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31 August 2021

Why Difficult Conversations Feel like Life-or-Death Challenges

Written by
John Sautelle

For many of us, the mere thought of holding a difficult conversation with someone important evokes fear and anxiety. We manage these uncomfortable feelings through avoidance. You know the story — If I don’t hold the conversation, my deepest fears won’t be realised, and things will somehow magically get better. Right? Wrong — as our personal history shows. We know that grievances left unaddressed drip like acid all over the relationship, corroding trust and connection. So why do we do this?

Wired for Survival

Humans are sense-making beings. We make sense of ourselves and the world we live in through the stories we inherit, adopt, and create. And our stories are neurobiologically wired to answer this survival question:

‘Is this something to move towards that supports life (reward response), or something to move against or away from to stay safe (threat response)?’¹

Our stories determine our response. When there is conflict with someone important to us, do we move towards connection, or do we go into a fight, flee or freeze response? Do we stay calm, or get defensive and reactive?

Here is the catch. To keep us safe, our stories assume the worst. My developmental journey illustrates this life-or-death phenomenon. Driven by survival stories I was unaware of at the time, for much of my life I acted out of a paralysing need for perfection, an unhealthy need to be liked, and an irresistible need to be in control. This wreaked havoc in my relationships and resulted in repeat episodes of burnout. It also fuelled a quest to find out what was going on and change my responses.

ISCARE Trigger Stories²

My pathway to healing, supported by gifted counsellors, coaches and wise mentors, took many twists and turns as I unearthed and refined the survival stories that had me in their grip. Along the way I have evolved a change process I use in my coaching work with senior leaders. Central to this is a framework of common ‘trigger stories’ which, in our relationships, activate us to move towards connection or into threat responses. The framework is made up of the following types of stories: Identity; Seeking; Certainty; Autonomy; Relationship and Equity. In the context of difficult conversations, managing these stories, and the emotions generated by them, is crucial if we are to be effective. As is getting curious about the other person’s stories when they have a threat response triggered.

Identity Stories

We each have many identity shaping stories which determine how we show up in life generally, and how we respond to conflict specifically. Whilst these will be unique to each of us, there are common themes which show up across generations and across cultures. These include stories about the roles we play in life, about our competence and how we want to be seen by others, about our status, and about our guiding values.

Challenges arise in conversations when we perceive our identity is under threat. In the past, my ‘if I appear incompetent no-one will trust me’ and ‘if I make a mistake I will immediately be punished’ stories were always at the ready, waiting in the wings, driving my need for perfection and my inability to take on board feedback.

The challenge is amplified when our identity stories define who we are, rather than speaking to what we do. In my first career, had you asked me what I did for a living, I would have answered ‘I am a lawyer’ rather than ‘I practise law’. When this identity was affirmed, I felt fantastic. Like the time another lawyer congratulated me when my cross-examination of an expert witness did fatal damage to his client’s case. Weeks later, however, I felt devastated when an irritable judge loudly proclaimed, in front of my client, ‘Mr Sautelle. You have just demonstrated you don’t know the first thing about the rules of evidence in a criminal trial’.

When there is no distance between our identity and the roles we play, we are perpetually poised on the edge of the threat response cliff.

Autonomy and Relationship Stories

Herein lies the central paradox of human relationships: We are simultaneously wired for survival to be separate (Autonomy) and connected to others (Relationship).

When we fail to recognise this in a choiceful way, we are at the mercy of stories about being too connected (‘I am being smothered, losing myself’) or too separate (‘I am isolated and alone’).

In my case, stories like ‘I must always be in control to be safe’ and ‘I must always give people what they want to be liked’ not only drove me to avoid difficult conversations at all costs, in combination they were the perfect recipe for burnout.

The challenge of escalation

Here is another big catch. Because of our survival wiring, whenever one person goes into a threat response, this will automatically trigger some form of threat response in the other person. When this happens in the context of a difficult conversation, it is a short step to escalating defensiveness on both sides, leading to abrupt withdrawal, or at worst, violence. When that happens, it is a long road back to create enough safety in the relationship for reconnection to occur.

What can we do?

One thing we can do is increase our awareness of how our trigger stories are activated and get curious about what is happening for the other person. Here are a handful of powerful questions we can ask:

  • What stories have I created to keep myself safe in relationships?
  • What stories have I created to protect my identity?
  • What story triggers might explain how the other person is responding?
  • What fears are my stories trying to protect me from?
  • What would make it safe for me to overcome these fears and have the conversation?

Another thing we can do is work on managing our defensiveness, in the moment, when a survival story is triggered. Until we are out of a threat response, there is nowhere productive for the conversation to go. Increasing our capacity to regulate our response also paves the way for us to help the other person do likewise, thereby increasing our confidence to lean into future conversations we might otherwise avoid.

If you are avoiding the conversations you need to have, our virtual Navigating Difficult Conversations program will help you change that.

¹For example, see Selected Principles of Pankseppian Affective Neuroscience Davis and Montag, January 2019

²Acknowledgment — my framework draws on the research of many neuroscientists and was initially sparked by Your Brain at Work by David Rock and his SCARF model.

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