Do You Avoid Difficult Conversations?

Why do we avoid difficult conversations? At some point in our lives, most of us have had to deliver that dreaded line, “We need to talk.”  Sadly, this phrase usually precedes an argument rather than a conversation.

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

  1. We are stuck between wanting to say what we really feel and knowing that is exactly what we 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.

First, you need to realize that if you didn’t care on some level about your relationship with the other person, you wouldn’t be struggling with this in the first place. Although avoidance can be tempting, doing so can allow things to build up to the boiling point. Then, when we finally have no choice but to confront the issue, we end up damaging our 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
Emotions can make everything harder. Whenever emotions are involved, conversations can get tricky. Emotions are generated in the part of the brain called the amygdala – one of the more primitive parts of the brain. When stimulated, it kicks the body into fight or flight mode. Humans are genetically hard-wired to react to stressful triggers by either fighting, freezing, or fleeing.

When we were living in caves, this fight or flight response had a huge survival benefit. But we no longer live in caves. Are we really all that different now than our ancestors? Genetically, no. When confronted with an emotionally stressful conversation, our hard-wired instincts kick in and we either want to blast someone (fight) or clam up and avoid them altogether (flight). We are not 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 kind of problems all the time. People experience an emotional hijacking in the brain. What starts out as a well-meaning conversation can break down into an argument as your emotions derail the best of your intentions.

We can actually see this emotional hijacking in the public sphere. If you get a chance to watch the presidential debates (without throwing the remote in rage at the TV), take a look at how the candidates react to certain questions. If they are met by a question that they don’t like, you can actually see their fight or flight instinct kick in as they either try to avoid answering the question or go on the offensive and attack. This kind of behavior often accounts for how a well-meaning debate can quickly devolve into what can only be described as a nationally televised rage-fest.

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

In the meantime, what happens to you when a difficult conversation goes awry? I’d love to hear from you; you can contact me here and on LinkedIn.