We need to talk! When is the last time you heard those words from a spouse, a partner, a colleague, or someone you absolutely cannot stand? If you’re like most people, the mere thought of hearing, “we need to talk!” makes your face flush, your blood pressure rise, your limbs tingle, and your mind go completely blank. Polite small-talk can be uncomfortable at best, but important conversations (where emotions are hot and a lot is at stake) are likely to not just make you uncomfortable, but to render you almost entirely, intellectually, useless.
Unfortunately, this is a common human reaction triggered by the oldest and most primitive part of our brain. When confronting any perceived threat, our reptilian brain (brainstem, cerebellum, hippocampus, amygdala and hypothalamus) is the first to respond, triggering the fight or flight response which – though useful for survival – is less handy when it comes to engaging in rational thought. This reptilian response causes our heart rate to increase, our breathing to become rapid, and our body temperature to rise, and, urges us to attack or acquiesce, bite or block, or unleash or unfriend – all before our higher brain (cerebral cortex) has a chance to catch up to what is happening.
So, what are you to do when evolution and physiology seem to have sabotaged you against something as fundamental to civilization as communication? How can you override (or at least marginally disrupt) this primal response long enough to engage in critical thought?
Here are 5 tips you can use when faced with, “we need to talk”, which can improve both the process – and the outcome – of the most gut-wrenching conversations.
1 – Count 10 full, deep breaths
Breathing has some amazing effects on our physiology. Full, deep breaths signal the brain to release hormones that counteract the adrenaline released by our bodies when we are under stress. This leads to a gradual calming effect which reduces the urge to fight or flee, and gears us up for more advanced cognitive and emotional responses. Counting breaths also stimulates higher brain functions (logic, motivation, planning, and language) and encourages systemic thinking, which can help us come up with more imaginative solutions to complex problems. Counting 10 breaths also has a built in practical benefit. The time it takes to count 10 deep breaths (about one minute) provides enough space to begin actively listening and collecting data, while also demonstrating to the other person that you are listening and engaged.
2 – Bite your tongue…literally
It’s natural to react to gut-wrenching conversations by blurting out reflexive counter-arguments (fight), or shutting down (flight). We’ve all been cut-off or shut-out in arguments, and know firsthand how much more confusing and tense it can make the situation. As silly as it may sound, the action and slight discomfort of physically biting your tongue is quite useful in preventing theses knee-jerk responses, by giving you a subtle, tactile reminder to prohibit speech and remain alert – both of which help foster one of the most important (but seldom used) techniques of effective communication, attentive silence.
3 – Use Attentive Silence
Attentive silence (silence accompanied by active mirroring of facial expressions, direct eye contact, nodding and forward posture) is perhaps the most valuable tool of interpersonal communication. On a practical level, attentive silence shows the person speaking that you are paying attention to what they are saying with no distractions, and creating a strong impression of engagement and interest. On a physiological level, active listening focuses your thinking, allows information to efficiently transverse across all areas of our higher brain, then route back to the long-term memory centers located (perhaps surprisingly) in our primitive, reptilian brain. This cycle plays a key role in establishing and developing effective communication by introducing a stimulation – assimilation – analyzation pattern which, with repetition, reinforces long-term (positive and negative) memories. When we experience more positive and rewarding outcomes, newer, good memories eventually prevail over older, bad memories, which, with repetition, can become fixed. Practicing attentive silence helps us to eventually associate conversation with positive feelings and emotions, and trains our minds to more quickly access higher brain function in future situations.
4 – Focus on the issue, not the individual
It can be very difficult to stay objective during a difficult conversation and avoid making it personal. In tough conversations, where there’s a lot on the line and the positions widely differ, your urge to “take them down a notch” by making insults, questioning their character, or dismissing them as “crazy” can be extremely hard to resist. As difficult as it may be to refrain from making it personal, it’s important to remember that most of our interactions are with reasonable, intelligent people, who (like us) seek acceptance, connection and understanding. Listening carefully for your counterpart’s underlying concerns, rather than verbally or mentally “tearing them apart”, keeps your mind focused on the issue at hand rather than the individual you’re speaking with. This eliminates cognitive and emotional distractions, reduces confusion and prevents the conversation from heading off on unproductive tangents.
5 – Say “thank you”
Once you’ve allowed the other party to speak their mind, and have taken a reasonable amount of time to calmly accumulate, assimilate and actuate as much information as possible, thank them for taking the time to bring the matter to your attention. I know…this can be a very tough ask depending on the situation and the person. If a sincere “thank you” is hard to muster, a tactical “thank you” (aiming at an end beyond the immediate action) will suffice. The unexpected olive branch that a thank you extends not only demonstrates that you have been paying attention, but conveys that you validate the other’s concerns and welcome the opportunity to work with them to clear the air. “Thank you” diffuses any lingering tension, inviting constructive exchange and cooperation.