I had a very difficult conversation today – one that I had been avoiding for a long time.
Because it required me to communicate unpleasant information to someone I care about.
And I didn’t know how to courageously communicate without offending them or making the situation worse, so I remained silent.
But my silence did not make the problem didn’t disappear.
On the contrary, it silently ate away at me, constantly looping in the background of my mind, consuming a considerable amount of my mental and emotional bandwidth.
I would think about it during yoga, before I went to sleep, even as I was enjoying time with friends and family.
In other words, by avoiding this courageous conversation, I was instead contributing to low level chronic stress.
Relationships and Emotional Stress
The conversations that we avoid – either because it is characterized by either bad news or inflicts discomfort on either one or both parties – are often causes of hidden anxiety and stress.
The aftermath of such conversation could include embarrassment, confusion, fear or anger, so you might prefer to avoid them. Dodging, appeasing and ignoring such conversations can contribute to greater stress and anxiety and usually only worsens a problem or a relationship.
Simply having a courageous conversation could be greatly decrease or eliminate that stress. The conversation may be uncomfortable but keep in mind that there is a good chance the discomfort of having the talk will be less stressful than the longer term discomfort you may feel if you don’t have a conversation at all. Avoiding communication may lead to inaccurate assumptions being made or stories being created.
It takes courage to talk through conflicts and disagreements. If something is bothering you or needs to be addressed, be brave enough to share directly with the person involved, coming from a place of compassion and curiosity.
A lack of communication can cause more stress and frustration, which leads to more disagreements and disconnection.
How to Engage in Courageous Conversations
My formula for courageous conversations begins with activating my parasympathetic nervous system which allows me to feel safe.
When we do not feel safe, our stress response kicks in which compromises your ability to access our higher cognitive function. When the nervous system responds as if there is a threat, your brain is focused on surviving and not on problem solving, self-awareness and connecting to others.
Research “found significant negative correlations between stress and the components of emotional intelligence, such as emotional awareness and expression, emotional thinking, and emotional regulation. High levels of anger, which is a component of stress, were significantly related to poor emotional regulation.”
Applying Parasympathetic™ on the vagus nerve (behind the earlobe on the mastoid bone) activates your parasympathetic nervous system and allows you to feel relaxed and safe which helps to activate chemical and hormonal reactions which allow you to connect, empathize and bond with others. It also enables you to read other people’s facial expressions and assess whether they are safe to approach or whether they should be avoided – which help improve a positive outcome with any conversation.
Activating your parasympathetic nervous system enhances your perception of being understood, seen, heard, and felt, which in turn enhances your mental and emotional capacity. When you feel safe with others, your social engagement system is activated, enhancing your ability to connect and help others feel safe.
How you use your voice, especially the prosody, or tone of voice, communicates safety or danger to others and improves the outcome of communication. When you make people feel safe in sharing their views it can help support a meaningful conversation.
As my friend Eva Detko notes in her new book, Sovereign Health Solution “Chronic stress ultimately also changes the neurochemicals in the brain, which modulate cognition and mood, including serotonin. Stress can also interfere with our balance between rational thinking and emotions.”
She elaborates that “one of the signs that somebody’s vagus nerve function is poor is their disproportionate reactions to everyday stresses and situations. People whose ventral vagus nerve does not function well have a skewed perception of the world and people around them. They misinterpret what other people are trying to communicate and they tend to assume the worst. They wind themselves up very easily, tend to be very reactive, and jump to conclusions, which will have a negative impact on their self-worth and their relationships. Their brains say: danger is everywhere. On the other hand, a healthy ventral vagus nerve allows us to tap into our feelings that warn us of safety versus danger, to connect to ourselves and the world, and to empathize and bond with others, which supports safety. It also enables us to read other people’s facial expressions and assess whether they are safe to approach or whether they should be avoided.”
Strategies for Courageous Conversations
Start with having compassion for yourself, and then extend that to those around you. If you can assume good intention, and try to come from a place of curiosity as opposed to criticism, you are more likely to have a positive outcome.
For both personal and business conflicts, try to frame the conversation by stating the facts, the impact and the desired outcome. For example, you might phrase the conversation by stating:
“When you (facts only), I feel (one emotion only, not deductions such as disrespected, but angry, confused, afraid). I wonder what is going on for you.”
Try to remain open minded and curious and do not hesitate to ask for additional information.
Other Tips for Courageous Conversations
Research on conflict resolution and communication suggests that courageous conversations play out better when you can:
Identify your desired outcome. When two parties disagree, the objective is often to prevail in the discussion. In the heat of an argument, you may say whatever they can to disprove the opinion of the other, and it is natural to become overprotective of our egos. Rather, approach such conversations with an intention to understand and learn from the other party. The key to a civil discussion is ensuring the emotional and psychological safety of both sides, which is best supported in the parasympathetic state.
Assume Responsibility for your Role in the Conflict. Acknowledging your part of the problem as this goes a long way in helping the other party accept challenging messages without necessarily being provoked.
Focus on what you can control. Controlling tendencies can create a sense of stability. However, trying to control everything (especially that which is not yours to control) is not only impossible and overwhelming, but it can cause a lot of friction between you and others. It is more helpful to instead get clear on what you can control, and letting go of what you cannot. You have control over:
- The thoughts you think
- The beliefs you hold
- The words you say
- The conversations you have
- The actions you take
- The energy and attitude you bring to each situation
- The way you respond to things out of your control
Choose your words carefully. Phrases that indicate a willingness to listen and understand the opinion of the other party will foster a healthy conversation instead of hostile or emotionally charged. Rather than saying, ‘I disagree,’ use, ‘I have a different perspective.’ Try to avoid responding with a contradictory statement. For example, instead of saying “I understand how you feel but…” which disconnects the conversation, say instead, ‘I understand how you feel and I have a different perspective,’ to respectfully continue. Try to use words to let them know I understand, like, “I hear you” or “Tell me more and help me understand where you are coming from.”
Practice active listening. Try to actively listening to the other person’s perspective and express curiosity in a non-judgmental manner, summarizing their response and showing respect for their opinion. Active listening is critical, as it demands the listener pay attention to both the emotions and content tied to the conversation, particularly in a time where any conversation has the potential to become highly emotional.
Take a break. When a conversation gets particularly heated, the best thing to do is take a deep breath. This pause can give both parties a chance to understand what has just been shared and prevents you both from saying something you might later regret.
Practice self-awareness. Knowing how you react in a stressful situation can help you master stressful situations. By knowing your areas of weakness, you can anticipate your vulnerability and improve on the responses. You might even practice difficult conversations in advance to fine-tune your phrasing and tone. And the best way to keep from being thrown off balance by difficult conversations that crop up unexpectedly is to develop a few phrases that you can pull out on the spot. Prepared conversational tactics can help you avoid situations that trigger you to behave badly.
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