo. McLaughlin can be reached via e-mail at[8]. For more info, visit[9].

  1. [Image]:
  2. [Image]:
  3. common deviations:
  4. [Image]:
  5. [Image]:
  6. [Image]:
  7. [Image]:

Source URL: