In a difficult conversation, we know that our emotions will be engaged. The question becomes how to manage them. In the next few posts, I will examine some of the ideas that may be helpful in regulating and understanding our emotions.
For today, here are my top five ways to regulate your emotions:
in his highly successful work, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahnemann described how our brains work using two systems. A fast intuitive System 1 and a slow, rational System 2. In combination they work to help us navigate the world and stay alive.
The challenge is that System 2 is very energy expensive to run. As a result we make many decisions, below our level of consciousness with System 1. So far so good.
Unfortunately, System 1 is vulnerable to cognitive biases. We can use System 1 to create a story about what is happening and how we feel which may be based on biases. We then compound the problem by using System 2 to rationalise the 'emotional' decision we have made.
In conflict, people feel under attack and often find it difficult to engage System 2. It feels comfortable to rely on their System 1 intuitions and biases. There are ways to de-bias ourselves:
In and earlier post, I had recommended "How Emotions Are Made" by Lisa Feldman Barrett. She describes the Theory of Constructed Emotion, in which our brains predict what we need to do based on information they receive, models they have made and our past experience.
This seems counter intuitive. How can our emotions be constructed by us? when we feel as if we are reacting to what is happening around us? How can we be responsible for the distress and pain when the other person's behaviour has caused it?
These ideas can be challenging to accept. One way to think about it is considering how we feel based on the same stimulus. For example, imagine you are driving along a quiet road when out of nowhere a sports car swerves in front of you and disappears into the distance. How do you feel? Now imagine that instead of a sports car that was an ambulance? same stimulus but different emotional reaction. We are not passive receptors of emotion, we actively construct how we feel.
If you are heading into a difficult conversation, then you can help yourself by constructing more helpful emotions. For example, rather than feeling the tightness in your stomach and deciding that you are anxious and worried, tell yourself that you are excited. If you are excited the chances are that you will perform better than if you are anxious.
Communication is challenging at the best of times. In a difficult conversation it can become impossible. Whilst there are many skills which can improve communication, there are two which I would like to focus on for this series, this week: acknowledgment.
Acknowledgement is a quiet superpower. We can all think of times when we were communicating something emotional / difficult and where we were acknowledged by the other person. It makes us feel heard, as if they understand what we are trying to communicate. it creates a sense of connection and rapport. In a difficult conversation, it can seem counterintuitive (or even impossible) to create rapport, however, the chances of creating a learning conversation are enhanced if the other person does not feel under attack. If we want to have a constructive conversation rather than a chance to blame / judge then one step is to acknowledge the other person's feelings.
Acknowledgement does not mean agreeing with everything they are saying, or agreeing that we are fault. However, it is a way of acknowledging that we have heard the underlying emotional content of their communication and that we accept this is how they feel.
Acknowledgments do not need to be lengthy or complicated. A simple statement such as "I can hear that you are ..." / "It sounds like..." can start to build the bridge of communication. If you are mistaken and the emotion is not correct, they will tell you. That's great - keep trying. I use acknowledgment in mediation all the time to let the person speaking how that I have received the message. You can see people visibly relax when they feel that you are trying to understand them and acknowledge how they feel.
Reframing is a tool we can use with the statements of others and also ourselves. Why would we reframe ourselves? For many of the same reasons as we use reframing with others:
start with the behaviour or the event - describe it factually without blame
describe the impact on you
"I would prefer if..."
your preferred outcome / needs / change to future focus
"This would work for both of us because..."
positive consequences for both
No tool can guarantee a constructive conversation, but an 'I' statement creates the possibility of one.
When I read about reframing, it is often a relatively upbeat article that suggests we can reframe negative statements into positive statements to resolve conflict. However, I would urge some caution. Reframing requires practice. It is much easier to reframe a statement into a neutral statement rather than a positive statement.
This is because, reframes fail when they do not capture the essence or truth of what has been said. A botched reframe may increase negativity as it may seem as if you are minimising or wilfully ignoring the other person's statement.
How can you do a reframe which will help rather than hinder?
So if we know a little about our fundamental beliefs about difficult conversations and conflict, and we have reflected on our personal conflict preference, how do we try and achieve meaningful results in a difficult conversation?
Next in the planning, we need to consider the wants / needs that we have and the other person may have.
In negotiation theory, these are known as positions (tangible, concrete) and interests (underlying needs / fears / concerns). (For more information please check my Chinese horoscope Snake post.)
Often we launch into a difficult conversation without stopping to plan ahead. If we are able to reflect on our positions and interests, we can then consider how else our interests might be met? what else could address our need / fear / concern? Is there a chance that the other person might find this more palatable?
Crucially, once we have conducted this exercise for ourselves, we can then ask these same questions for the other person. In mediation, I often see one party refuse an offer. When they are pressed to make a counter-proposal, they merely repeat their rejection of the offer that has been made. Sometimes this is a tactic, to make the other person negotiate against themselves.
Often I think it is because none of this planning has occurred before the mediation. People become fixated on their own position and just repeat what they want like a mantra. The challenge of having to change gear and think about how to adapt this is overwhelming in the mediation session itself.
Help yourself, if you are going into a difficult conversation - prepare! Understand your own positions / interests / alternatives and consider the other person's positions / interests / possible alternatives.
This is now real for me. My podcast Map the Maze which starts on 22 June is now on Apple Podcasts.
We all have a preference for our conflict style. In mediation, we often use the lens of the Thomas Kilman Instrument which arranges preferences along two axes.
One measures concern for our own goals / assertiveness and the other measures concern for others / co-operativeness.
For those who have a high focus on their own goals and a relatively low interest in relationships, they may adopt a competitive stance. For those who wish to dash to a conclusion or get a deal, they may compromise too quickly to achieve the deal. Each conflict preference has a pro / con. It may sound like being competitive may sound like a winning strategy, but if this is a long-term relationship then winning at all costs may backfire.
Having spoken to many people in training / classes about their personal conflict preferences, most people have a strong idea of their own preference. We know ourselves. What people are less aware of is that we are all able to adapt our behaviour to assume a different style if we want to.
What criteria should we use to decide which style to use?
Using these criteria to approach communication in conflict can be part of a planning process that occurs prior to the interaction. Next time you are approaching a difficult conversation, pause and think for a moment about how you could be in the conflict?