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How to master challenging dialogues without giving in too easily?

Updated: Feb 21

This post is a contribution from Frank Garten.


We all recognize this: we are in a pretty good conversation with someone else, and suddenly the other person says something that instantly makes you angry. You tend to snap back at the other person, becoming overly assertive, or you completely switch off from the conversation and withdraw. When this happens, you often don’t understand exactly what it was that made you so mad: was it the words that the other person chose to use, was it the tone of voice which suggested you did something wrong or was it simply the way the person looked at you when she said it. And strange enough, it is like our response was not conscious: we just got mad in a single instance, and we felt in our body at that moment something was not ok in this conversation.


On the last observation: you were right. Our brain is usually able to respond smartly and apply logic and deeper understanding to the things happening to us. The pre-frontal cortex – or the smart brain – is our wiser self, suppressing emotions when needed and choosing words carefully not to offend anybody else. Our smart brain however is not constantly on-line. Similar to limited bandwidth causing your Skype call to be interrupted, there is sometimes not enough energy bandwidth available for the smart brain to function optimally. This is when we feel threatened by something. There’s another center in the brain (amygdala) which scans our environment for threats and takes over control from the prefrontal cortex instantly when a threat is detected.


Challenging dialogues are challenging because of this phenomenon. A dialogue is challenging because we feel threatened by something that’s happening to us, and when this happens we are not at our best to respond, as the prefrontal cortex has just been taken off-line. So, what can cause a threat to us? In ‘How To Have a Good Day’, author Caroline Webb gives 6 causes for humans feeling threatened, indicated by the acronym CAP and FIR:


  • We feel our competence is doubted or at risk (Competence)

  • We feel we cannot steer the work ourselves (Autonomy)

  • We feel something violates our values or is not useful (Purpose)

  • We don’t feel treated fairly (Fairness)

  • We don’t feel that we are included (Inclusion)

  • We don’t feel treated respectfully (Respect)


When one of these triggers has been activated and has taken our smart brain offline to give all available energy to our survival response fight/flight/freeze, we do not react very smartly usually. Our prefrontal cortex has a lack of energy, hence is not able to reason well, plan our response wisely and suppress our emotions. Just the skills we most need when we feel under threat.


So, what can we do about this? Our challenge is to bring our smart brain back on-line. Let’s review 3 methods we can use to do this: 3 methods that can help you greatly when the hiring manager just said something that made you feel angry and mad:


1. Acknowledge the feeling in your body


Although this sounds soft and touchy-feely, it actually is a very firm thing you can do. At the moment the other person said something that made you instantly feel mad, recognize this feeling in your body (the more often you do this, the better you get at it). After reflecting for a while, we all know exactly how we feel in what part of the body when we are under threat. Recognizing this feeling in your body should be a trigger – hopefully soon automated – to say to yourself: “This is exactly how I feel when somebody is threatening me. So, I am not at my best right now, and could better delay my response a bit.” It’s been subject of fascinating research to prove that acknowledging the bodily feeling of threat and accepting it is happening, is enough to suppress the automatic response by our reptile brain and bring our smart brain quicker back on-line.


2. Separate the people from the problem


We tend to assign an unfriendly remark by somebody to a bad personality: “James says this, so James is a bad guy. I hate James.” You do yourself a big favor to separate the two: “James is saying something unfriendly because he cares about the decision we are taking and feels passionate about it. He’s a good guy.” By reacting based on the circumstance rather than treating the other person as a bad character, we ensure to stay constructive hence we maintain better relationships with those around us. The problem James is raising is valid for him. James is a great guy, but now I need to ensure I tackle this challenge well.


3. Demand a time-out


Nowhere it is written that we have an obligation to respond to things around us instantly. When you feel you are not at your best and that what the other person said is affecting you, take a time-out. Sometimes you can do this just by shutting up and closing your eyes, but in a video call this may not be the very best response. So state you need a time-out. “I didn’t like this last remark and I’d like to think it over before I respond instantly. Let’s break up for 5 minutes.” It can even generate you a lot of respect to act based on how you feel at the moment, rather than respond to everything instantly (and maybe later regret what you said).


Now you know what to do, the next time this hiring manager looks at you with a cynical smile, and you instantly feel bad and insecure. Recognize the feeling and realize that you feel attacked. See the guy as a good person, just reacting a bit odd. And take some time out, he will still be in the company tomorrow.


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