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Consider the following scenario. You’re having an important conversation about a project with a work colleague. Suddenly, in response to a suggestion you make, your colleague rolls their eyes and says, “Are you nuts?! You don’t have a clue what you’re talking about!” Instantly, you feel tension build in your body. Your breathing becomes more rapid and shallow. Your pulse quickens.
Yes, you are now experiencing what author Daniel Goleman refers to as “emotional hijacking.” The part of your brain that has evolutionarily evolved to help you respond to perceived threats has now been activated. No, you’re not facing the saber-tooth tiger or other physical threat our human bodies evolved to defend against. But your brain doesn’t know that! And, in the face of the perceived threat before you (to your status, your success, your control, etc.), your brain is now flooding your body with adrenaline and cortisol and sending a message to rush blood to your muscles to help you prepare to do one of two things: fight or flee, i.e., argue, defend or verbally attack, or completely withdraw and say nothing. The thinking part of your brain is now starved of oxygen and unable to help you make a strategic choice about how to stay in effective dialogue.
If we mere mortals are wired to fight or flee, what can we possibly do in the face of the difficult conversations that are a regular part of most of our workdays? Here’s a helpful tool that can help us remain calm, keep the thinking part of our brains engaged, and allow us to speak and act in a way that moves the conversation from a tense confrontation to collaborative problem-solving with the other person: Stop, reflect, and decide.
Stop: Pause, breathe, and do a quick check-in with yourself. What do you notice? Are you angry, upset, frustrated, anxious? Take another deep breath.
Reflect: Ask yourself what you really want, for yourself, for your organization, for the relationship with the other person. To put it more simply, ask yourself, “What do I want to accomplish?” Is it to defend yourself, counterattack, or shame the other person? Or do you want to build understanding, find creative solutions, and maintain a positive working relationship?
Decide: Consider your options for action. How would you behave and what would you say if you really did want those positive things you just identified as your goals? Then behave that way. If your goals are to build understanding and find solutions, then be thoughtful about your words. Get curious, not furious – ask questions. Acknowledge the other person’s concerns and ideas. Clarify your positive intent to find a solution and collaboratively craft a path forward.
Remembering to Stop, Reflect, and Decide can help you handle even the most daunting dialogues, resolve misunderstandings, and turn conflicts into opportunities.
Learn more about how to successfully navigate challenging conversations at NCET’s virtual Biz Cafe on September 16, 2020. NCET is a member-supported nonprofit organization that produces educational and networking events to help people explore business and technology. More info at www.NCETcafe.org
Veronica Frenkel, MA, SPHR is President of Pathways Consulting (www.veronicafrenkel.com.), a coaching, training and consulting business that helps leaders unleash their own and their team’s awesomeness and achieve exceptional results.