Detailed Workshop Overview

 Difficult Conversations: The art and science of living together is a one-day training that provides a foundation for engaging in meaningful dialogue with anyone—regardless of economic, social or ideological differences.

Specifically, the training focuses on three, researched-based strategies proven to counter the instinctual fight, flee or freeze survival drive that difficult conversations often trigger:

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

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

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

The premise of this workshop is that these survival instincts — “only modestly more sophisticated than an alligator’s⁠”  — evolved early in our evolution to help us avoid immediate threats to our survival, most especially getting eaten. It’s a completely inappropriate instinct for responding to the long-term challenges of today, where the most important survival skill is cooperation. For that we need an entirely new set of strategies.

The three, interconnected strategies proposed in this workshop are one possibility. Supported by science, each has been shown to help us gain greater access to our innate capacities for creativity, resilience, empathy and cooperation.  All of which are essential to our personal and collective wellbeing.

 In brief, the three strategies are:

1.     Prioritize the relationship over being right. Research shows that our survival drive is often triggered when someone challenges our deeply held beliefs. Research also shows that when that happens, we lose a host of cognitive capacities that are at the heart of being human, including empathy, moral reasoning and even intuition.  Bereft of these capacities, the conversation — and sometimes the relationship itself — typically comes to an unsatisfying and even ugly end.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Evidence abounds that differences in values, attitudes and beliefs become far less significant when a deeper basis of relationship is formed — especially when it’s rooted in our common humanity. Workshop participants will learn strategies for building such relationships, in turn allowing them to maintain — and even strengthen — the critical capacities needed for creative engagement.

2.     See beyond your story. Most of us have the (often unconscious) assumption that our ‘story’ — the particular set of life experiences from which we derive our sense of self — is the totality of who we are. This merging of ‘self’ and ‘story’ explains one of the most surprising findings of neurobiology: Threats to our ‘story self’ — to our values, attitudes and beliefs — activate the same parts of our brain as threats to our physical self, triggering our fight, flee or freeze reactions. When this happens, simmering disagreements can quickly become combustible.

At the same time, we’re learning that our identity encompasses far more than our story. Studies show that a more expanded sense of self emerges when we “switch off” our ‘story self,’ unleashing a host of positive emotions and attributes, including joy, compassion, gratitude, flexibility, creativity and receptivity to new ideas — all of which counteract our survival drive instinct. Workshop participants will learn more about this “expanded self” and how to access its capacities.

3.     Transform resistance into response. Resistance is our early-warning system that our survival drive is beginning to kick into gear. When we’re in resistance, our attention narrows, our heart rate increases, and our stress levels rise — all signals of an emerging fight, flee, or freeze reaction. Workshop participants will learn about the psychology of resistance, why transforming our resistance into response strengthens our cognitive capacities, and how the brain has evolved to actually help us undergo this transformation process.