Mastering tough conversations

It’s easy to scream at someone.
It feels right to get angry at someone who “deserves” it.
It’s almost reflective to get defensive when someone is actively trying to hurt you.
It feels right to walk away from such situations.

It is monumentally harder to remain calm. It can feel like torture to take punch after punch emotionally and not lift a vengeful finger in return. And it feels masochistic to continue to remain physically and mentally present in such situations.

These excruciating moments are the cost of lifelong freedom.

Nothing can hurt me

When you read this, you probably think of Thor or the Hulk. But really that power is only skin deep. Real power is when no situation or person can rattle your inner world of calm. That is a superpower that would make Superman jealous.

Now this doesn’t happen overnight. This is the outcome of learning to flex various mental muscles. But it isn’t that hard either.

The tough conversation mastery equation (TCM)

TCM = Emotional detachment + Active listening + Compassion

Emotional detachment

The first response of 100% of humans is emotional. That’s just how our brains are wired. Stimuli enters the brain and reaches the amygdala which is the emotional center. After that, it reaches our pre-frontal cortex where the brain determines if something is a real threat or not. So if someone says they aren’t emotional, that’s a lie! What it may mean though, is that they don’t act on those initial emotions, which is a smart thing to do, especially in situations where your life is not in danger. The key here is to allow yourself to feel the emotions, but to be a witness to those emotions, instead of trying to give into them. The second part is to allow your rational brain to kick in and to tell yourself to remove your identity from the situation. It doesn’t matter who you are, what your personality traits are, what your role was in the situation, if you’ve had a hard day or any other aspect of your life. Now you’re not trying to suspend care for your emotional well-being forever. But by being calm initially, you’re already helping the situation and making the other person feel like you want to make the effort to respond calmly.

Active, empathetic listening

The next step once you’ve managed to shift focus away from your emotions on the situation, is to make yourself present. Essentially, this is the information gathering part where you’re really trying to understand what the other person(s) is feeling. You’re suspending any reaction to their content and emotions – no judgement, no defense. You’re really just trying to perceive things the way they are perceiving it. Slowly you’re piecing together the scenario from their eyes. After a lot of practice of removing the focus from your emotions, this actually might even become somewhat enjoyable. It definitely feels like you’re connecting with this person, and usually this act makes them feel connected to you back as well.

Compassion

Once you’ve heard the person completely, it helps to try and understand the situation. You’re still trying to keep judgement, solutions and things the person can work on out of the picture. The only way to truly understand a situation from another person’s viewpoint is to exercise tremendous compassion as you think about their feelings. What does this mean practically?

Clearly, they have some reason, whether it is a real or perceived threat, their childhood conditioning or maybe their own adopted beliefs, that is causing them pain. The goal is not to understand what those underlying causes are, but only to understand that a person in pain does not want to be in pain. And so, as we understand and appreciate the pain, we must do what one would do to another person in pain.

That may mean holding their hand, offering them your shoulder to cry on, telling them you understand how it feels or finding another way that is genuine. The key instinct here to avoid is to talk down at them, offer solutions, tell them how they can look at the situation differently and so on. The goal right now is to build the trust with this person to let them know that you care about them feeling better first and foremost, and everything else second. This is the best way for a relationship to get stronger, where then the other person is more open to resolving things as a team, as opposed to the dynamic where it feels like a sermon.

Self care is also important. The balance to find is attentive listening but not allowing the energy of the other person “enter” you. This can be hard when communicating with loved ones. But over time, it is possible to find that balance.

What practice for this looks like

Meditation is a key component of building these muscles. It allows you to practice detaching yourself from your thoughts and emotions and witnessing them from a safe distance without acting on them. The best way to develop compassion for others is to first and foremost develop it for yourself. By patiently watching the myriad emotions we feel, and getting to the bottom of why we’re feeling them, we start to understand them and can relate much more easily to the emotions of others. The method of internalizing this and getting better at it can vary from person to person, but I’ll share some techniques that might help in another post.