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This Is Why We Avoid Difficult Conversations

Connection and disconnection in the mind.

Key points

  • Humans have evolved brain functions that allow us to connect, despite our differences.
  • Difficult social situations are perceived as cognitively costly, which can motivate us to avoid them.
  • Reducing cognitive load can improve our social emotions.

“I’m sorry, I have something troublesome to tell you. You may not agree with it, so I’m just going to come out and say it.”

Conflict, disagreement, tangled beliefs and emotions—these are some of the most common ingredients in a difficult conversation. Whether it is arguing over a contested point of view, conflict resolution, delivering unpleasant news, talking with someone from a different social or economic background, or experiencing any stressful social hardship that is not easy to deal with—demanding circumstances require mental effort, which can be taxing on the mind.

Thankfully, humans have evolved brain functions that allow us to connect, despite our differences.

Evolved Social Behavior

Professor Joy Hirsch, Neuroscience Director of the Brain Function Laboratory at the Yale School of Medicine, studies the underlying neurobiology of our social selves in action. Recent research (2020) out of Professor Hirsch’s lab demonstrated that when two people from high and low socioeconomic disparity engage in pro-social conversation, specific brain functions aid them in embracing diversity.

The regulatory systems of the frontal lobe detect, monitor, and regulate the conversation. Professor Hirsch believes that area of the brain around the anterior of Broca’s area is associated with rule-based language and social protocols. We activate this area to help to ensure egalitarian outcomes. In fact, this frontal lobe area was found to be more synchronous—a metric for successful communication—across the brains of the high disparity groups.

“These findings are relevant to people’s lives. We [people] are sensitive to difficult pro-social conversations with people outside of our comfort zone. The fact that there’s neural circuitry that supports our social aims of equality, diversity, and inclusion is very reassuring,” said Professor Hirsch.

Cognitive Disharmony

On the other side of the coin—when communication fails—cross-brain coupling degrades.

Interestingly, this neural principle of diminishing connectivity lies at the heart of conversational discord. A more recent study (2021) out of Professor Hirsch’s laboratory, titled Interpersonal Agreement and Disagreement During Face-to-Face Dialogue: An fNIRS Investigation, revealed that when two people in conversation agree on a given topic—say ‘marijuana should be legalized’—their brains exhibit neural coupling, or synchrony.

However should they disagree, the neural coupling disconnects. “There is a profound difference globally—within the brain—when people are in agreement or disagreement,” said Professor Hirsch. People in agreement showed more synchrony in the sensory-based areas of the brain, particular areas for face processing.

“Whereas in disagreement, the brain was much more active generally. As if one was planning strategies of responses—forming a rebuttal essentially,” added Hirsch. People engage more neural systems to meet the cognitive load of creating and implementing strategies for discourse.

In short, difficult conversations come at a cost. But how draining are they?

A Social Choice Paradox?

Pro-social behavior is often referenced as the very essence of human nature. Humans have even evolved social brain functions that enable us to connect with loved ones and strangers. However, given the choice, research shows that we tend to avoid such core values with unfamiliar others. Why? Because it’s hard work.

Empathy is a core life skill that enables people to resonate with other’s experiences vicariously, while compassion is the motivation to care for others. For the most part, we try our best to understand and care for our loved ones. However, when given the chance to share in the experiences of strangers—or help them—people generally choose to turn away.

Empathy Is Hard Work, But Compassion Is Harder

Dr. C. Daryl Cameron, Associate Professor of Psychology at Penn State University along with his former graduate student Dr. Julian Scheffer, now a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley, study the cognitive costs of difficult situations through experimental psychology. The researchers discovered what happens when we are faced with pro-social choices through a series of studies on empathy and compassion. Subjects were faced with an array of pictures—for example an image of a refugee child—and the choice of whether to empathize with the person in the photo, or simply describe them (i.e. empathy avoidance).

“Our results suggest that people avoid empathy because of its inherent cognitive costs,” as written by Cameron et al. in their 2019 paper, Empathy is hard work: People choose to avoid empathy because of its cognitive costs. These costs are subjective, meaning that people choose to avoid empathy because they think it is mentally draining. In the mind’s eye, empathy is not effortless. And as it turns out, neither is compassion.

In a follow up project lead by Scheffer, the researchers investigated compassion to see if it garners similar avoidance motivations. Across the studies, subjects were given different choice options: to care, to remain detached, or to feel. In one study, the investigators found that head to head, subjects preferred empathy over compassion, and rated that compassion was the costlier act.

However, this only held true for the strangers condition. When it came to people with closer social ties (i.e. close others), compassion emerged as the easier choice.

The Brighter Side

Difficult situations can make us think that we’re in for a mental sweat. And difficult conversations engage more of our brain in comparison to sociable ones. There’s an eye-catching connection between the two findings, but how can we bridge the gap?

Cameron et al. suggested in their paper on empathy that, “reducing the cognitive costs of empathy can increase willingness to empathize." If people avoid empathy and compassion because of perceived effort, then augmenting the cognitive workload is one way to improve these social emotions.

As for reducing the cost of caring, Scheffer et al. wrote in their 2021 paper, Caring is costly: People avoid the cognitive work of compassion, “if compassion for close others is felt as easier and more rewarding, then by encouraging people to see similarity between strangers and those they love, compassion choice might be increased. Thus, compassion for others only emerges when you are willing to put in the effort to care.”

Methods for Reducing the Cognitive Load

Organizational anthropologist Judith E. Glaser invented a methodology for having difficult conversations. Her conversational intelligence model shows how priming a situation for trust can increase expectations of benevolence. By establishing a set of rules for engagement, partners can transparently and supportively guide each other towards behaviors—like listening to connect and taking turns speaking—that create mutual success. This reframing of a potentially difficult situation can redirect the cognitive load, easing the work necessary to achieve a successful conversation.

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