Stay in the “Sweet Spot” When Faced with Emotionally Charged Conversations

August 23, 2022 Randy Conley

Stress has a negative impact on our neurobiology. Whenever we are under stress, our body produces cortisol. Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone,” and together with adrenaline, it kicks our brain into hyper-alert mode to deal with perceived dangers around us.

Why am I sharing this? Because our ability to have productive conversations at work is threatened when the stakes are high and emotions are running hot. This is when a misunderstanding morphs into an argument, making a point is more important than listening, and our ability to have a mutually beneficial discussion becomes increasingly doubtful.

Conversational Capacity as a Model for Keeping It Cool and Productive

In his best-selling business book, Conversational Capacity, author Craig Weber shares some best practices for engaging in constructive, learning-focused dialogue about difficult subjects. According to Weber, the purpose of developing your conversational capacity is so you can stay in the conversational sweet spot—a place where you are both candid and curious.

When people are stressed, they are quick to speak their minds but they lack the patience to listen. “You need to keep your ears open—and your mouth closed,” says Weber. Use curiosity as the first skill for improving dialogue. If leaders could express curiosity more often, they would come across as more empathetic and caring. The level of anxiety in their people would decrease and their relationships would become healthier.

Candor is just as important as curiosity. This means sharing what needs to be said—or offering up information that may be unknown to others. Some people like to misuse candor by being rude or unkind to others. “I’m just keeping it real” or “I’m just telling it like it is” are favorite sayings of these kinds of folks. But being candid is not an excuse for bad behavior.

In Conversational Capacity, Weber teaches that being candid is as simple as stating your point clearly and concisely and then explaining the thinking behind it. It means being clear and forthright. You can do that and still be kind and caring.

Taking Your First Steps

Self awareness is the first step in developing better communication skills.  Weber likes to call this “catch it, name it, and tame it.” This process keeps us from being triggered into the fight-or-flight trap.

Here's how to know you are getting triggered. Look for physiological changes. You might feel a flush of anxiety come over you. Your stomach may churn. Your blood pressure may rise. Your mind may start racing.

When you feel the urge to fight, it means your curiosity has shut down. You need to lean into it. You need to understand what the other person is thinking.

The converse is also true. When you feel the urge to flee, you need to be more candid. Instead of trying to escape, withdraw from the conversation, or minimize your point of view, you need to offer the evidence that supports your beliefs.

When you feel the fight-or-flight response, ask yourself What is causing me to have this reaction? Becoming aware of your triggers is a learning process. When you get the feeling you are being triggered, try some deep breathing exercises or ask if you can postpone the conversation or take a break from the discussion.

A trigger journal is another valuable tool. Record every time you are triggered and its probable cause. Over time, we learn how to identify flight-or-fight triggers.

When we become aware of our triggers, we can put a name on our feelings, which makes us more capable of dealing with the trigger.

You can learn more about bringing candor and curiosity back into your work conversations. Join Craig Weber for a webinar geared specifically toward executives looking to improve their communication skills. The event is free, courtesy of The Ken Blanchard Companies. Use this link to register or learn more!

About the Author

Randy Conley

Randy Conley is the Vice President & Trust Practice Leader for The Ken Blanchard Companies®. He is the co-author of Blanchard’s Building Trust training program and works with organizations around the globe helping them build trust in the workplace. Most recently, Randy is the co-author, together with Ken Blanchard, of the new book, Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust.

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