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5 Tools for High Stakes Communication: Tool #1, Fight or Flight Systems Check

May 24, 2022

Five Skill-Building Tools for Stepping Up Your Positive Presence in Difficult Conversations

  If you want to engage effectively with others to foster lasting systems change, communicating in a resourceful, positive way is hugely important. But understanding the importance of effective communication is not the same as being able to put these skills into practice, especially when the stakes are high.

Fortunately, we can draw on over fifty years of research and practice to upgrade our interpersonal communication skills. Much of this work centers on the foundational contributions of Harvard professor Chris Argyris, who developed the field of “action science” in the 1970s. His ongoing research over the next forty years deeply influenced a wide array of other theorists and practitioners from pioneers in systems thinking like Peter Senge and the founding faculty of the Harvard Negotiation Program, as well as Diana McLain Smith, Robert Putnam, and Philip McArthur of Action Design LLC.   Another notable contributor is psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, author of Nonviolent Communication

The payoff from all of this field-building work over the past 50 years is a set of practical skills for communicating more effectively in high stakes situations. It’s not an exaggeration to say that these skills are truly a breakthrough with profound potential significance for all of us. Over the decades, many thousands of people have been trained in these techniques, and yet they still remain largely outside mainstream use. Why? Because we are going up against millions of years of evolutionary psychology here—we are hardwired to be emotionally reactive and zero-sum in our interactions with others.  

The good news is that with practice and commitment, you can rewire yourself. I encourage you to seek out the many resources, materials, and training opportunities available through institutions like the Harvard Negotiation Program, Action Design, and the Center for Nonviolent Communication, as well as outstanding consultants, coaches and trainers working independently--such as Kwame Griffith, who has taught much of this content to me and the participants in our Joyful Impact accelerator for philanthropy advisors.   

For now, in this series of introductory posts, we'll  share an overview of five key tools that are a powerful foundation for building your skills as an empathetic and collaborative problem solver. 

Tool #1: Fight or Flight Systems Check

This is about taking stock of the emotional intensity of the issues you are dealing with in any given interaction. How ready are you and the other person to engage resourcefully and respectfully? How likely is either one of you to get triggered into an emotionally intense “fight or flight” reaction? This is where it can be helpful to remember the seven universal human needs: security, novelty, social status, social connection, social contribution, self-evolution, and self-transcendence. Are either one of you struggling to meet any of these universal human needs in this interaction?  If so, these are the parts of the conversation in which your  “fight or flight” brain is most likely to take over the controls and send you or the other person into an emotional overdrive.  

The techniques that follow will help you identify when your defensive instincts are getting activated and help you reset yourself to a more resourceful stance.  

  • Take a pulse check. Literally. Practice getting in touch with the signals your body is sending you during challenging conversations. Learn to spot when you are going into fight or flight mode based on your own biofeedback, whether it’s a racing pulse, a flushed face or that tense feeling in the pit of your stomach.
  • Play for time. When you feel your body going into fight or flight mode, take this as a cue to slow down the interaction. If at all possible, ask for time to process and take a break. If you can't pause the interaction, give your critical thinking faculties some time to re-emerge by asking questions rather than speaking. Do whatever you can to delay your response until the neurochemical flood of your fight or flight response has had time to ebb. Your defensive activation is temporary. You can let those powerful signals flow through your nervous system and get to a more resourceful, calm and connected place on the other side. You can also practice in advance by rehearsing a difficult conversation ahead of time. This can help take the edge off your defensive response in the moment.
  • Name it to tame it. Simply identifying the emotions you are experiencing can be a powerful way to begin shifting gears from your primitive, reactive brain to your  higher level faculties. The more you acknowledge what you are feeling, the more quickly you can let these emotions pass through and get to a more resourceful place from which to engage in collaborative problem solving. This is why the technique of asking the other party to name their concerns is so powerful—by acknowledging what we are experiencing, we can calm ourselves down much more quickly. Try this with a four-year-old who is in full spate and you'll see just how quickly the crying stops, the flushed face settles down, and the creative brain switches back on. 

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