This is your brain:
This is your brain during crucial conversations:
What are crucial conversations…. and why do they transform us into the worst versions of ourselves?
Crucial conversations are the discussions we need to have when stakes are high, emotions are strong, and opinions vary. These are the conversations that shape our careers and our relationships.
These are the conversations we often avoid — the issue we need to talk about with our boss, the question we need to raise with an intense colleague, the sensitive subject we should bring up with our loved one.
When we face these conversations, we often leave feeling unsettled, frustrated, and full of regret.
But there’s another way. We can engage in these conversations with the skills to hold healthy dialogue. These are the conversations that change us — for better or worse. So, how do we make them work to our advantage?
Can YOU help ME?
Meet Brian. Brian arrived early to a Crucial Conversations seminar. He set his materials down, looked up, saw me across the room, pointed at me, and asked, “Are YOU going to be able to help ME?”
Caught off-guard, I replied, “Umm… what are you dealing with?”
As we talked, I found out Brian had an employee who was incompetent — socially and technically.
Brian explained, “Socially, this person has so many problems with his teammates that they’re moving to other teams in the organization. It’s complicated by the fact that we have to interact with other teams in the organization. Other teams even work around us so they don’t have to interact with him.
“Then, there are his technical failures! We have to double and triple check his work to make sure we catch all the errors. Even then, we don’t catch every mistake. It’s hard to assign him any project that’s going to a client because we can’t catch every single problem he’ll create.”
In an effort to solve the problem, Brian had been documenting this employee’s performance. When he had enough information, he went to his supervisor and laid out his case to dismiss the employee.
The supervisor listened and seemed to be considering the facts. Then, he said, “I think we should give him a clean slate and let him start over.”
Brian knows this is the wrong decision. This employee creates endless problems. He should undoubtedly be fired. So, Brian musters up all his courage, looks his boss in the eye, and says…
As he walks away, how do you think Brian feels?
Dejected. Frustrated. Upset. He didn’t stand up to his boss, and now he has to keep trying to manage the problem. What got in Brian’s way of speaking up in disagreement?
The same thing that gets in the way of us all — adrenaline.
How Biology Derails Our Crucial Conversations
When we’re actually facing these high-stakes disagreements, something interesting happens — adrenaline starts to spill into our blood. What’s the purpose of adrenaline? Fight or flight.
Adrenaline is great if we’re facing a predator or another physical threat. But it’s not helpful when we’re facing an emotional or psychological threat.
Why does adrenaline derail us from having our high stakes conversations effectively? It inhibits our ability to think reasonably and rationally. As this hormone spills into our blood and prepares us for fight or flight, blood is reallocated to the large muscle groups.
And just to be clear, the brain is NOT a large muscle group.
The blood that would normally be sent to the high-reasoning parts of our brain is redirected to our muscles. This means the high-reasoning functions of our brain can shut-down. Consequently, we are physiologically less able to handle these high-stakes disagreements in the moment.
Ever walked away from a crucial conversation and thought, “I was such an idiot!” Clinically, you were! Your brain wasn’t fully functioning. You were less able to deal with the high-stakes situation.
Here’s the sad truth — for 23 hours a day, you’re reasonable and rational. You’re able to address concerns and solve problems. Most of the time, you’re on your A-game!
But when it matters most, we’re likely to do our worst. And no one is immune.
How Stories Change Our Crucial Conversations
Feel hopeless? Don’t. We’ve been learning from the people who deal with crucial conversations best. In their high-stakes situations, the people who are best at interpersonal relationships have mastered the art of storytelling.
Wait… storytelling is the solution?
Yes. Whether or not we realize it, we tell ourselves stories about what’s happening in the world around us. We make assumptions about others’ intentions to provide a rationale for what’s happening. But when the adrenaline kicks in, these stories aren’t very rational.
Here’s how to get yourself back on track. In the heat of the moment, in the middle of that crucial conversation, STOP.
Use your senses. See and hear what’s going on around you.
Then, choose to tell yourself a different story that gives you control of your emotions.
When we learn to control our stories, we create emotions that make us want to return to the healthy dialogue we need when the stakes are high. It’s our natural tendency to turn into the worst version of ourselves in these moments.
Fortunately, we can all choose a different path.