When we get into difficult conversations, one of us is suddenly uncomfortable. In fact, we feel threatened. To begin to change difficult conversations into threshold conversations, recognize and respond differently to the freaking out that ensues.
In toddlers, we expect pouting and silence, anger, tantrums. In grown ups, the toddler’s emotions still seize us. But they (usually) show up differently. You can probably recall when you were surprised by a difficult conversation. The jolt of adrenaline you felt proves that you were a little freaked out.
Tip 2: Accept that grown-ups freak out, too
This threat grabs us viscerally. You already know that’s the fight or flight response, courtesy the amygdala. In the 21st century, the real question isn’t, “What might kill me?” Instead we need to know, “What does this mean to me?” It’s the identity conversation (Difficult Conversations, Stone, Patton, Heen) that’s an unspoken part of every difficult conversation. “We conduct an internal debate,” the authors write, “over whether this means we are competent or incompetent, a good person or bad, worthy of love or unlovable. What impact might it have on our self-image and self-esteem, our future and our well being.” The sense of threat is subtler than the risk to life. It’s a risk to my life as I understand it, which is the oxygen I breathe. The risk is real. We are about to lose something.
We’re about to lose our sense of ourselves. Difficult conversations jump us in the alley and rough us up. So, you can expect a reaction. Fortunately, research is emerging to can help us understand the subtleties of the threat we experience (and subject others to). David Rock has identified five threats to our self understanding that trigger threat response or brain activity that mimics physical pain.
In future posts, I’ll suggest some tactics to help minimize the reactions when you threaten these five conceptions of self in others, and ways to step back from the grip of emotion yourself.