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Lesson 29: The Landscape of Difficult Conversations

In the book Difficult Conversations, How to Discuss What Matters Most (Stone, Douglas), the authors describe difficult conversations as being really three conversations:

The What Happened Conversation

  1. What happened or didn’t happened and who should have done what, whose right and who is to blame.
  2. The Feelings conversation that raises questions about whether my feelings are valid or appropriate, and should I acknowledge or express them; and the third, and often most sensitive conversation…
  3. The Identity Conversation is the conversation we have with ourselves about what this means about us, are we competent, a good person, or worthy of love. What impact might it have on our self-image and self-esteem, our future and our well-being?

Our answers to these questions determine in large part whether we feel “balanced” during the conversation, or whether we feel off-center and anxious. This feeling balanced or anxious have everything to do with what happens in our reptilian brain. Am I triggered or can I respond with compassion or clarity about how to move forward from here?

We will never find the answers to all these questions. What we can change is the way we respond to each of these challenges. Typically, instead of exploring what information the other person might have that we don’t, we assume we know all we need to know to understand and explain things. Instead of working to manage our feelings constructively, we either try to hide them or let loose in ways that we later regret. Instead of exploring the identity issues that may be deeply at stake for us (or them), we proceed with the conversation as if it says nothing about us – and never come to grips with what is at the heart of our anxiety.

Recognizing that there is an identity issue that you have, that was just brought into question by another person who engaged with you in a way that triggered at least one or more of these conversations is a good start. This is at the root of being able to respond differently to what you would identify as conflict described as someone pushing your hot buttons. And we usually attribute motive – the are intentionally trying to push our hot buttons. And when we look deeper, we may find that they are just trying to deal with their own internal conversations.

In looking at these difficult conversations from each side, we could recognize that there is no absolute “truth” in the What Happened question. There are perceptions, with each participant in this conversation just trying to make sense of the world around them. We also assume intentions of the other and make all kinds of assumptions about motivates that not even the other may be clear about; and we also try to place blame on who is at fault instead of understanding how each contributed to where we find ourselves right now. In the Feels Conversation understanding feelings, talking about feelings, managing feelings – these are among the greatest challenges of being human. There is nothing that will make dealing with feelings easy and risk-free. Most of us, however, can do a better job in the Feelings Conversation than we are now. It may not seem like it but talking about feelings is a skill that can be learned. Identity Conversation is about what I am saying to

myself about me and it offers us significant leverage in managing our anxiety and improving our skills in the other two conversations because we can change the story I tell myself about me.

Here are some of the automatic responses you might have when any of these hot buttons get pushed:

  1. Avoiding Conflict Altogether – Silent-Leave
  2. Being Defensive
  3. Overgeneralizing (you always/never)
  4. Being Right
  5. “Psychoanalyzing” / Mind-Reading
  6. Forgetting to Listen
  7. Playing the Blame Game
  8. Trying to “Win” The Argument
  9. Making Character Attacks
  10. Stonewalling

As you probably notice, this is still the reptilian brain, not the Thinking – Creative Problem-Solving Brain at work. The Creative, Problem-Solving Brain gets turned off when the Reptilian Brain is in charge and that creates a challenging environment for rational responses.

  • Reptilian Brain is first to respond
    • Hot buttons keep the conflict alive
    • Fear drives the knee-jerk reactions
    • Neither party is concerned about the other point of view
    • The Wall of Resistance blocks Communication

When the other person experiences your reaction to your hot button being pushed, the reaction is really all about you and your hot button. But our emotional brain begins to make meaning and assign intent to the reaction they are experiences, and they may well see it as a threat to them. And so they react with a knee-jerk reaction which causes you to have a knee-jerk reaction and now we have the dance of the hot buttons at play.

How can you stop yourself from reacting to the triggers or hot button?

How much practice will it take to adopt on of the other constructive responses to conflict?

Effective and Ineffective Actions

Cooling Strategy – Here are some ways to for you to implement a Cooling Strategy – a productive way of managing yourself to prevent the emotional reaction or the amygdala hijack when your Hot Button is pushed. For example:

  • Look beyond what they are saying that is offensive and see if there is any truth in anything they are saying.
  • Be curious about why they may be acting the way they are acting.
  • Invite discussion about what is going on and invite solutions.
  • Value their knowledge or expertise and engage them with open ended questions.
  • Don’t be defensive or accusatory. You may want to leave the situation to have a little distance

before responding. And say “I’ll get back to you on that!”

  • Present alternative points of view tactfully.
  • Take small steps towards earning that person’s trust.
  • Provide choices or offer to do some research and come up with come alternatives for decision making.
  • Be clear about deadlines for decision making.
  • Walk with them down the path to help them understand the flaws in their plan or perspective.
  • Be prepared to be wrong.
  • Build a broader network of people with whom you can be appreciative and receive the same.
  • Set early and frequent goals to help someone get on the right track.
  • Express tactfully the impact the other has on you and express which values or sense of justice you felt were violated.
  • Cool down emotionally by taking a deep breath, taking a break, getting hydrated so you can think clearly enough to use these strategies.

 ©Certified Divorce Coach Program-Divorce Coaching Inc. 

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