Education Week: How to negotiate life’s most important conversations

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Jonathan Mahoney learns conversation skills in Russian while he eats dinner in the Russian House. (Elliott Miller)
Often critical conversations that have mutual love and respect aid both parties in understanding one another. (Elliott Miller)

Recognizing a crucial conversation before the talking begins can dramatically affect the result those words have on a relationship.

BYU Education Week speaker Ron McMillan said one can learn to spot and navigate a crucial conversation by not running away from or sugarcoating it, but by being completely candid and respectful.

McMillan said crucial conversations happen when three factors come together: high stakes, opposing opinions and strong emotions. “When these three factors show up, stop. In your mind say, ‘I think we entered a crucial conversation and the way I handle this is going to have an effect on results and relationships,” he said.
He told the story of a brain physiologist who conducted an experiment in order to see what parts of the brain were triggered for certain activities. The subject was answering math questions while inside an MRI machine. After the test, the physiologist began making small talk, but the woman inside the machine thought she was still being tested.
She vented about her teenage son and was very angry. The physiologist scanned her brain and found that, under conditions of high agitation, especially anger or frustration, the upper reasoning and logic areas of the brain shut down. The body redirects blood blow to the strong muscle groups, which prepare the body for fight or flight.
Photo by Ranveig via Wikimedia Commons
Training the brain to turn on instead of slipping into reactivity begins by asking a question to start the thinking process, instead of simply reacting improves relationships. (Photo by Ranveig via Wikimedia Commons)

During a crucial conversation, if someone reacts with the fight reflex, they turn violent and begin to bully or say unkind things. “You think back and ask ‘why did I say that?’ or ‘what was I saying?’ The answer is, you weren’t thinking!” McMillan said.

Rather than becoming angry, people who react with the flight reflex tend to disengage or give the silent treatment.
He said training the brain to turn on instead of slipping into reactivity begins by asking a question to start the thinking process, instead of simply reacting. McMillan suggested several ways to evaluate effectiveness. First, when a person feels stuck, McMillan said, stop and ask what crucial conversation is not being held, or not held well. “Often you’re stuck because you’re avoiding a conversation that needs to happen, or because every time you encounter it, it’s the same fight,” he said. “If you don’t talk it out, you will act it out. Often it comes through as confusing nonverbal behaviors that the other person can’t understand.”
Next, McMillan recommended carefully and thoughtfully listing the risks of not speaking up. Will the issue still be there in a year?
Third, he suggested speaking up with candor and respect. “Be honest at moments of acute emotional and political risk,” McMillan said. “Nothing is as vicious as the truth used with malice.”
The fourth step is getting one’s heart in the right spot before responding. In order to do so, McMillan said the person must ask, “What do I really want here?” and “Lord, what would thou have me do?” He said the first opens the brain up to reason and logic, while the second opens the mind up to revelation and the spirit.
 
The practice of building and maintaining eternal relationships through holding crucial conversations that are reasonable, honest and respectful has been a source of happiness for McMillan. “In my life, I would say the greatest source of joy without question has been my relationships. Relationships have also been the source of the greatest, heartfelt pain,” he said. “And yet, as I understand the gospel, the only things we take with us when we die are our knowledge and our relationships. Both are of eternal importance.”
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