“How-To” have difficult conversations and ‘stop the amygdala highjack’!

Last month we explored some of the challenges and obstacles that can contribute to stopping managers from having difficult work conversations. This month, we will explore a couple of simple techniques that you can use to prepare for that anticipated conversation and minimise the risk of the ‘amygdala hijack’.

As discussed in the last article, understanding neuroscience is a way to better inform ways of working with people and learning why we all respond they way we do. We also discussed the Amygdala as being a part of the brain which frames our fear response and regulates much of our emotions.

So, first things first, stopping the amygdala hijack during a difficult conversation will require what is often referred to as “conversational intelligence”. Conversational intelligence in part incorporates understanding how conversations trigger both physical and emotional changes in the brain and create a chain reaction.  

Conversations trigger millions of neurochemical reactions and this either galvanises our brain to relate, trust, collaborate, create new ideas, solve problems, or it may lead to a state of brain freeze. Another way of describing what happens – the brain flips its lid! This happens when our brains develop fear, aversive or defensive, protective behavioural patterns then occur.

Conversations change the brain by boosting the production of hormones and neurotransmitters that stimulate bodily systems and neural pathways, effectively changing our body’s chemistry. As conversations unfold, the brain triggers a neurochemical combination that makes us feel either optimistic or downbeat. Optimistic conversations activate higher levels of dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins, and other biochemicals that boost a sense of well-being.

Being aware of some of these reactions can help normalise why sometimes it does feel challenging having the ‘difficult conversation’. It is so important to do everything you can to make the anticipated difficult conversation a success. Building on several minor aspects of conversational intelligence insight, now is the time to put in place the practical strategies.

The most important element of having the conversation is the preparation. Never go in unprepared. This means, think clearly about your purpose and what a successful conversation will look like; feel like, and sound like.  

Think about any past conversations you may have had with the person. Based on this experience, how do you anticipate the employee will react; respond and potentially experience the conversation? Previous experience, while no fail safe predictor is a good basis for a hypothesis about what may happen next.

Reflect on how you are feeling and be aware of your mindset. What are you potentially dreading about the conversation?  What are the assumptions you may have about the person – are they rational or irrational thoughts based on fear?  Listen to yourself and where those thoughts are not facts, flip it! Turn the irrational fear into a rational thought and turn the negative narrative in to a positive one. Try not to project any fears you may have yourself.

A very basic framework for the conversation is to

  • Plan the discussion – information and knowledge required to prepare for the discussion and identify the  when and where, the conversation will be had (for example, never on a Friday or before someone is about to go on leave)
  • Prepare the discussion – be clear on the purpose, have concrete examples to assist the person understand your experience of their actions / behaviours and listen to and identify any potential for  bias and stereotyping
  • Conduct the conversation being open, honest, respectful and transparent!
  • Follow up post the conversation – summarise key outcomes; follow up agreed actions if any identified; monitor going forward and celebrate success when change is noticed.
  • Reflect on the discussion – remember post the conversation to review what you did well; what could have you done to have further improved the conversation; and what will you repeat in the future.  

If you would like to learn more about how to better manage and facilitate an anticipated difficult conversation, please feel free to give me a tingle or send me an email and we can unpack your anticipated challenging conversation and let’s begin the rumble!

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