Some conversations are just plain difficult and stressful – like giving feedback, addressing a sensitive situation or discussing money. In the face of one of these, your brain tells you to RUN! It tells you that your relationship will end or that you’ll lose this person. Of course you don’t want that to happen. But you know you need to do something. Your stomach gets upset just thinking about it. Your mind goes round and round trying to figure how to approach this or how to avoid it completely.
This is really your survival-minded brain in action. It knows that you will more likely survive when you get along well with others, when people like you and when there is harmony and certainty. Giving someone bad news could create disharmony and threaten all of those survival needs.
It boils down to this: when we enter one of those difficult conversations, we are creating a situation where we will have to push through our innate impulses to run and hide.
But there are ways to make these conversations more doable – first by recognising that the brain is just simply afraid and often misguided. It is advising you that if you have this conversation, you’re going to be cast out and you’ll die in the wilderness alone! But it’s not true; that’s old news. A lot of times these conversations are good for us; chances are the conversation will actually strengthen the relationship and build trust. Still that doesn’t stop the brain and nervous system from creating sweaty palms.
Just understanding this underlying dynamic can ease the fear and allow us to proceed.
Take time to take a few deep breaths to calm your freaked out nervous system and recognise that the other person’s brain is probably going to them to run or hide as well. Perhaps you can help them be in a calm state as well.
Joel Garfinkle in his HBR article, How to Have Difficult Conversations When You Don’t Like Conflict has some great tips on how to make difficult conversations more approachable. Here are a few of his suggestions and why they work.
Expect a good outcome – tell yourself that this conversation is going to benefit you both (because it will). This can help release those fears of losing the other person.
Put your attention on what they’re saying instead of what you are saying; as you stop worrying about you and focus on them instead, it will break the cycle of fear.
Don’t put off these conversations – the longer you wait, the more your mind will ruminate and increase its fear state.
Check out the article for a more in depth discussion on these ideas and other tips for creating a great (albeit difficult) conversation.