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Conversations
conversations
Written by David Lee

how to have honest, authentic, productive ones

Family members can be the most challenging people in our lives to have constructive conversations with. Whether it’s having conversations that heal the past, bringing up issues rather than giving the silent treatment, or simply trying to connect in new and healthy ways, most of us have plenty of opportunity with family members to practice developing healthier ways of communicating.

In this article, we’ll explore guiding principles and practices that help foster honest, authentic, productive conversations, whether with our family or other important people in our lives.

Get curious, not furious

I remember hearing someone say years ago: “People who are emotionally intelligent, when they deal with difficult people, they get curious, not furious.”

When we’re in a state of curiosity, it’s impossible to be stuck in anger and outrage. They’re incompatible emotional and mental states. I think part of it is because by definition curiosity is an open-minded, exploratory state while anger and outrage are close-minded, defend-our-position state.

Just recently, I was listening to the podcast Translating ADHD (which is awesome by the way) and Cam Gott, one of the co-founders, made a comment I thought was brilliant: “curiosity lives outside the limbic system.”

The limbic system is what neuroscientist consider the “emotional brain”—where emotions are processed and created—while curiosity is primarily an intellectual function.

So…when someone gets under your skin and you start to get upset and tell yourself stories about why they did what they did and how horrible they are, practice being curious.

Here’s my version of a really great question from the team that wrote Crucial Conversations I recommend you experiment with:

“What would cause any normal, decent person—you know…people like me and those people I like—to act the way they did?”

Try it and notice the different type of explanation, or story, you come up with compared to how you feel and your thought process if you simply continue your internal rant about how horrible they are and the evil motivations behind their actions.

Don’t assume your explanation for why you did that thing is true

If you google “Interpreter Michael Gazzaniga,” you’ll discover this amazing function in the prefrontal cortex of the brain that acts sort of like a personal “spin machine” PR firm and “explanation generator.”

You’ve witnessed your Interpreter in action if you’ve ever noticed yourself “explaining” to someone why you did something and thought “Where is this coming from? This is BS!”

I’m not talking about willfully lying. I’m talking about this weird commentary that seems like it’s coming from someone else. In some ways, it is.

The Interpreter’s job is to help us make sense out of our behavior, so we feel a sense of control and not like we’re merely a simmering cauldron of conflicting motivations and desires. Since so much of our behavior is unconsciously driven (i.e. we don’t know what made us do or say something), many of our “explanations” for our behavior are fiction.

When you read the origin of Dr. Gazzaniga’s finding, you can never listen to your or other people’s “explanations” for their behaviors the same way.

Why is this important to know?

Because we often “explain” to ourselves and others why we did something or why we are feeling a certain way about the other person’s behavior, and then go on to create a whole story to support our explanation.

As we build upon our story, we strengthen our reaction and position around it, often to our detriment and the others.

So when someone asks “Why are you so upset?” and you’re not sure, don’t jump at the first thought that comes to mind and then double down on the truth of it.

It’s OK to say “I’m really hurt and I don’t know why” or “I’m not sure why I said that” and then ask for some time to reflect, or if you’re ready to talk, engage in an exploratory dialogue around it

Ask “Would I be OK with [the name of someone you hold in high regard] observing how I am treating this person?”

If you wouldn’t act that way around that person you respect, that’s a pretty good clue that you aren’t bringing your Best Self to the interaction.

You can choose to shift gears and NOT act that way, and instead, call forth a more mature, honorable way of talking to the other person.

This is especially helpful for single parents at the end of their rope with their children, who find themselves speaking harshly or taking out their bad mood on
their children.

You don’t have to act out your defensiveness, you can simply name it

I learned this one from my most “evolved” friend. The few times she got defensive in our conversations, she would simply say “I’m feeling defensive” in a neutral tone of voice. When she would do this, I would notice how open I was to hearing why she was feeling defensive. I couldn’t help but notice how different my response was compared to when someone gets defensive and starts responding in a harsh, antagonistic tone of voice.

There’s interesting brain scan research showing how simply naming our feelings literally cools down the amygdala, a tiny almond-shaped part of the brain that plays a major role in our fear response and reactivity.

By simply stating “I’m feeling defensive” you’re engaging in emotional self-regulation; you’re literally helping yourself keep a cool head.

Furthermore, by stating this in a neutral tone of voice, you avoid the emotional triggering that a harsh, attacking tone of voice can cause. This is because the part of the brain that processes voice tone (the limbic system) is, as mentioned earlier, the same part that processes and helps create emotions.

That’s why the old saying “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it” has lived on. (BTW…it’s BOTH what we say and how we say it, but that old maxim is still a good reminder to not indulge in a harsh voice tone to express our displeasure).

Go First

I heard this in an interview with Gabrielle Reece, former Olympic volleyball player and wife of surf legend Laird Hamilton. When asked what advice she would give her 20 year old self, she said “Go first.” Lead by example. Be the first to apologize. Be the first to acknowledge the other person’s valid points. Be the first to break the silence and invite the other person into a dialogue about the conversation that went wrong or the elephant in the living room.

By choosing to go first and by modeling bringing your Best Self to challenging conversations you become a role model for others, showing—through your actions—that it’s possible to talk through difficult issues in a courageous, compassionate, and considerate way.

David Lee

David Lee

David Lee is a career coach with Heart at Work Associates and a workplace relationship consultant. He is the author of the “Dealing with a Difficult Co-Worker: The Courageous Conversations at Work Series.”