The Root of All Things

In preparation for writing a new book on Courageous Conversations, I’ve been doing some research and re-reading some old classics on communicating effectively in challenging situations. I am reminded on all fronts about how easily we can get derailed when emotions take over for logic.

There is a raft of research to prove that when we are faced with a challenging conversation, we receive a heavy chemical dose of adrenaline straight into our bloodstream which causes an almost immediate fight-or-flight response. We don’t choose to do this. Our adrenal glands do it and then we must live with the fallout.

This chemical boost causes our brains to immediately divert blood from any current tasks it now deems as unnecessary and redirect that blood flow to what it suddenly views as high-priority tasks such as hitting or running. Unfortunately, as the large muscle groups gain more blood to do their “work,” the thinking part of our brain – the part that maintains reason – gets less. Hence, we often start talking and acting like a pea-brained reptile versus the high-functioning, reasonable human that we are.

In conflict, challenge, or disagreement, the primal fight-or-flight response shows up as either defensiveness, attack, or counter-attack (fight) or a retreat into pouting, sulking, storming off, or a punishing silence (flight.) Neither are productive or who we want to be in our rational state.

So, what do we do?

Numerous studies of leaders who are highly-respected and effective in high stakes conversations clearly show that the ability to pause before responding and quickly ask a couple of internal questions is the key. Questions like these below are great examples:

  • What do I really want for myself as an outcome?
  • What do I want for them?
  • What do I want for our future relationship?
  • What would I say or do if I was truly committed to these outcomes?

When we pose any intellectual question to our minds, we experience an almost immediate reversal of the fight-or-flight response. We redirect resources back to the problem-solving part of the brain because it recognizes a complex personal dilemma to be dealt with instead of a physical threat.

This is a discipline which is highly developed in the best leaders and communicators. It’s a reminder to come back into our highly-developed “smart brain” and take a re-check on our ultimate goals and purpose. It brings us back quickly into an exploration of what we can do to navigate a hostile or precarious situation rather than always expecting the other person to do a turnabout or change.

Ultimately, it brings us back to love. Love for ourselves, the others in our lives, and our community.

This week, when you find yourself faced with road rage, frenzied shopping behaviors, family agreements, or professional disagreements… practice taking a breath before you respond and redirecting the blood flow back to your “smart brain” by silently asking yourself, “What do I really want for me, for them, and for our future relationship?” And watch how differently, deliberately, and more effectively you handle the situation.

Maybe Mr. Rogers said it best: “Love is at the root of all things. All learning. All parenting. All relationships. Love… or the lack of it.”


“Emotions are one of the main things that derail communication. Once
people get upset at one another, rational thinking goes out of the window.”
~~Christopher Voss

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