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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jill King

Why We Need Healthy Conversations

Most of us would rather avoid crucial conversations. Or we barrel into them, guns a-blazin’, ready to kick some butt and leave a smoking battleground in our wake. Well, it's no surprise that we are having to say some difficult things to others or we have been on the receiving end. A challenge to what someone else thinks, or what we think, is actually a good thing.

Think of the last crucial conversation you had.

  • What was it about?

  • How did it go?

  • What was it like?

  • What happened after it was over?

If you’re like many people, you may have gotten stuck at “the last conversation you had”, because you duck and dodge difficult conversations at all cost. If you’re forced into them, you acquiesce immediately, so as not to “make a fuss”. Or perhaps you go into crucial conversations to “win” — to argue your own position successfully, and “convince” someone about how right you are.

So your response to “What happened after it was over?” might be something like:

  • Bob gave in like the crybaby he is.

  • Bob quit speaking to me.

  • Bob now whispers “Jerk” when I pass him in the hallway.

  • Bob got a restraining order.

Most people tend to do one of these:

Avoiding difficult conversations or executing them poorly leaves you depleted and feeling lousy. You expend energy inefficiently — either on quietly ruminating, repressing, and fulminating; or on raging and dominating.

In neither case will you advance your mutual understanding and quality of your relationships. And this significantly affects your personal and professional interactions. That’s the bad news.

Why are crucial conversations crucial?

Knowing how to have successful crucial conversations can improve:

  • your emotional, mental, and physical health;

  • your intimate relationships;

  • your relationships with family and friends;

  • your relationships with peers and coworkers;

  • your career path; and

  • your life as a whole.

Remember last week we promised to talk about what happens in the body when we have psychological stress? These are some of the responses we may feel when we are about to enter or have entered, into a difficult conversation.

Acute psychological stress — in which social stress plays a big role — activates the sympathetic nervous system and the HPA axis, which regulates the release of corticosteroids from the adrenal glands.

Heart rate, blood pressure, and catecholamines go up. Cortisol goes up. Inflammation goes up. Beta-adrenoreceptors change the expression of cell adhesion molecules, which affect the “stickiness” of immune system cells.

Immune system cells run amok through the system, sticking to things like endothelial walls. Plasma fibrinogens increase; stuff coagulates.

In the short term, this is great if we’re about to get stabbed.

In the long term, it’s a big ol’ mess.

When we don’t have healthy ways to express ourselves in language, especially in challenging social situations, we experience and then somatize our stress. In other words, stress finds a home in our bodies. If we endure a series of stressors with no “release valve”, we’re a walking bag of potential disease.

Indeed, researchers estimate that “medically unexplained symptoms” (aka somatization) account for one-quarter of visits to primary care clinics. And of course “medically explained symptoms” (like, say, a heart attack, the product of decades of aforementioned physiological stress) are the rest. Having hard conversations is part of life. We can honor ourselves and others by knowing how to say difficult things with respect to the other person and realizing that we all see the world through our lens and experience.

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