Alec Grimsley's Blog

July 8, 2010

Difficult conversation: Develop a FAB response!


Developing a FAB response in difficult conversations

Imagine the scene… you’re trying your best to handle a difficult conversation or your handling what you regard as a difficult person. Just when you think you’re handling things quite well, you innocently say something that triggers an unexpected reaction from the other person, maybe they get angry and accuse you of incompetence, alternatively they throw you some guilt with a line like “I’ve made all the sacrifices in this relationship you just take, take, take!” These are the moments that it’s so easy to lose our emotional balance in the conversation and its easy to automatically fall into either a fight or flight mode. If its fight we launch back with even more venomous dialogue making the conversation increasingly hostile and unsafe for both parties. Yet equally we may hit the flight panic button and become increasingly passive and capitulate to the other person’s tactics, demands or behaviour.

The science behind our emotions

So how do we end up in an emotional straitjacket? The answer can be found by looking at a component of the brain that is only the size of an almond. Within one part of the brain sits this almond-sized object known as the amygdala. It serves a critical role as a protective guardian, issuing orders to the rest of the body at incredible speed in life or death situations. If, for instance, you accidentally stepped out in front of a bus, it would be your amygdala that (hopefully) ordered your entire body to leap backwards in the blink of an eye.

This process depends on the way the brain routes information.  In the above scenario, you take in visual data about the speeding bus. The information journey begins with activation of one of the senses, in this case vision, which is routed to the thalamus. The thalamus monitors and sorts all sensory information (except smell). Like an air traffic controller, its job is to keep the signals moving. In a non-life-threatening situation, say the bus is still 200 metres away, the thalamus directs the impulse to the high reasoning part of our brain, the neocortex, or
specifically in this case the visual cortex, for processing.

The cortex “thinks” about the impulse and makes sense of it: “Aha, a speeding large object! I should get reasonably excited about this.” That signal is then sent to the amygdala, which refines the fight/flight response and regulates your emotions. The hypothalamus, which adjoins the thalamus, is also an important member of this emotional orchestra. It tells the brain what is happening inside the body, including activating the pituitary gland. This directs your adrenal glands to release the stress hormones of adrenalin and cortisol if you are faced with immediate danger or fail to respond in a rational way to a perceived stressful situation.

It’s important to realise that when you’re under stress your emotional state is not just on a neural trip, your entire body is having a simultaneous biochemical trip as well. In a physically threatening situation, the thalamus has a different reaction. Like any skilled air traffic controller, the thalamus can react quickly to a potential threat. In high-risk scenarios, it bypasses the cortex (the thinking brain) and the signal goes straight to the amygdala. The amygdala then sends chemical messengers via the hypothalamus and the body gets ready for fight or flight, rerouting blood and energy away from the brain and vital organs to the muscular and skeletal system, which then does its job of removing or handling the imminent threat. The challenge is that the amygdala cannot tell the difference between a physical, emotional or perceived threat.

In vital conversations where the stakes and emotions are running high, it’s very easy for one or both parties to feel threatened or scared. Unfortunately, what you see, hear and perceive in these circumstances stimulates the thalamus and the amygdala kicks in before your prefrontal cortex has the chance to think the situation through rationally. In a blink of an eye, a hundred thousand years of ancestry goes to your defence and the flight/fight physical response kicks in. The higher functions of your neocortex reasoning brain temporarily shut down and you either become passive (flight) or you flip to being aggressive, it’s particularly damaging to the relationship when one or both parties are hijacked into fight mode, as with little conscious reasoning they begin to “brain fart”, a term I use to describe people who just blurt out judgements, harsh words, criticism or foul language, all of which hurt the relationship and kill the potential for a successful conversation.

Once you have been emotionally hijacked, you can become emotionally and physically stuck in a reinforcing loop, keeping you in an un-resourceful mode of being. Your body often becomes very tense. Under a physical attack (the amygdala’s original purpose) you would be running or fighting and continually dissipating the stress hormones of adrenalin and cortisol.

A difficult conversation is a physically more passive situation and the stress hormones are not easily released from the body, therefore they build up. This creates what is called a “cybernetic closed loop”. The build up of stress hormones creates further tension in various parts of the body, sending signals back to the brain that all is not well and generating more emotion (fear, frustration, anger and so on). Emotion focuses attention, so if you’re having strong negative emotions it tends to direct your focus or mental attention to what’s negative or in
your view wrong, unfair or scary. This continues to fire off the hypothalamus, which sends out further messages to your pituitary glands to excrete more cortisol and adrenalin, which exaggerates your tension and stress and so the reinforcing loop goes on.

Being in this state for more than a few minutes is exhausting. In physically threatening situations the fight/flight scenario usually lasts for only a few seconds, but without effective emotional state management it may go on for the whole duration of a difficult conversation.

Creating a pattern interrupt with FAB

Jon Kabbit Zinn a leading light in mindfulness meditation says that “we need to move from unconscious stress reactions to conscious stress responses.” When the other person say something that has a high probability of triggering a strong reaction in you, it’s crucial to develop a powerful pattern interrupt. This doesn’t stop the other person from saying those words and it won’t stop you feeling hurt in their words are insensitive but it will stop you going into that emotionally hijacked place and keeps you consciously responding to the person and the behaviour that being offered to you.

In essence developing your FAB response is in three simple stages but your success with this strategy lies in you practicing it until it becomes second nature, not unlike the way a soldier repeats drills around key skills that he or she will need to access like clockwork even under the most extreme pressure.

F stands for “Fascinating” this is your mental keyword and when you’re hit with the challenging behaviour or words of the other person you silently and almost philosophically say this to yourself in your mind. On my workshops my delegates laugh when they hear this which is important because the giggle or laugh acts as your pattern interrupt which acts as block on your amygdala and prevents it from firing into a fight flight state. Lets face it if you internally giggle or can stay philosophical about the other persons actions then there isn’t enough fear or
shock the amygdala to kick in.

A stands for acknowledge, i.e. you honestly acknowledge your feelings around what’s just been said and where you’re mentally at with that. Your inner dialogue might say something like “Wow, I wasn’t expecting that and actually I pretty hurt by what’s just been said”. Acknowledging your feelings is especially important as this gives you a little bit of distance where you can still feel your emotions without them taking over.

B stands for breathe. Don’t under estimate the power of slow diaphragmatic breathing. Your body and breathing a hard wired together. Breathe shallow and fast and you will begin to generate anxiety, alternatively deep slow belly breathing automatically quietens the mind and relaxes the body taking you further way from that fight flight reaction.

Here’s the process:

  1. Get into a comfortable position, seated with both feet placed on the floor and keep upright with your eyes closed.
  2. Visualise a deflated ball in your stomach. Breathe in very slowly through your nose and simultaneously visualise the air going into your stomach and inflating the ball.
  3. Hold for two to three seconds (the time will vary based on your level of fitness and stress levels).
  4. Very slowly breathe out. (Sometimes this is hard to do slowly through your nose, so instead purse your lips as if holding a very thin straw and release the breath slowly, as if breathing out through the straw).
  5. Repeat until you sense your body relax and your mind become calm and increasingly rational.

Practice, practice, practice!

Remember you must dig the well before you need the water. You can practice this breathing technique at any time of the day and there will be lots of stressful moments that are not difficult conversations to start your practice off. For instance you get stuck in traffic and you’re late for a meeting or for work. Fascinating! Acknowledge “I’m frustrated that this has happened to me, but there’s nothing I can do about it. “Breathe doing a minute or so’s worth of slow breaths. Then look out of your window and have some empathy for your fellow car drivers who are going out of their minds with frustration.

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