Fight or Flight? 3 Tips for Navigating Uncomfortable Conversations


We are hardwired in moments where we feel intense discomfort to duke it out or run away. The classic fight or flight dynamic. This is not just theoretical. This is fact. This is biology. We all know what it feels like.

Think of a moment where you were instantly triggered by someone’s comment – or triggered by someone’s desire to discuss something you’d rather not. Did you push back and defend yourself no matter what the cost? Or did you avoid the conversation like the plague? These are usually the two camps in which people pitch their tents.

However, what if we expanded beyond those two options? What if it wasn’t just fighting to make it stop… or pretending it wasn’t there? What if we leaned into it?

Seth Godin posed a great question that highlights leaning into discomfort earlier this month in his blog. He asked:

“Sometimes, we get close to finding out who we really are, what's the status of our situation, what's holding us back. When one of those conversations is going on, do you lean in, eager for more, or do you back off, afraid of what it will mean?”

Asking this question has become a ritual for me the past few months. I encourage you to try it.

Next time you find yourself triggered, here are three tips to lean into an uncomfortable conversation:

1.    Don’t go in armed and armored.

Leave your sword and shield at the door. When you are armed, the other person tends to show up the same way – it’s for safety purposes. Decide that what you really want is to be open and learn. This requires putting yourself out there – without protection. Besides, this is a much lighter, weightless way to arrive.

2.    Assess the situation through a camera lens.

When offering your perspective on the other person’s actions, don’t load it down with qualifiers and assumptions.  Describe the other person’s behaviors/examples as if viewing through a video camera – without judgment. Share with the person what you saw/experienced in an impartial way.

For example, instead of saying, “You treated me very rudely at our last meeting. Your actions were not professional. ” Try “You raised your voice, pointed your finger, and leaned forward when you were talking with me.” See the difference? The first is loaded with judgment and feelings. The second describes the situation. Once you both agree on what occurred, then you can go from there.

3.    Get curious.

Ask a lot of questions and then really listen. Ask questions that you are afraid to know the answer; then give space for the person to respond. That’s what this is about. If you are careful with your questions, you are not leaning in.  If you already know the answer, you are not leaning in. Be eager to know that person’s truth.

So, the next time you are tempted to put on your boxing gloves or running shoes, take a deep breath. Consider leaning in.

What conversation, right now, can you lean into more?  What’s getting in your way?

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