Have you shouted at your teenager in exasperation even though you knew from past experience that it would provoke a door-slamming situation? Have you been in a work meeting where you trampled on someone’s sentences even though you set out to listen? Or have you fired off a bad-tempered email, even though you knew you should pick up the phone to resolve the issue face-to-face? In each case, when we see the impact of our actions, we look back and wonder why our judgment deserted us. In retrospect, the appropriate solution seems blindingly obvious, but somehow we get carried away in the heat of the moment.
The fact is that many of our behaviors are ‘mindless’ – the flip side of mindful. Under pressure, our instinctive response is usually to blame or justify rather than to give a rational, balanced or values-based response. This is hardly surprising when we consider that, for 99% of human history, short-term survival has been our highest-order priority.
Dr. Steve Peters, clinical psychiatrist and mental coach to a glittering array of world champions and Olympic gold medalists, explains this process in The Chimp Paradox. As a working model for increased self-awareness, he describes the three psychological brains as the Human (frontal), the Chimp (limbic) and the Computer (parietal). Our inner Chimp, which operates on the basis of survival-based emotions and impressions, often takes over and thinks for us. Sometimes this is what’s needed, but on other occasions it overrides a thoughtful response and ruins our day.
When it comes to communication, part of the problem is that conversations happen so fast, with barely a gap, or none at all, between one person finishing a sentence and another person starting theirs. In an effort to react quickly and conserve energy, our Chimp brain can have a field day.
How does this play out in practice? In my book Blamestorming, I give the example of Beth and Dan who are both tired and under pressure at work. After they get back home and make some food, Dan settles himself in front of a natural history show on TV until Beth bursts his bubble:
Beth: Can I watch my show?
Dan: I’m just watching this. It’s right in the middle…
Beth: Come on, you know I love Hustle. I watch it every Thursday night.
Dan: But I’m really enjoying this. And anyway, it’s my favorite show.
Beth: Favorite show? Give me a break.
Dan: But you can’t just barge in and get what you want.
The significant point is this: for a reason he’s not fully clear about, Dan claims that the show he’s watching is his favorite. The moment he hears the words come out of his mouth, he knows this is a gross exaggeration and Beth knows it too. In reality he feels irritated that Beth just assumed he would switch channel – as if it was her entitlement – but he didn’t have the presence of mind to identify and articulate this. So he blurts off a defensive response instead.
Having got off to a bad start, the conversation starts to spiral:
Beth: [With sarcasm] Forget it!
Dan: [Backing off, but annoyed] OK, YOU watch YOUR thing!
Beth: No, I wouldn’t dream of interrupting your FAVOURITE show!
Dan: Go on. You made a fuss about switching over. You watch it then.
Beth: Not at all. You go ahead.
Looked at logically, Beth and Dan are now in a surreal tangle. A moment ago, they were fighting for their TV rights. Seconds later, they are contesting NOT to watch their preferred show, because they both want to take the moral high ground.
I use this example firstly because disagreements so often start with trivial conversations, and secondly because our relationships are made up of thousands of small and seemingly insignificant interactions that either take us towards our values or away from them. When relationships break down at home or at work, it is usually the product of a gradual and destructive process of arguing, clearing things up and repeating the process. Over time, this creates a slow deterioration of joy, satisfaction and happiness.
What’s the solution? These 3 steps will increase the chances of having mindful rather than mindless conversations.
Don’t just be in conversations – observe them. Recognize how your conversational style changes when you’re stressed or under pressure, and whether you get more directive or withdrawn. Watch how a work meeting fragments when it becomes a contest for people to get their word in. Notice when an email exchange is in danger of getting out of control. Daily life offers endless opportunities to observe interactions rather than moving blindly through them. If Dan and Beth can distinguish that their conversation is becoming a battle of righteousness, they have an opportunity to change direction.
Notice that every conversation contains multiple Choice Points. Like forks in the road, Choice Points are reminders that you don’t have to go with the automatic response generated by your Chimp brain. For example, Dan could easily have recorded the rest of his programme and finished watching it later, but this solution didn’t occur to him in the heat of the moment. When you notice Choice Points, alternative approaches show up in your conscious attention, encouraging responsibility rather than blame.
Faced with Choice Points, you still have to decide which road to go down. You can resolve which to take by asking yourself: ‘What’s important to me in this conversation?’ When you ask this question, you activate your pre-frontal brain and presence higher-order commitments and values. In Dan’s case, the answer may be as simple as: ‘To have an enjoyable and stress-free evening with Beth’. As soon as he identifies this, it will be evident that he needs to change track. New choices and solutions become evident, and he’ll be more open to a workable compromise rather than digging his heels in. The same will be true for Beth.
This is no easy formula; it takes practice and discipline. But if Dan and Beth can follow these 3 steps consistently, they will have less conversational collisions and will create habits that are enhancing and affirming rather than damaging and disempowering. Disagreements can be thoroughly healthy, but this depends on whether they are mindless or mindful. By having more conversations that are in line with their values, Dan and Beth are setting themselves up to experience more joy in their relationship.
Peters, S., The Chimp Paradox, Vermilion, London, 2011
For more in depth information, my new book is ‘Blamestorming: Why Conversations Go Wrong and How to Fix Them,’ published by Watkins.
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