Why do we avoid difficult conversations? At some point, many of us have had to deliver the dreaded line, “We need to talk.”  And this often precedes an argument rather than any conversation.

How do you disentangle difficult conversations? Some conversations are so difficult that we’ll do anything to avoid them. This is possibly because:

  1. We are stuck between what we feel and knowing what we really shouldn’t say.
  2. We are distracted by our internal thoughts and uncertain about what to share.
  3. There’s so much going on in the relationship with the other person, it’s confusing.

If you didn’t care on some level about your relationship with the other person, you wouldn’t struggle with this in the first place. But avoiding the conversation allows things to build up to the boiling point. When we finally have no choice but to confront the issue, we end up damaging the relationship with the other person.

Holly Weeks, author of an article in Harvard Business Review, “Failure to Communicate,” describes a familiar “difficult conversation” scenario:

“Your stomach’s churning; you’re hyperventilating – you’re in a badly deteriorating conversation at work. Such exchanges, which run the gamut from firing subordinates to parrying verbal attacks from colleagues, are so loaded with anger, confusion, and fear that most people handle them poorly: they avoid them, clamp down, or give in. But dodging issues, appeasing difficult people, and mishandling tough encounters all carry a high price for managers and companies – in the form of damaged relationships, ruined careers, and intensified problems.”

Emotional Hijacking Inside the Brain

Whenever emotions are involved, conversations get tricky. Emotions are generated in the part of the brain called the amygdala – a more primitive part of the brain. When stimulated, it calls the body into fight or flight mode. Humans are genetically hard-wired to react to emotional triggers by either fighting, freezing, or fleeing – actions which, during cavemen times, had huge survival benefits.

Are we much different now than our ancestors? Genetically, no. We still have impulses to blast someone or clam up and avoid them altogether. We are not actually hard-wired to sit down and talk it over with someone when there’s a problem.

In my work as a coach, I hear about these problems all the time. People experience an emotional hijacking in the brain. What starts out to be a conversation breaks down and emotions derail the best of intentions.

In my next post, I’ll share some tips for how to retrain your brain to get conversations back on track and gain beneficial results for both parties.

In the meantime, what happens to you when a difficult conversation goes awry? As always, I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached here or on LinkedIn.

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