How To Be More Resilient In ‘Difficult Conversations’

How to Be more Resilient in Difficult Conversations Mary Rafferty Consensus Mediation
Stressed with Conflict

In my ‘Difficult Conversations’ workshops, ‘being more resilient’ is one of the most common objectives people have. 
‘How can I build better coping skills?’

‘How do I stop myself from going over and over the situation in my head’.

Does this sound like you?

The dictionary defines resilience as the ‘capacity to recover quickly from difficulties’ or ‘ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity’.

But where does resilience come from?

Is resilience some quality/skill out there that you can learn with practice? Or are some people inherently more resilient than others?

Much of the current thinking on ‘resilience’ appears to support the idea that resilience is something one learns or develops. People talk about toughening up, growing a thicker skin, learning to keep a stiff upper lip.

Other advice around resilience advocates working on our own internal mind-talk, having a more positive outlook, seeing the silver lining behind the cloud. So a friend might suggest you ‘don’t take it personally’ or ‘just let it go and move on…you can’t let them bring you down’.

And all of this has some validity. We all know people who seem to be naturally resilient, for whom a clash or heated conversation in the office is all par for the course. They seem to fall sunny-side-up all the time and pick themselves up and dust themselves down very quickly after any setback.

Why does ‘conflict’ have such an impact on us?

So why can’t the rest of us all do this? Why do we feel bruised and impacted after an angry encounter? Why do we spend days worrying in advance, and nights ruminating after, a meeting to talk to John about his poor attitude at work?

As someone who has spent the past 12 years training, coaching and mediating with people who are trapped in a difficult or conflictual relationship, I have meted out the advice above on a regular basis: ‘try and see it differently’, ‘do deep breathing’, ‘imagine them as an angry toddler…’

Yet in my own personal conflict experiences, such advice always felt hollow, somewhat glib and a lot easier said than done. I’d find myself dwelling and rehashing a scenario in my mind. Upset feelings seemed to linger like a shadow at the back of my mind and I’d be extra cross for letting them ‘make me feel so upset’. I’d overthink my next encounter – ‘should I be nice…’ ‘should I be cool’…’how the hell should I be with them…’

A new understanding about how our minds work

That was until I came across an understanding that has led to a revolutionary shift, over the past two years, in how I experience not only ‘difficult’ conversations but every single aspect of my life. (Read more here about this understanding here too)

What I now see, is that this idea of resilience as being a ‘thing’ out there that I have to work on, practice and ‘build up’ is no longer true. That the whole gamut of emotions – frustration, upset, hurt, anger… that arise in a conflict situation, are something that if I worked hard enough on myself (or was born ‘naturally resilient!) wouldn’t arise. And most significantly…that I needed to master some magical art of zen to quash and get rid of all the relentless agonising and analysing – mental gymnastics that just leave you exhausted.

All of the above well-meaning tips and suggestions fail to address some of the fundamental misunderstandings about how our experience is generated, and where resilience and emotional well-being come from. And it is these misunderstandings that are keeping us stuck.

Misunderstanding 1

The unpleasant thoughts and feelings you are experiencing about the difficult conversation or conflict are coming from the person(s) you are dealing with (or your boss, your team, the organisational culture…).

Not true.

All these thoughts and feelings are coming from inside of us. Our minds generate our experience of every event, person, behaviour we encounter. This is not saying that the person we are in conflict with isn’t real or they didn’t raise their voice or fail to follow through on what we asked of them. It’s simply saying that the thinking and feeling that are arising for us about this situation are created internally.

Misunderstanding 2

You need to get better at controlling your thoughts and feelings (that others are making you feel) and practice having a more positive and optimistic outlook. Then you would be more resilient.

Not true.

We cannot control our thoughts any more than we can control the weather. Thoughts come and go all the time: apparently we have between 50,000 and 80,000 per day (how do they count this I wonder!). Trying to control or change them is like holding back a river. Nigh impossible, which is why when we are trying to ‘fix’ our thinking, we feel stressed and exhausted.

And, what we think, we feel. There are libraries full of theories of emotions, where they come from, what to do with them and how to manage them. But the simple (although utterly profound) fact is, that feelings are a reflection of our state of mind. Period.

Our angry and upset feelings aren’t actually coming from John, who isn’t doing his work effectively or speaks rudely. They are generated within us and linked to the thinking that we engage in when we bring John to mind or meet him.

Misunderstanding 3

Resilience in dealing with difficult conversations is about building coping skills and practicing not taking things personally. You just need to practice and develop your capacity for dealing with hard knocks.

Not true.

Resilience isn’t some abstract quality/characteristic outside me that we have to strive and strain to attain. Instead, it is our natural state and default state. Well-being, good feelings, self-confidence are already inside us. We are primed and designed, to reset to this state of being, regardless of what’s happening outside and around us.
Yes, unwelcome thoughts and feelings will arise in us. The creative potential of our mind can give us both negative as well as positive experiences of our reality. Resilience is what emerges when we see the truth of this phenomena.

Let your thinking settle

So what does that all add up to?

Thought Snowstorm

Imagine our mind is like a snow globe. Left sitting on the mantelpiece, the snow is settled and you can easily see the miniaturised Christmas landscape inside. But when you shake it, the snow swirls around and masks your view of the pretty scene. 

Our mind operates the same way. In its natural, default state, our mind is settled and calm and we can see clearly and easily how to deal with problems and challenges that life throws at us. But when something happens that upsets, frustrates or annoys us the fight/flight response kicks in and leads to a whirl of negative thoughts and feelings. We begin to feel churned up inside, just like the shaken snow globe.

That’s all a normal part of being human. The problem arises because we also believe:

  • The feelings and thoughts are an accurate picture of reality (‘John is a jerk and behaving badly and this has to stop’ versus ‘John raised his voice twice at the meeting’)
  • We have to get rid of or manage the unpleasant thoughts and feelings that have arisen and/or stop John from causing us to think/feel like this
  • The best way to sort the problem is to keep thinking about it and go over and over it in our minds. (We don’t do this on purpose but at some level, we believe this to be true).

And it’s these misunderstandings (about the nature of thoughts and feelings and where resilience comes from) that keep us stuck. We add more thinking and ruminating to an already shaken-up snow globe, instead of just putting it down and letting the snow in our minds settle.

The problem isn’t that we get upset or annoyed or frustrated with people. The problem is the thought-storm we get into, in order to try and fix the upset feelings and thoughts that have arisen in the first place.

If we can begin to see that the only thing separating us from our innate well-being and clarity is our own temporary maelstrom of thought, that will settle on its own if we let it, then we can bounce back much more quickly.

When we realise that trying to ‘fix’ thoughts and feelings, exacerbates rather than eliminates them, we see the futility of it.
Our churned up thoughts and feelings go away much quicker by themselves than when we try to do something with them.
And from this less agitated state of mind, we can more easily tap into our wisdom and common sense about how best to deal with the person/situation.

Try it yourself

The next time you find yourself caught up in some sort of stressful or anxious thinking, see if you can take a mental step back and notice the snow globe of whirling thoughts in your mind.

Explore the idea of not engaging with the thoughts and feelings, seeing them for what they are and not being seduced into believing them.

Be curious about what it might be like to drop the stormy thoughts and feelings and letting your natural aptitude for clear and objective problem-solving emerge.

But don’t forget…this is much less about a ‘technique’ and much more about a journey of self-discovery so don’t force this…or you’ll just add the fuel of ‘more thinking’ to the fire of stormy thoughts and feelings.

I’d love to know how you get on!

Wish you had a step-by-step guide for handling ‘difficult’ conversations? Click here to download our complimentary eBook: POISE NOW: 8 Steps to Win-Win Conversations