Difficult Conversations and The Amygdala Highjack!

Is it time to rumble?

I am often called into organisations due to managers feeling stuck with dread at the prospect of having that ‘difficult’ conversation. Why does this seem so hard?  The perceived fear of causing conflict!  

Usually the presenting issue is, “how do I have a conversation with an employee without causing conflict; offense; upsetting them; insulting; disrupting the team, or,… being accused of being a bully?“

When we unpack this, we usually start by exploring what the presenting issue is, and then dig down to unwrap the issue. We often explore why and how the ‘problem’ has gotten to this point.  We unravel the ‘mess’ and work towards finding a respectful and constructive way forward.

We also explore and identify what the manager’s assumptions are about the employee they want to have a conversation with. The reason for this approach is to unpack and separate out the irrational beliefs and thoughts from the rational. The fear of ‘irrational’ shuts people down and disempowers them.

Until the unspoken is spoken, it is sometimes difficult to shift the voice in the head that gives out negatives which do nothing more than raise more anxiety.

Often the employee who is presented as the ‘problem’ is described as difficult; unique; challenging; impossible to deal with etc. When I hear these labels, I know that one of the challenges is the employee is being completely labelled as ‘bad’ rather than taking time to unpack their ‘challenging behaviour’.  

The narrative in the head of the manager is often very destructive and negative rather than positive. This may inhibit the experience and outcome for the manager and employee.

When we go into such conversations with anticipation of fear it results in our brains going into havoc!  If the message of the conversation is going to cause conflict our automatic impulse will be to protect ourselves which is an unconscious mechanism.  

When we perceive a threat, stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol bombard the body and immediately prepare us for fight or flight. Daniel Goleman refers to this response in his research on emotional intelligence as the ‘amygdala hijack’.  

In plain english, it means – “the person has had their buttons pressed’ and the rest is history.  Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, in his book The Body Keeps the Score, calls this the brain’s “smoke detector.” It’s responsible for detecting fear and preparing our body for an emergency response.

Changes like increased heart rate; sweaty hands; disrupted/fast/shallow breathing, which all result in an excessive amount of oxygen being taken in. This is our bodies way of preparing to take off if it has to!

When this neurological response occurs it can take a life of its own and shut down the neural pathway to our prefrontal cortex. We can become lost, confused, irrational, and disoriented if the conversation becomes highly emotive. Our attention then lessens; we can then get stuck and lost which results going into a default position of fight. This often sounds like, “I am right you are wrong!” On top of that, the memory can become unreliable. Oh my… time to rumble…

It is time to think about how this scenario is playing out for you and how it is working for you!  If you think it is time to change the script, then there are some really simple ways of conducting a constructive and positive conversation. These tools help to effectively stay in control, stay calm and achieve your ideal outcome and feel good about it.

Next month I will outline some simple steps on the ‘how-to’ have the conversation and, how to manage and minimise the risk of the ‘amygdala hijack’.

In the meantime, if you feel you don’t want to wait until next month, please feel free to give me a tingle or send me an email and lets unpack your anticipated challenging conversation, fear of consequences, and lets begin the rumble!

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