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  • Writer's pictureDr. Emi Garzitto

Before Entering a Difficult Conversation Read This

You are about to enter a client meeting. You already know the client is upset. This is the third time you have had to move the order of delivery and you are aware that your client will not be happy to hear about it.

You are having a team meeting and you have to address a co-worker who has publicly dismissed your idea and questioned your credibility.

Management has called you to a meeting and although you do not know the exact nature of the meeting you fear that your job may be in jeopardy.

The growing data around self-regulation and learning has many connections for the workplace. Whenever we are engaged in conflict, tense or pressured environments our bodies will behave as if we are under physical threat. We will respond physiologically as if a sabre tooth tiger is coming at us. The increase in cortisol, endorphins and adrenaline can prevent us from thinking, strategizing, and managing our feelings. Before you enter a difficult conversation or tense meeting there are a number of things you can do to help you represent your best self.

So what can you do? Your sympathetic system will be activated. That means you will have increased sweat, your mouth may be dry, you may feel cold you may feel your eyes are dry or dilated or tensed you might feel like your hands are cold or, your digestion stops and you may have limited access to your prefrontal cortex. That’s the part of your brain that engages in organization, future thinking, and creative solution finding. You will most likely have increased energy as your body prepares to manage the threat. Common feelings are anxious, worry, frustration, annoyance, anger or nervousness. Finding strategies to manage and release that energy will be key to having you stay present with your prefrontal cortex engaged in the difficult conversation. Here are a few strategies:

1. Identify Your Feeling. Notice what is happening in your body. Take a moment to ask yourself, how do I feel right now? The first plan of action is to be able to clearly address what is happening in your body. Take small breaks during the day to notice how feelings are expressed throughout your body. What does hungry, thirsty, tired, calm, content, relaxed feel like? Where does annoyed, unhappy, uncomfortable, and jealous show up in your body? It is important that you become familiar with the physical signals that show up especially for uncomfortable feelings.

2. Practice Managing Uncomfortable Feelings. Everyone should have a well-rehearsed toolkit of coping strategies to manage distress. Some simple strategies include; move your body, shake your hands, move your feet from side to side, walk, jumping jacks, call a friend, find a quiet spot and breathe, pray or meditate, or go outside. Any kind of physical movement that can help you remove some of the energy out of your body before you enter the space will help you.

3. Stay Hydrated. When you are overwhelmed or feeling under threat taking, small sips of water can help you stay in your prefrontal cortex and keep you present. Especially if you find yourself with a dry mouth, water can be a great support.

4. Breathe. I know this is a no brainer but it’s one of the first things we stop to do when we feel under threat. We breathe shallow in our chest rather than from our belly. Just having long deep breaths especially the out breath, will help regulate your nervous system and help calm you down.

5. Make a Plan for Future You. Before you enter a difficult conversation or conflict, make a plan or think about something that you will do after the meeting. Go for lunch with a friend or call your partner or block off an hour of time to be alone. Having a clear idea of something that will happen after the meeting will also help you remember that life goes on after difficult conversations. The more difficult the conversation, the more self-care your idea should be.

The more you practice becoming aware of your body’s responses to distress, the more practice you have at physically managing those experiences the better you will be to handle the difficult conversation. Take care of your body first. Have a plan to manage your feelings and regulate your nervous system so that you can have the best chance to stay focussed and less reactive in the midst of difficult conversations.

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