What makes difficult conversations difficult?

An excerpt from my upcoming book: “The New Survival Drive: Three Strategies for Learning to Live Together.”

There’s an audio tape I often play at the beginning of my Difficult Conversations workshop — a real-life conversation between two women on opposite sides of the abortion debate.  

The women meet under contentious circumstances: A pro-life rally and a pro-choice counter-rally. The two warring tribes are facing off on opposite sides of the street, each inciting the other with provocative signs and verbal bomb throwing. The atmosphere is tense. 

The woman on the pro-life side, recognizing that yelling “doesn’t change hearts and minds,” makes the first move. She invites the woman on the pro-choice side to talk. A reporter is there to capture the conversation, enticed by this unusual attempt to bridge the divide.

The conversation plays out in just under seven minutes, and as you listen you first feel hopeful. In counterpoint to the surrounding maelstrom, the two women are civil to each other, even kind. The pro-life woman, forgoing the familiar talking points, begins by sharing a personal story, perhaps hoping it will help the other woman better understand her perspective. If so, it’s only partially effective. While the pro-choice woman graciously acknowledges the story, she almost immediately shifts into sharing her own viewpoint and rationale. Soon an all too familiar pattern is established: the combative tit-for-tat of opposing facts, experiences and priorities. 

To the women’s credit they’re never mean-spirited. But within minutes their attempted dialogue becomes two overlapping and competing monologues. Deafened by the rising volume of their own intermingled voices, they finally (and politely) decide to end their conversation and return to their respective tribes.

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I play this audio tape not to launch into a difficult conversation on abortion, but to use it as a case study. What exactly made this conversation difficult, and what could either woman have done to make it a better experience for both of them?

When I ask these questions in the workshop, the answers I get typically focus on the women’s behavior. What made the conversation difficult was their failure to really listen to one another. What would have made it better is if they’d taken the time to ask clarifying questions; to seek to understand not only what the other person thought or believed, but also why

These are solid answers, and they’re backed by research that shows when people feel heard and understood, they become less rigid in their thinking and more open to new ideas.

But here’s the conundrum: If we know the prescription for a better conversation, then why don’t more of us follow it? What makes listening to people we disagree with so damn difficult that we act in ways we know are counter-productive?

THE SCIENCE OF DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS

The answer, it turns out, has to do with some very ancient human programming. Attitudes and beliefs we find threatening often trigger our survival drive: a powerful set of primitive, instinctual reactions we know as “fight, flee or freeze” (the ‘3 Fs’). Adapted to the world of conversation, the 3F’s typically look like this:

  1. Fight. We argue our point aggressively in an effort to “win” the argument.

  2. Flee. We avoid or give up on the conversation and retreat to the security and comfort of our “tribe.”

  3. Freeze. Dumbstruck by some unexpected turn in the conversation, we fail to muster any kind response at all.

Now if our goal is to build bridges and find common ground, it’s pretty clear these survival drive strategies have limited to no applicability. So why do we succumb to them? Why does an instinct originally intended to help us survive an encounter with a hungry lion take control when we’re confronted with a difficult conversation? 

The reason is simple but also pretty shocking: According to neuroscience, when it comes to threatening lions and threatening ideas, our brain can’t tell the difference. Both activate the brain’s fear center, which in turn triggers our survival drive. 

In other words, as far as our brain is concerned, a threat to our beliefs is just another kind of lion, waiting to devour us. 

Here’s how it works:

Tucked within our lower brain is an almond shaped cluster of neurons called the amygdala. Associated with fear and strong emotion, the amygdala is part of the brain’s neural “fear circuit,” charged with sensing threats and triggering our fight/flee/freeze reaction. 

Importantly, the amygdala is also part of another neural circuit, sometimes called the executive circuit, which involves the upper brain’s pre-frontal cortex (PFC). When the amygdala registers a threat, it alerts the PFC, which, among other things, determines if the threat is real (is that a burglar in the closet or just my kid playing hide and seek?). If it’s real, the PFC sits back and lets the amygdala amp up our survival drive unimpeded until the danger has passed. If it’s not real, and the amygdala has pushed the panic button prematurely, the prefrontal cortex modulates or extinguishes the amygdala’s survival drive so that we (quite literally) regain our senses, preventing us from taking actions we’ll later regret.

Figure 1: Calm amygdala; strong neural highway,

Figure 1: Calm amygdala; strong neural highway,

Now here’s the critical part: for all this to go smoothly a strong neural connection between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex is essential (see figure 1). And this is where things can go wrong.

If — for reasons we’ll get to later in the book — our amygdala over-reacts to a perceived threatening situation (“overheats” with fear, anger or other kinds of negative emotions), the neural connection to our prefrontal cortex can weaken (see figure 2), preventing it from playing it’s modulating role. This can cause us to, in the words of psychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegel, “flip our lid”: Our negative emotions run so hot the connection to our prefrontal cortex breaks down completely, disabling our executive level cognitive functions. (“Road rage” is one well-known example of “flipping our lid.”)

Figure 2: Overheated amygdala; weak neural highway.

Figure 2: Overheated amygdala; weak neural highway.

Why does this matter? Here’s a list of the major, critical cognitive capabilities we lose when we “flip our lid”:

  1. Compassion

  2. Emotional balance

  3. Response flexibility

  4. Empathy/Compassion

  5. Self-knowning awareness

  6. Fear modulation/Fear extinction

  7. Intuition

  8. Moral reasoning.

No wonder difficult conversations are difficult! Once our survival drive is triggered, we’ve lost the very capacities we need to engage in the conversation compassionately, creatively and productively. 

So, to recap…

We react to threats to our deeply held beliefs as if they were threats to our physical body, triggering our survival drive. But this “fight, flee, freeze” instinct — “only modestly more sophisticated than an alligator’s”  — evolved early in our evolution when the most important survival skill was to avoid getting eaten. It’s a completely inappropriate instinct for responding to the challenges of today, where the most important survival skill is cooperation. 

So what can we do? Is it possible to disentangle our deeply held beliefs from this ancient survival drive? Can we learn to stay in the conversation without losing the critical cognitive capabilities we need to collectively address the challenges of today’s world? Can we learn to stay present and creative so that our interactions are at worst civil, and at best transformational?

Research, and experience, tells us the answer is unequivocally “yes.” But it requires an entirely different set of survival strategies. We’ll be turning to those next.