“Difficult conversations do not just involve feelings; they are, at their very core, about feelings.” – Douglas Stone, Sheila Heen, and Bruce Patton.
In our work with clients on navigating difficult conversations, one of the things that we often hear is, ‘I want to be more confident when I have these difficult conversations.’
And when we ask them, “What does confidence look like to you?” What we discover is they mean they don’t want to be uncomfortable.
The truth of the matter is: there are going to be times when you’re going to be uncomfortable. There will be times when your emotions are high or all over the place. There will be times when your hands are shaking, and you don’t even know why. There will be other times we very much do.
So, if our goal is, “I want to avoid feeling discomfort in conversation,” you will always feel like a failure. That feeling of loss means you likely continue to avoid some conversations instead of realizing that if your relationship with another person matters, there will be a risk. I want to share how you can work through strategies of not being paralyzed by that discomfort but being present to stand with it and still function effectively.
How to Navigate Difficult Conversations
1) Tap Into Your Origin Story of Conflict
Take a moment and reflect on the following:
- What have you learned about tough conversations throughout your life?
- What was the story people in your life told you about work? About leadership? About conflict?
- What do you think about those things now?
Your origin with conflict greatly informs what happens when that tiny part of our brain, the amygdala, is triggered.
The amygdala sits at the base of your brain and is considered part of what scientists call our primitive brain. The amygdala plays a significant role in instantaneous shifts from calm to fearful. The amygdala’s job is to save your life. If you cross the street and a car comes at you, your amygdala sparks a chain of reactions to get you to move the hell out of the way. However, the amygdala isn’t just scanning the environment for physical threats; it also responds to emotional threats and harm to our ego, like being excluded from a group or disrespected.
Unfortunately, our survival mechanisms have yet to catch up with the increase in physical safety that most of us are lucky enough to experience. Our brains and bodies still react to threats with the same intensity as our ancestors experienced when they had to run from a bear or a saber-toothed tiger. Therefore, we feel like we’re being chased by a bear when our boss sends a “We need to talk” email. The jolt we get from our body responds to the possibility of a threat. Your amygdala isn’t interested in figuring out the difference between your boss and a bear.
Since your amygdala’s job is to spur you toward instant, life-saving action, your first thoughts about that email from your boss will not be rational. Stirred-up feelings trigger cascading reactions—your imagination rockets to ideas of being fired. Your heart is racing, and your palms are sweaty. You feel fidgety and sick to your stomach. You have the sense these feelings are trying to tell you something important, even though all you know for sure is that your amygdala was triggered by an email, and now you feel like you need to protect yourself, no matter what.
So the reality of difficult conversations is that this reaction from the amygdala is a necessary starting point to explore solutions with curiosity.
2) Understand Your Stress Response Pattern
Following your amygdala being triggered, you will likely fall into a familiar pattern of feelings and behaviors that align with your default stress response. These are called Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn, and Flock.
The fight-stress response inspires aggressive or defensive action. Healthy fight behaviors include being assertive, setting boundaries, and protecting yourself or others when necessary. Unhealthy fight behaviors include active or passive aggression, blaming, or controlling. When you’re in a fight response, you might notice your voice is raised and speaking more quickly than usual.
The flight stress response inspires a desire to escape—and not always in a physical sense. If someone brings up a tense topic in a meeting and everyone is suddenly interested in their notes, that’s a flight response. Healthy flight behaviors include engaging in busy work or hobbies and removing yourself from toxic situations. Unhealthy flight behaviors include catering to your perfectionist tendencies, over-worrying, or trying to escape problems that need resolution. When you’re in a flight response, you might notice yourself changing the subject under challenging conversations or distracting yourself from avoiding interaction.
The freeze-stress response inspires us to shut down, plain and simple. Healthy freeze behaviors include recognizing when a struggle isn’t productive and being patient enough to take proper action later rather than instantaneously when emotions may be high. Unhealthy freeze behaviors include not standing up for others or mental paralysis. When you’re in freeze response, you may notice an uptick in your absences or an overall decrease in the frequency or quality of your interactions with others.
The fawn stress response compels us to do whatever we can to appease others to remove their stress response. This comes from a place of protection, not altruism, and there’s the similarity between being helpful/keeping the peace and fawning. The difference lies in the motivation: Am I helping you to be beneficial? Or am I helping you because I’m stressed not doing it will trigger you? Healthy fawn behaviors include listening, compromising, and helping. Unhealthy fawn responses involve giving up your own needs and rights, harboring resentment for constantly giving in, and having a low sense of self. When you’re in a fawn response, you might notice a high degree of agreeableness and fear of triggering adverse reactions in others.
The flock stress response is when we seek out others to help us make meaning of the stressful event—that is, to understand how we should act or confirm our response. Flocking is often behind the “meetings after the meetings” or the “side eye” behaviors that arise when a challenge or barrier appears in meetings, for example. Healthy flock responses include reaching out to others to help us make sense of situations or to help us navigate how to respond appropriately. Unhealthy flock responses can happen when we only seek out those who agree with our point of view or talk to everyone but the person we should be talking to. While this is the last one on this list, this is often the first place we start when experiencing a stress response.
3) Use the Power of Visualization to Hold Steady
Leadership is difficult. It has many difficult moments and requires many difficult conversations. And even when emotions are high, it’s essential to learn to hold steady so you can communicate what is needed to move forward.
You may have a different visual you can tap into now, and I encourage you to spend some time visualizing what holding steady now could look like. Hold steady as if you’re in a rocking boat and you’re trying to hold on to keep yourself standing. Or view it as making sure your words and message glide from your mouth.
How to Hold Steady During Difficult Conversations
Anchor to a Bigger Purpose
I like to think of this as mentally anchoring, and you can physically anchor, so one example of mental anchoring is what is more significant than this moment. What is my commitment that is bigger than this moment? Am I committed to showing up with honesty and integrity even when it’s hard? You can think of physically anchoring to the seat you’re in; physically anchoring yourself.
We repeatedly see that avoidance comes from this build-up, from this expectation that it will be one conversation executed perfectly and tied up with a bow at the end. And that isn’t ever going to be the case. Allow yourself to plan for more than one conversation. You might not get the resolution you want this time, but you might get a conversation going.
Plan Recovery Proactively
It takes your body 24 hours to fully metabolize the stress hormones your amygdala kicks off. The more you can plan time for those recovery activities that can help you generate oxytocin after a difficult conversation, the better. Exercise, laughing with friends, maybe it’s a comforting meal or favorite show. Find what will help you recover and plan for it ahead of time. Knowing that recovery awaits can help you hold steadier now.
What strategies do you have to hold steady? Share them below or on social media – tag me @sarahnollwilson everywhere!
Sarah Noll Wilson is on a mission to help leaders build and rebuild teams. She aims to empower leaders to understand and honor the beautiful complexity of the humans they serve. Through her work as an Executive Coach, an in-demand Keynote Speaker, Researcher, Contributor to Harvard Business Review, and Bestselling Author of “Don’t Feed the Elephants”, Sarah helps leaders close the gap between what they intend to do and the actual impact they make. She hosts the podcast “Conversations on Conversations”, is certified in Co-Active Coaching and Conversational Intelligence, and is a frequent guest lecturer at universities. In addition to her work with organizations, Sarah is a passionate advocate for mental health.
What a great guide to moving through difficult conversations! Thank you for sharing your insight and wisdom and guiding us to be our best! I love the way you pull things together in a simple-to-understand and easy-to-apply ways!
Thanks for sharing that Vicki! We always try to find ways to make things simple and practical when what we are navigating is complex. Knowing the tools is always so much harder than using the tools.