How to Have Difficult Conversations Your Brain Can’t Handle

It’s hard to have tough conversations that actually get results. Inevitably someone gets mad, says something they shouldn’t, shuts down, or walks away.

We leave the conversation feeling unsatisfied… to say the least.

Instead of remaining calm, cool, and collected, we resorted to silence or violence. We either give up or escalate the issue. Not only do we miss our goal, we damaged a relationship.

Before you beat yourself up, though, it’s helpful to understand where this behaviour comes from. Resorting to silence and violence isn’t a result of personal flaws — it’s a result of biology.

Why is Dialogue So Tough? Blame Biology.

Let’s rewind a few hundred thousand years to a time when running from sabre-toothed tigers was our biggest stress. When those cats were after us, biology dictated that we had two options available to us: fight or flight.

This very helpful, engaging physical response helped us survive. The blood rushes to our major muscle groups — our arms and legs — to prepare us for action. Then, we can either defend ourselves or get away.

But guess where that blood came from as it moved to our arms and legs?

Our brain!

Now fast-forward to the present day. We don’t have wild cats pursuing us anymore. Instead, we have crazy spouses and angry bosses. We don’t sit in the wilderness anymore. We sit in boardrooms.

When you’re in the context of a crucial conversation in the boardroom, where would you like the blood in your body to be? The brain!

But it’s not there. The very moment we need our brains to be fully functional, they’re not. Even though our modern-day stresses are different, our bodies work the same way they did long ago.

Ever regretted how you acted during a crucial conversation. Afterward, you think, “I can’t believe I did that! What was I thinking?!”

You weren’t. There wasn’t enough blood in your brain — you were in a dumbed-down state.

How to Fix Your Brain

We can blame biology for our struggle to successfully navigate difficult conversations, but we still have to have them.

So, what can we do to force the blood back into our brains? How can we become more rational thinkers so our conversations can be more effective?

First, we have to know what to look for. When conversations turn crucial, it happens at the intersection of three elements.

1. High-Stakes Issues

Something is at risk. This conversation matters to us in some way.

2. Opposing Opinions

We obviously won’t always agree with everyone. When we have opposing opinions about high-stakes issues, conversations become more difficult.

3. Strong Emotions

During these high-stakes situations where we disagree, strong emotions are usually close behind.

When we have strong emotions, opposing opinions, and high-stakes issues, we tend NOT to be our best.

So how can we change that? How do we get our bodies to cooperate so we can be our best selves for the conversations that matter most?

Focus on what you really want.

Here’s what typically happens:

We’re in the heart of a conversation, our emotions are soaring. We’re passionate and engaged, and we’re kind of hating the other person. Instead of reacting to the emotion of the moment, we must focus on the real goal of the conversation.

Real goals aren’t about saving face, winning an argument, or blaming someone. Real goals focus on learning the truth and getting results WHILE strengthening the relationship.

To have conversations that get results, we must resist the genetic impulses of fight or flight and instead focus on what we really want — not on how we feel.

What do you really want?

Information? Resolution? A change in behaviour?

Focus on your true goal and you’ll act more like yourself and less like the person facing a sabre-toothed tiger.

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