Why Conversations Drive Us Into Cul-De-Sacs

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When did you last find yourself in a conversation that took an unexpected turn. Did you grapple for the right words as the conversation either ground to a halt or faltered awkwardly? 

You have navigated into a conversation cul-de-sac.

We have all been there. They occur in all human interactions from  families, social groups, sporting teams, small and large organisations and within and across governments.

Conversations explore, exchange and expose ideas, thoughts, insights, beliefs, biases and convictions. 

They seek to influence. So it is unsurprising to learn how often we find ourselves in a cul-de-sac.

In any conversation, meaning resides with the listener, not the speaker.  

Whatever the intent of the speaker, ultimately we, the listener will make own sense of what we hear.  

And what we hear is further impeded by the fact that most of us only half-listen to the other person because we are preparing our response as they speak.

Given we are both  listeners and speakers, the power and complexity of conversations becomes clear.

Problems arise when a conversation takes an unexpected turn and our limbic or primitive brain perceives a threat to our ego.

You know that sense of discomfort we feel we are out of our depth?

Perhaps the other person in the conversation has raised an issue, shared information, questioned our intent or challenged or made an assumption.

This perceived threat can trigger our fight, flight, freeze or appease default reactions. 

These can disable our internal navigation system - disconnecting us from our prefrontal cortex and leaving the limbic brain in the driver’s seat. 

Our prefrontal cortex is essential to the effective navigation of all conversations.

Whether we are a newly minted international leader or a leader of, or within an organisation, we can all be better equipped for the inevitable conversation cul-de-sacs.

There are some simple but smart ways to improve the quality of our conversations.

We can avoid being ‘caught out’ with our amygdala triggered and our mouth agape when a conversation takes an unexpected turn:

  1. Acknowledge and respect the power of every conversation.
  2. Prepare for conversations, particularly when they go beyond BAU.
  3. Listen and check for understanding throughout the conversation. When the limbic brain is triggered we are listening for threats rather than listening for understanding.  Ask questions to gain clarity and slow the pace of the conversation down so you can shift from reaction to response. 
  4. Learn to recognise our own triggers, and how we react when our amygdala is triggered.  
  5. Practice shifting in the moment from ‘react’ to ‘respond’ mode.  
  6. If you remain uncomfortable, have some ready responses that allow you to remove yourself from the cul-de-sac. 

Conversations are under-estimated - they are powerful and they drive our behaviour and the behaviour of those we are in conversation with across all layers of our life.

Conversation cul-de-sacs can feel like many things - but they never feel comfortable.

Take time to learn more about the power of conversations, and we can learn more about ourselves and other people and we can better navigate our personal and work relationships.

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