What is a crucial conversation? One description, the one used in this article, is that it is “a discussion between two or more people where stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong”.
It is this combination of high stakes, differing opinions and strong emotions which makes handling crucial conversations so difficult, because these are all factors likely to cause us to feel threatened, and which can therefore engage our ego:
- Another very visible trait of the ego is the desire to be right. The more opinions differ, the greater the challenge of ‘winning’ the argument will seem – another ego loss. As a result, just when the best strategy would be to listen more, we are much more likely to listen less, expending our effort instead on an internal dialogue where we try to figure out how to defeat the arguments of (what feel like) the “opposition”.
- As emotions get cranked up, key brain functions – those linked to our ability to think rationally, behave amenably and connect with others emotionally – start to shut down. Whenever this occurs, egoic behaviours become stronger and our desire to ‘win’ gets ramped up even further.
- The ego gains a great deal of significance from the things that we have. Therefore, when threatened with the perceived loss of things of importance to us, the ego will be quick to flare up.
This article offers four strategies to help you to improve your ability to handle crucial conversations through a combination of understanding and managing yourself better and learning to deal with others in a more productive manner.
Read the Article: Mastering Crucial Conversations
It is a neurological reality, that when the threat centre of our brain is activated it suppresses the ‘executive centre’, which is based in our pre-frontal cortex. This part is responsible for all of the higher capabilities that enable us to function in the modern world, such as our ability to focus attention, to recognise and manage our own emotions, to feel empathy for others, to be creative and to analyse problems and make rational decisions. Since all of these factors described in the bullets above promote fight/flight reactivity, literally narrowing our peripheral vision and triggering the dumb, automatic, part of our brain to take over, it is inevitable that our capacity for powerful dialogue becomes limited just when we need it the most.
To address this problem, one of the easiest things we can do to is to focus on our very natural tendency to plan what to say next while others are still talking. This kind of internal focus will tend to put us in opposition to others, producing a negative impact on them because it threatens their own desire to be right. Even the word “oppose” implicitly introduces the sense that the other person wants to challenge us or to win over us. A simple technique, therefore, which can help in reducing feelings of opposition is to change the focus of your listening:
Instead of listening with the intention of producing a killer reply, focus on listening to understand.
By changing our own intention in this way, we can reduce the feeling of conflict that is at the heart of many breakdowns. The more we focus on understanding how other people’s ideas might add to the collective awareness of the situation, the more they are likely to feel valued and respected. This in turn helps to create feelings of safety for them, turning what was a vicious cycle into a virtuous and supportive one.