How to deal with stressful and difficult conversations
A friend, who is in an emotionally challenging time after ending his relationship, send me a message after a difficult conversation with his ex-partner. He said: ‘Remember our conversation about how to encounter difficult situations with love? Tonight I practiced again: setting my ego and beliefs aside and focusing on seeing the other. It was not easy, but every time I succeeded it opened up things that were better for the both of us.’
How to stay open en present?
How hard is it to put aside your ego and beliefs and be able to really see the other? When things work out and you have a click with that other person, most of us will be able to open our hearts and be present. But what about those times when the interaction is not that smooth or the appreciation you felt for someone dramatically changed? What do you have to cultivate in yourself to be able to stay open and present during those stressful and difficult conversations?
Our behavior is strongly influenced by our need to belong, to feel safe and by our sense of autonomy and dignity. It causes pain when those needs are not met - when we have the feeling that people do not see us, do not respect who we are or when we are excluded from a group. Because of that it is possible that we change our behavior to fit in and/or we put on our armor to ensure us that we won’t be hurt. And it is this armor that prevents us of being able to be present and open.
Fear of being hurt
If I take a close look at my personal struggles - whether in work or in intimate relations – opening up to really see the other is the most difficult when I have the feeling that I am not seen, heard or acknowledged. As a result I harden and close off, afraid of being hurt. My ego is working overtime to develop beliefs to prove that the way I feel and think about the situation is the right way. And these beliefs are often self-limiting. Being flexible and willing to explore different perspectives is too vulnerable. Chances are that I might be ‘wrong’. By being ‘wrong’ or at least not ‘ right’ as a person, we fear we will loose respect, connection and dignity.
The paradox is that holding on to our beliefs contributes to those fears. It impairs connection and our belonging. It can have consequences for our (financial) safety and can make us insecure. Being able to really see the other in stressful and difficult conversations asks for working with our inner resistance to let go of the ego that is working so hard in trying to protect us. But how do you do that?
Therefor I want to share practices that I find useful in cultivating connection with myself and others, even in emotional and painful encounters.
1. Increasinging body awareness
This is the basic skill to enable opening up to others in challenging situations. Body awareness results in more emotional awareness results in more self-awareness. The more self-aware we become, the better we are at noticing when the ego is at play and you are holding on to limiting beliefs in order to prove that you are correct and the other is wrong.
2. Learning how to center
In encounters where things are at stake on an essential level, your limbic – reptile – brain will be activated. To get your rational thinking – neocortex - on board again you need to connect to your body. Centering- shifting your focus to your gut - is an easy and effective way of doing that.
3. Becoming aware of increasing tension in your body
If we are in unpleasant conversations our sympatic nervous system gets more active. The result is an increase of muscle tension. Everyone has certain body areas where that is more pronounced, e.g. jaws, shoulders, tummy or legs. This tension will reinforce our mental toughening, i.e. makes us hold on to our beliefs more strongly. Noticing the increased tension and being able to release it, will also make the mind more flexible.
4. Connecting with your values instead of your beliefs
There is a big difference between:
- Things are right or wrong (beliefs) or
- Things feel right or wrong (values)
The latter opens up a dialogue where it is possible to explore each other’s perspectives, concerns, and pain. It doesn’t mean that we have to agree with the other, but it opens up to understanding.
Talking about what matters
When you are able to cultivate these things you will notice that things start to change. You feel better after difficult conversations and encounters because you were more connected to what matters to you, and are able to create space for the other. A good thing to keep in mind, although really hard at times!, is that the other is experiencing the same difficulties. He or she is also looking for safety, dignity and belonging, and building his or her own fence to protect that. Opening up and really working on seeing the other creates possibilities to talk about what matters and increases mutual understanding.
Keep in mind that I talk about cultivating. Which according to Merriam-Webster means: to improve by labor, care or study.This is not an easy thing to do because we have to rewire our nervous system and build new skills. It takes time and pitfalls but if you keep practicing on staying open and present, even under pressure, you will notice that you will gain momentum.