No one enjoys difficult conversations. They’re uncomfortable and can leave us with lingering feelings of stress and perhaps regret. If you’re like me, you dream of a world where every conversation goes smoothly. Wouldn’t that make life simpler?
But this ideal situation, in which there is no conflict, doesn’t exist. Things go wrong, and people don’t always see things the same way. So how can we, as leaders, avoid overpowering the situation and make hard conversations less difficult? First, we have to understand why we crave control so much.
We Are Wired to Survive
Attempting to control a difficult conversation is a natural response to a threat. We are wired to survive, and when we perceive a threat, even during a conversation, we get tunnel vision and start to believe that our way is the only way. There’s a sense of urgency at times like this, and everything speeds up. What happens to your speech when you’re in the throes of a difficult conversation? Does it speed up or slow down?
When we orient ourselves to threat, we’re more apt to say or do something we will later regret. This is because, in a threatening situation, the part of our brain called the amygdala kicks into high gear. The amygdala tells us to save ourselves at whatever cost, and we lose the ability to distinguish between a real threat and a false one.
This can make difficult conversations more difficult and very unproductive. If you’re uncomfortable, you can bet the other person is too. When discomfort stands between you and the other person, you can guarantee no one has ears to hear. When the amygdala takes over, no human is capable of effective problem solving, even the best and most seasoned leader.
We don’t have to be prisoners to the amygdala. We can avoid its fight-flight-freeze response by using Somatic Awareness to listen and respond appropriately to the person in front of us or on the telephone, despite the difficulty of the conversation.
When we use Somatic Awareness, we decide to listen to our bodies and the messages it is sending us. For example, when a conversation heats up, do you feel a pit in your stomach? Does the hair on the back of your neck stand up? Do your nostrils flare? These sensations are cues that you are orienting to threat. This is your moment of choice. Succumb to a perceived threat or channel your inner scientist and get curious. Is the situation unsafe or just uncomfortable?
If you get curious and listen, your prefrontal cortex will help you think clearly, solve problems, and get creative. When the prefrontal cortex is in the driver’s seat, we’re calm and oriented to curiosity. This means that any difficult conversation becomes less of a threat and more of a manageable situation.
The more you practice listening to the body’s language, the fewer hard conversations you will have and the more confidence you will feel.