How to Navigate Difficult Conversations in 2020 and Beyond

by Amy Clay, LPC and MJ Harford, MA

Difficult discussions Sunstone Counseling

To state the obvious, 2020 has been a stressful year. Between the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, political strife, and social unrest, we’ve all been operating at higher-than-usual levels of stress and anxiety. Add in a historically divisive presidential election and the holidays just around the corner and we’ve got a perfect storm for individual and relational stressors to remain high. As we gather with friends and family, whether virtually or in-person for the holiday season, current events will likely be a topic of conversation with differing opinions involved. Now more than ever it’s critical that we possess the tools to have difficult but healthy conversations with people in our lives.

When engaging in a stressful or opposing conversation, it’s understandable that our emotions take charge, especially when the topic is something we feel passionately about. But to have productive and healthy conversations, everyone must be in an emotional and mental space to hear each other and to listen fully before responding thoughtfully rather than impulsively reacting. So how do we get to that place when we’re seeing red during an emotional conversation? To learn how we can manage our responses to stressful situations, it’s important to understand the physiological reactions that regulate and guide us.

The Nervous System: Keeping Us Alive and Safe

The nervous system is like our internal thermostat – it regulates what’s happening within us to ensure we stay safe and secure. At its most essential, it keeps us alive, surviving, and thriving.

The nervous system has many branches but the one we focus on most frequently in counseling is the autonomic nervous system, which has two branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for many of our activation functions – the ones that help the body turn on and use energy. In response to perceived threats and stressful situations the sympathetic response also activates our fight and flight reactions. In difficult conversations these reactions could look and feel like:

  • Irritability
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Tension build-up in the body
  • Racing thoughts
  • Interrupting others
  • Leaving the conversation as quickly as possible

The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for many restorative responses, including our rest and digest functions which help us turn off to conserve and restore energy. In response to perceived threats and stressful situations, the parasympathetic response includes both the freeze reaction and the fawn reaction (also known as pleasing response, a learned response that can be developed to navigate conflict and trauma through people-pleasing). In difficult conversations this could look and feel like:

  • Shutting down and zoning out
  • People pleasing, including going along to get along to avoid conflict 
  • Prioritizing other people’s feelings or needs
  • Becoming tired or feeling heavy/stuck 
  • Feeling numb 

Like many things, we experience these responses on a spectrum: fight and flight on one end, safety and connection in the middle, and freeze and fawn on the other end. These responses are not all-or-nothing and it’s perfectly normal to move up and down on the “see-saw” of nervous system responses throughout our day and our lives. Ideally, we want to be in that middle point of safety and connection where there is a sense of stability, control, and ease to our experience. When we’re in this safe space, we are more able to connect with others, empathize, and think clearly – all essential ingredients to having healthy and engaging conversations.

The Stress Response

So now that we know why our bodies react the way they do during difficult conversations, what can we do about it?

First, it’s helpful to understand these responses and reactions so we’re better able to anticipate them, process through them, and form a healthy response. When faced with a potentially difficult dialogue, we can anticipate our reactions, identify how we can get ourselves to that safe, middle point, and act. With practice, we can get ourselves back to that middle point quicker and easier.  

Self-awareness and Regulation

Self-soothing is a skill we need at most times in our lives, but it is particularly helpful when engaging in conversations that could get emotional and lead to differences of opinion. Here are a few tips to check in with yourself and get to a calmer, more regulated state.

  •  Check in with your body. To understand where we are on the spectrum of nervous system responses, it’s helpful to see how our body is feeling in the moment. Is your heart racing? Are your palms sweaty? If so, you’re likely in flight-or-fight mode and won’t be able to connect as meaningfully with others because your body is focused on keeping you safe. If you’re feeling lethargic or find yourself withdrawing from the situation, your body might be sending you signals that it’s not quite ready for healthy engagement with those around you. These feelings and sensations can be unpleasant and uncomfortable to pay attention to at first, which is normal. However, learning to listen to the body’s response is an important part of understanding and managing our emotions.
  • Get calm(er). There’s a reason people say “take a breath” when stress flares up. Another area that regulates our body’s stress response is the vagus nerve, which begins at the base of the skull and travels down the body. Breathing exercises can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls our rest state, and deactivate the sympathetic nervous system, which regulates our fight-or-flight response, with stimulation of the vagus nerve. Try one (or all) of these breathing exercises to calm your nervous system and reduce anxiety.
  • Know your values. Listening to someone else’s perspective doesn’t mean you have to abandon your own beliefs and convictions. In fact, being aligned with your values can lead to more productive conversations as you’re able to clearly articulate your viewpoint. Conducting a values exercise can be helpful to understand what your core beliefs are and how to express them authentically.

Learn How to “Dialogue”

In counseling, we guide couples and/or two people on how to move through difficult conversations using Harville Hendrix’s “imago dialogue” and John Gottman’s “how to have stress-reducing conversations,” both of which can be used to facilitate healthy and productive conversations in different relational contexts. Both methods require that only one person speaks at a time (which sounds basic but can be very hard to do in the heat of an emotional conversation), deep and attentive listening, validating the other person’s feelings, and expressing empathy and interest. These techniques may not always come naturally but with intention and practice, you can be prepared to respond to potentially conflictual conversations in a healthier and less stressful way. 

Set Healthy Boundaries

When conversations get emotional, it’s important to hear and respect differences of opinion but also to draw healthy boundaries when needed. If a difficult conversation leads to anxiety, stress, or toxicity, it may be necessary to decide if, and how, to interact with that person. We can choose how to respond to and self-regulate, but others may not be able to do the same, resulting in an emotional situation. Creating boundaries is an important self-care tool to stay calm and healthy and protect relationships. A boundary might sound like: “It’s clear we disagree and I value our relationship so I’m going to step away from this conversation,” or “I know that this is a big topic these days, but it’s not something I want to talk about right now.”

Seek Out Professional Help

Emotional and nervous system regulation is not easy to do on our own at first and requires learning and practice. But this is not something we have to figure out on our own. There are many highly-trained counselors with extensive experience in nervous system regulation and active listening / the dialogical process at Sunstone Counseling. With professional guidance, you can more easily navigate difficult conversations (and people) during the holidays, and beyond.

Contact Sunstone Counseling today for a free phone consultation or to find the right counselor for you.