Conversations that challenge our identity or safety can be especially difficult, and so understanding triggers and “identity-shaping stories” can help us become more effective communicators, writes John Sautelle. “Increasing our capacity to regulate our response also paves the way for us to help the other person do likewise, thereby increasing our confidence to lean into future conversations we might otherwise avoid,” he writes.
For many of us, the mere thought of holding a difficult conversation with someone important evokes fear and anxiety. We manage these uncomfortable feelings through avoidance. You know the story — If I don’t hold the conversation, my deepest fears won’t be realised, and things will somehow magically get better.
Right? Wrong — as our personal history shows. We know that grievances left unaddressed drip like acid all over the relationship, corroding trust and connection. So why do we do this?
Wired for Survival
Humans are sense-making beings. We make sense of ourselves and the world we live in through the stories we inherit, adopt, and create. And our stories are neurobiologically wired to answer this survival question:‘Is this something to move towards that supports life (reward response), or something to move against or away from to stay safe (threat response)?’¹
Our stories determine our response. When there is conflict with someone important to us, do we move towards connection, or do we go into a fight, flee or freeze response? Do we stay calm, or get defensive and reactive?
Here is the catch. To keep us safe, our stories assume the worst. My developmental journey illustrates this life-or-death phenomenon. Driven by survival stories I was unaware of at the time, for much of my life I acted out of a paralysing need for perfection, an unhealthy need to be liked, and an irresistible need to be in control. This wreaked havoc in my relationships and resulted in repeat episodes of burnout. It also fuelled a quest to find out what was going on and change my responses.