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The Brain Alchemist

Why do we avoid conflicts and difficult conversations?

by Anastasia on May 21, 2010

David Weinberger wrote, “Business is a conversation because the defining work of business is conversation – literally.”  Conversations are as natural to us as air or water.  We engage in them every day without giving it much thought.  But when the air becomes polluted or the water is scarce, we, all of a sudden, recognize how much of the quality of our life depends on these items we often take for granted.

The same is true for conversations.  When communication becomes difficult, the relationships are strained. When the stakes are high, it can take a harsh toll on our energy, attitude and spirit.  What important conversations are you avoiding?  What internal and external conflicts brew in awkward silence until they become too bitter and toxic to swallow?

Important conversations help us influence others and facilitate change.  To have them, we must be comfortable around opposing ideas, different perspectives, tensions, conflicts, and contradictions.  But tell that to your brain, and you won’t like the answer.  Many of us are conflict-avoiders.  What is it about the conflict that scares the brain?

There are good evolutionary reasons to be cautious around conflicts.  The bad consequences of conflicts include the loss of lives, destruction, damaged relationships, uncertainty, forced changes, isolation, loss of face, tarnished reputation.  Since the function of our brain is to keep us away from harm and comfortable where we are, it is not surprising that our brain freaks out at the mere suggestion of a conflict.

While our rational mind accepts the fact that productive disagreements are necessary and desirable, that they contain the seeds of creativity and transformation, our emotional brain sends out stress signals and floods the body with cortisol, triggering the fight-or-flight response.  This situation is due, in part, to the fact that our brain is sensitive to hierarchy and status and is pained by social rejection.

To the brain, improving social standing is like winning a lottery. Studies show that both money and social values are processed in the same brain region, the striatum.  In other words, our good reputation is a reward to the brain.  In contrast, when people realize they might compare unfavorably to someone else, it triggers the release of cortisol and other stress-related hormones and activates the brain areas that process emotional pain, the amygdala and posterior cingulate.

How we act in a conflict often depends on the outcome of the power battle between our rational mind and the emotional brain.  Perceiving a threat, the amygdala spreads emotions such as fear by sending signals into the hypothalamus, which controls the sympathetic nervous system. The brain then has a chance to assess the threat level and decide on a course of action.  The anterior cingulate cortex which, among other things, decides where we should focus our attention, appears to have the power to reduce the activity of our emotional control center, the amygdala. When that happens, our rational mind takes charge.  But if the threat is perceived to be too big, our emotional brain takes over and dampens the work of the rational mind. That’s when we either become aggressive or defensive, we attack or withdraw.

This window of opportunity when we can reassess the situation is important and is at the core of emotional regulation.  How can we be less emotional during the disagreements so we don’t run away from important issues or play the blame game?

We have a choice to make.  We can let our brains ride our egos or we can consciously focus our attention on the issues at hand and the opportunities and challenges they present.  Easier said than done, I know, but it gets better with practice, and you can start rehearsing in advance.

Take time to prepare for your difficult conversations.  The problem with disagreements is that they happen when we are least prepared to deal with them.  In addition, we can’t predict or control what other people say or do, we can only hope to do our best.

Your own best is what you can focus on during this preparation stage.  You can approach it in a playful way by pretending to be a playwright for a time being.  You will create scripts of your conversation with the other party.  Our brains like playfulness.  The desire to play may be wired in our mammalian brain as many animals exhibit playful behavior and learn the intricacies of social interactions through play.  Just like puppies learn not to bite too hard during play, you can rehearse and adjust your own strategy for your difficult conversation.

Conflict and drama captivate our brains on TV screens and in real life.  We are mesmerized by Judge Judy and other courtroom drama.  While we run from our own issues, we are eager to offer advice to someone else whose relationships are on the rocks.  As long as we can remain detached, we tolerate and even welcome controversies.

Conflicts also capture our attention when we endlessly ruminate over conversations that didn’t go well.  We bring back the awkward feelings we experienced during those interactions and solidify those emotional memories.

Creating imaginary dialogues prior to talking to someone for real can help you harness these secret drama queen tendencies for the force of good.

First, you have to take time to think things over and clarify your own position on the issue.  You can figure out what is truly important to you and what you can live without.  You can reflect on how your conversation may impact your relationships with the people involved.  In other words, you can write about anything that concerns you and bring up any topic with the other side without working up your emotional brain into frenzy.

Second, you can look at the situation from various perspectives.  Because you are creating a dialogue with the other parties, you are forced to step into their shoes for a while.  You can create several scenarios and make your characters as cooperative or combative as you’d like them to be.  You can inquire about their motives and check your own assumptions.  You can anticipate their objections and prepare your response.  In a real conversation, we often don’t have time to think things through.  Fueled by our emotions, we say things we may regret in the future.  As a playwright, you can take all the time you need to think about your situation.

Perhaps, you and the other party can take turns being a villain in the story.  In real-life confrontations, we tend to ascribe villain qualities to others and exaggerate our own virtues.  The imaginary scripts can offer a reality check.

Last but not least, remember that your actual conversation may not go according to plan.  Staying present and flexible in the conversation is a different topic.  But being prepared gives your rational brain a leg up.

I’m leaving you with these questions to ponder:

What should you be talking about?
How can you best prepare for these conversations?

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