Difficult conversations, situations, and even people are all a part of our normal day-to-day interactions. Unless we isolate ourselves from our community, misunderstandings and conflict are tough to avoid (and we shouldn’t avoid them – they help improve character). However, it can often feel as if we are just moving in circles, having the same arguments with the same people over and over, never reaching a resolution. This can be exhausting, discouraging, and may even lead to broken, unhealed relationships. But our attempts at navigating difficult conversations don’t have to remain unresolved. By connecting with our Higher Selves and diving mindfully into the “why’s” behind the different communication styles that we and the people we interact with practice, we can develop the skills, toolbox, and confidence we need to successfully navigate conflict and retain existing relationships.

Whether its tension with a colleague, a misunderstanding with a close friend, or recurring disagreements with a family member, more often than not our gut reaction is based on communication patterns we absorbed from our earliest life relationship – the one we had with our families. Depending on the examples we were exposed to as children, we may find ourselves raising our voices emotionally, becoming defensive, or speaking too authoritatively. We might also find ourselves ignoring issues and sweeping them under the proverbial rug in an attempt to avoid conflict, only to find it resurfaces as unhealed wounds months or even years later.

By working with the Higher Self to gain control of our emotions and identify both speech issues and familial patterns, we will find that navigating conflict with even the most difficult of people can be done so successfully, teaching us compassion for others, decreasing anxiety over confrontation, and saving relationships that would otherwise be broken.

Controlling Our Emotions

Our emotional state has a powerful impact on the way we speak and the conversations we facilitate. Emotions such as anger, disappointment, and contempt can color our words with negativity that is directed towards the person with whom we are speaking. This, in turn, will cause them to react negatively. Mirror neurons, brain cells that enable us to understand and interpret the emotions and expressions of others, can subconsciously trigger the other person to begin reacting the way you are. So if you are expressly upset, angered, or emotional, it’s like your counterpart will feel and act the same way. When both people have reached this point, the conversation has taken a turn for the worse, and it will be tough to recall it unless one or both parties are skilled at calming themselves down in the midst of an argument.

That’s why it’s important to hold off on trying to resolve conflict until the emotions behind it have resided. Once we are free of the impact of our feelings (and likely our ego), we can better communicate clearly, expressing ourselves in a way that won’t cause the recipient of our words to feel defensive. Approaching a conversation from a place of clarity, when both parties are calm and can speak from neutral ground, will eliminate the often irreversible impacts of words loaded with anger, contempt, or resentment.

Is this easier said than done? Certainly. We are wired to react emotionally. In fact, when we enter into a situation where feelings are already heightened and/or escalate quickly, our bodies react physically. This reaction is called “Fight or Flight”, and is a natural, evolutionary physiological response to extreme stress or external threats. During Fight or Flight, you may feel your heart rate increase, breathing becomes more rapid and muscles tense. You might feel as if you can no longer think straight or are losing touch with your environment. In essence, your body is priming you to either stay and fight the threat or flee from it, saving your life in a truly dire, life-threatening circumstance. The issue arises when no such threat exists – our bodies are often unable to distinguish between being chased down by a bear and an emotional argument with a friend or colleague, and this physical response is not ideal for resolving conflict in the modern world. We lose access to our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that rationalizes our thinking, and rational thinking is exactly what we need when in the midst of a difficult conversation. This is because our bodies direct all the resources towards essential functions when under attack, and unfortunately, the ability to think clearly and remain grounded isn’t one of them.

By working with our Higher Selves, we will be better able to recognize Fight or Flight symptoms when they start to arise. One way to do so is to analyze the way we communicated after taking part in a difficult conversation. Ask yourself if you have any regrets about what was said. If you do, this means that you likely did not truly convey the meaning and intention behind your words. They might have been spoken out of heightened emotions, feelings, and perhaps even the ego, and are at risk of being misinterpreted by the other party.

The Importance of Tone of Voice

Just like our emotional state, our tone of voice is far more important than we think when speaking to others (and, coincidentally, can be heavily impacted by our emotions). In fact, the tone in which we speak may even be more important than the words we say. Think about it – saying “No” in a gentle, pleasant way is likely to be perceived completely different than saying “No” in a harsh, angry way, right?

Our tone of voice and inflection can also change based on who we are speaking. Reflect on how you might speak to the CEO of the company you work for, versus how you would speak to the cashier at your local grocery store. Would your tone of voice be different? Connect with your Wise Mind, and you will find that the answer is likely yes. You would speak to your CEO in a cordial yet respectful manner. While you might still be cordial to the cashier, your tone of voice would be more casual and dismissive. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we change our conversational style based on our perceptions\ of whom we are speaking with. While this is a common habit, it is still one that we should work to overcome. Our goal should be that no matter whom we speak with, our tone of voice stays the same – warm and friendly while remaining clear and direct.

The Role of Tone in Conflict

Words can be misconstrued or misinterpreted solely based on the tone of voice – and this is even truer when the conversation you are engaging in is one of conflict. Before beginning any important conversation, particularly one that involves a disagreement, practice the following exercise adapted from Higher Self Yoga, Book 1, by Nanette V. Hucknall. It can be a very helpful way to ensure that the motion of the conversation is set in the right direction. 

Take some time to think about the way in which you express yourself. If you are not certain about this, ask others how they feel when you talk to them. Ask them to be specific. For example, ask:

  • When I’m upset, how do I sound?
  • When I’m trying to explain something to you, how do I sound?
  • When I’m revealing something about myself, how do I sound?
  • If I act emotionally, how do my words sound?
  • If I’m calm, how do I sound?
  • If I am trying to convey an idea of mine, how do I sound?

The exercise above can be eye-opening to how experiencing certain emotions impacts the way our words sound. Similarly, our physical and mental wellbeing also affects the way we speak. For example, when we are tired, sleepy, or stressed, we are more likely to be short and negative in our responses to others. When we are well-rested, refreshed, and at peace, we will approach even difficult conversations from a place of positivity. This makes the case for a more mindful approach to conversing with others, which we will discuss further below.

Repeating Familial Patterns

Our entire way of communicating can be affected by what we’re exposed to during our formative years. Often, these patterns have been repeated for a long time, passed down and adopted throughout generations with little positive change. Examine yourself using the exercise above, then examine the interactions you’ve had with your family. Do any of your family members speak in a way that you find unfavorable? Do you speak the same way as well? Often, we repeat communication styles that we were exposed to as children when we become adults, though we may find such a way of speaking to be too harsh or not optimal. On the contrary, if there was a way of communicating that as a child we disliked or disagreed with but didn’t have the ability to speak up about, we might adapt our behavior to become the opposite. For example, if you felt that your family members were too direct and forthcoming to the point of being rude, you might default to being passive and quiet. 

Once we recognize these patterns and the roles they play in our own adult lives, it’s important that we don’t become discouraged by their impact. We can utilize our knowledge about these patterns to examine and make positive changes to ourselves so that other relationships are not impacted. For example, were your immediate family members generally positive, uplifting and encouraging? Or were they negative, argumentative, and angry? Observe your relationships with your spouse, partner, children, friends, and coworkers. Do you implement the same patterns, just in a different way? If you find the answer unfavorable, connect with your Higher Self and ask It to reveal to you ways you can overcome these familial patterns to bring lasting change and peace in your current relationship.

Stay tuned for part two in this series, “Navigating Difficult Conversations with Your Higher Self: Conflicted Relationships”.