We've all had them... more often than we'd like to admit.
You mean well. You want resolution. And your intentions are good (mostly). So you swallow hard and head in. Then, somewhere after, "We need to talk," your brain flips a switch and another healthy relationship devolves into a scene from The Shining.
The good news is transforming your most terrifying conversations into productive dialog comes down to one word and two questions.
But here's the thing: That one word isn't something you'll ever say out loud. In fact, neither are the questions.
That's because our real enemy in any difficult conversation isn't the other person. It's us. The very skills that paid off huge for our ancestors' survival turn on us when we try talking with our spouse, kids, or boss about high-stakes issues.
So what's the word your brain needs? Detachment.
I'm not talking about becoming an apathetic robot. Far from it. Detachment means becoming an observer-participant in touchy conversations: adopting the role of a scientist, rather than an adrenaline-fueled rhesus monkey.
And--as with any good science--questions are the key: Two to be exact.
1. What do I really want?
Sounds obvious, but it's staggering how few of us can answer that question when it matters most.
Knowing what you want is so critical to mastering hard talks that my fellow Inc.com columnist Marissa Levin's first of "seven crucial questions to ask yourself before initiating every difficult conversation" is: "What are your objectives for this conversation?"
And no, simply saying, "I want to be happy," won't cut it.
Cliche answers like, "I want to be loved. I want to be respected. I want to be successful. I want to be heard," won't hold up when the bullets start flying.
They're true, but they're also vague. They lack teeth and the power to sustain.
Instead, you have to answer this first question by setting a goal before jumping into tough conversations. What you really want must be existentially relevant in order to keep you from falling victim to lesser goals like winning or punishing.
Anchor your answer to language that's meaningful to you.
For the first two years after my divorce, every stressful conversation I had with my ex-wife was guided by one want: "I want my daughters to feel safe, to know in their bones that both their parents love them and that we're united on their side."
The same goes at work. Whenever you're ramping up for a stomach-turning showdown, write out exactly what you want from the conversation and let that be your North Star.
2. What are they afraid of?
Understanding your own fears is powerful. However, this question isn't about you. It's about them.
Behind surface-level emotions like anger, frustration, and rage--emotions that propel us into fight or flight--stands fear. Whenever someone attacks you, what they're really feeling is afraid... and so they react.
Because fear is the most dominate human emotion. Good news for the jungle. Not so good for civilized society.
Our default response to harsh words and painful silences is to return them in kind. It should be to get empathetic. Again, that's where detachment comes in. Put on your mental lab-coat and ask yourself: "Huh... I wonder why they just did that? What are they afraid of?"
Not only will this curiosity lead you to pursue making the other person feel safe--a fundamental ingredient in productive conversations--but the act of posing questions during terrifying conversations reorients the brain itself.
As Dr. Luiz Pessoa in The Cognitive-Emotional Brain explains, "Answering [questions] requires that the organism mobilizes resources as it seeks out additional information from the environment. And when answering these questions redirects mental and bodily resources more fully, especially by engaging the hypothalamus and brainstem structures (via the central amygdala), an emotional experience will ensue."
In other words, questions take back our otherwise instinct-driven brains and re-engage higher cognitive functions. The result is clearer thinking and emotional regulation.
Simple... but not easy.
Of course, I don't want to oversell this.
While rescuing your brain from terrifying conversations comes down to just one word and two questions... that doesn't mean it's a walk in the park.
Investing in healthy detachment is a difficult skill to master and takes practice.
However, arming yourself with two questions--before, "What do I really want?" and during, "What are they afraid of?"--goes a long way to reorienting your brain and combating the real enemy: us.