[Crucial Conversations] Get back to the Brain

Unfruitful behaviors when we are under fire

When we have crucial conversations, three of the most common behaviors that do not lead to anything fruitful:

  • Trying to win.
  • Trying to avenge.
  • Trying to stay safe.

Trying to win

When we were kids, we learned that in order to win attention from our teachers we must come up with the fastest and correct answers. In other words, the only way to gain is to derive others of their gains This is induced way before we learn how to communicate with each others.

This instinct, and all the rest of the unfruitful behaviors, is trying to meet an immediate goal that seems important to us right now, often at the sacrifice of achieving goals that are actually important to us as a whole human being. A battle should not be won at the cost of losing a war.

Trying to avenge

This and the next behavior which is trying to stay safe is best framed as fight-or-flight response. When faced with an imminent danger, we can either choose to use everything to destroy the threat, or we can choose to retreat to a safe place to avoid the threat.

Avenging here refers to the act of trying to humiliate the person who voices opinions that differ from us. We know that our brain interprets social threats like physical threats, therefore the other person is perceived as a predator. This explains why diatribe is often employed as a tactic when our opinions are being dissected.

Trying to stay safe

This corresponds to the flight response. If in the wild world we retreat to our nest, then in the social world we retreat to silence. We choose peace over conflict, or at least that’s the rationalization.

Silence means that there will be no apparent conflicts or threats, but it also means no problems are going to be solved. In the history nothing is ever solved by silence. In fact, to the contrary, cold war brought many catastrophic consequences through silence.

Most things are not either this or that

Some people tend to think the world as binary, either/or. This line of thinking is particularly attractive when our brain interprets the social threats and responds with fight-or-flight directive because it is in line of the binary nature of the directive.

When we stay silent, we can rationalize it as ‘Not wanting to hurt or ruin the relationship over this conversation’. When we go on the offense we can rationalize it as ‘The only way I can look at myself is to speak up the truth’. It is always honesty or respect, you can’t be honest without disrespecting the other person, and you can’t respect the other person without lying (or staying silent).

This, however, is not beneficial to the end game – which is what our Heart wants. So the first thing you need to do is Start with the Heart. After you figure our what the Heart wants, then you need to re-frame the problem and get rid of the binary perspective. It is simply not a useful model of interpretation.

It’s very simple and obvious, but you need to figure out:

  • What you really want
  • What you really don’t want

And then just put the word and between those two answers. There you have your problem:

Talk with your husband about broken promises that you relied upon and not causing the relationship to deteriorate.

Now your brain circuits which handle complex problem solving are being turned on. This is a problem that most people recognize cannot be resolved by instinctual responses. Now you can begin to think of an actual solution, if one exists.

To be fair, not all problems can be resolved. Sometimes two constraints, by all practicality, cannot be satisfied simultaneously, and one or both must be dropped. But unless we can utilize our mental resources to think about the problem, the worse parts of us often resort in tactics that disguise as solutions to the problem, but usually turn out to be solutions to our immediate emotions.

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