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The Neuroscience Of Agile Leadership

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Daring conversations define your life. They may take bigger forms, such as your career and relationships - but they will also crop up in day-to-day life. Julie Leitz has an impressive number of titles under her belt (she’s a coach, mediator, psychologist and neuroscientist), and this summer she is launching the School of Conflict. Not so much a karate studio as a place with a mission to help people fall in love with having difficult conversations, Julie’s school will be a springboard for many of us who struggle to tackle head-on the things we would rather avoid. She tells us about the importance of embracing conflict ahead of her Guardian masterclass.

What is a “difficult conversation” and why should we be having more of them?

Difficult conversations are the day-to-day conversations that affect your life. When you think about the implications of that, it becomes really easy to understand why it’s essential we learn the skills to master and feel comfortable having them. They’re often conversations with high stakes, that matter because of the impact of the outcome on your life. Emotions may be running high and opinions differing.

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Nothing that matters in life happens without a conversation. We shape our life, our relationships and ultimately our identity with every difficult conversation. Trying to escape them and dealing with the consequences of having avoided them is more energy-draining than finding the courage to have those conversations in the first place. In fact, more often than not, avoiding them also engenders negative consequences - think not getting that pay rise, staying in an unhappy relationship, having to face an unhelpful colleague day after day, or continuing to dread your mother-in-law’s visits - forever! These things are major stressors that can dramatically affect the quality of your life.

The good news is that you can get to a place where you actually look forward to having a difficult conversation because of the opportunity for change they provide, along with the clarity and feeling of integrity that comes with them. They’re a great gift, both to yourself and to the person or people you’re having the conversation with.

We’re all guilty of slumping into unhappy situations because we’re afraid of the consequences of a difficult conversation. As humans, we tend to avoid confrontation rather than face it. Why do you think that is?

The neuroscience of conflict tells us that we are wired to deal with it in ways that used to be essential when we risked being eating alive by lions, but which are unhelpful in today’s home and workplace situations. Some people tend to avoid conflict at all costs; others go straight in without thinking and react too strongly - and pretty much everyone who hasn’t learned how to deal with conflict is run by their emotions in some way throughout the process.

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Humans are social by nature; we need others to survive

Julie Leitz

You may have heard of the “reptilian brain” construct - those brain areas responsible for regulating unconscious body functions, such as breathing, heart rate or digestion - as well as self-preservation behaviours like eating or defending ourselves and enacting the “fight, flight or freeze” response. The “reptilian brain” has allowed us to survive over the millennia and for that reason we have given it a prime seat in our functioning. It has also been around for much longer than the brain areas responsible for functions like mediating conflicting thoughts, choosing between right or wrong, predicting outcomes of actions, or controlling urges. It may thus take a few more thousands of years of evolution for the reptilian brain to take a back seat and higher cognitive functions to become the default processes engaged during conflict.

Humans are social by nature: we need others to survive and are wired to connect. A growing body of research in social cognitive neuroscience tells us that the need to connect with others is as important to our wellbeing as our need for food and shelter. The pain that we feel when we are rejected or experience other “social pain” is akin to physical pain.

So, on the one hand we’re wired to react in unhelpful ways during conflict, and on the other hand we’re wired to be in relationships with others. It’s no wonder then that having difficult conversations can feel daunting - but while it’s tempting to avoid conflict to preserve relationships, it’s important to realise that, over time, it actually has the opposite effect and damages relationships and also comes at a high personal cost.

Take the all too common scenario where you’ve exceeded all your targets at work and know you deserve a raise but your boss finds ways to suggest the time isn’t right yet again, yet some of your colleagues are getting raises. It becomes a matter of self-respect, among other things, to have a conversation to understand why and make your case. Importantly, it’s not necessarily about getting to the outcome of being given a raise - there may be good reasons of which you aren’t aware - but it’s about getting to a place of mutual understanding.

To what extent do you think the ability to have awkward or difficult conversations makes a stronger leader?

Self-awareness, relationship agility and the ability to foster constructive conflict are non-negotiable leadership competencies. Without all three of them it’s very difficult to create a culture that is conducive to engagement, employee retention, innovation and performance.

When a leader isn’t able to have difficult conversations and instead engages in controlling or avoidant behaviours, they are ultimately setting the standard for how things are done in that team. This engenders a culture of false harmony and comes at the great cost of job dissatisfaction and underperformance.

In an article I wrote in 2016, I give an example of the importance of creating a culture that fosters open dialogue and conflict. As a leader you have an extra challenge and responsibility: not only do you have to be able to have difficult conversations and be agile in them, but knowing how to take part in them isn’t enough. You also have to be able to actively create an environment in which awkward or difficult conversations are normalised for everyone and take place frequently. This is no easy task but the good news is that it can be learned. Like the CIO of a leading telecommunications company whose team I worked with on this topic put it: “Team dynamics cannot be handed over to chance and hope. It’s an expertise that needs to be trained.”

Can you tell me a bit about your previous work? What led you to want to help people plunge into difficult situations with confidence and assurance?

In 2014 I started running workshops specifically aimed at helping teams communicate and ultimately perform better. A pattern quickly started to emerge: there are crucial, difficult conversations that every team absolutely needs to have but is avoiding out of fear that conflict of ideas might escalate into interpersonal conflict. Over and over, I was observing the fact that it’s the conversations people weren’t having that were getting in the way of success. From there, my work naturally evolved to focus on the topic of difficult conversations, relationship agility and constructive conflict. I bring my background in psychology and neuroscience to my coaching to offer a wide range of tools and frameworks to support my clients.

I work with my clients both on the mindset needed to approach difficult conversation and the tools required to navigate them. Every time, I am blown away by the results they are able to achieve and the amount of personal transformation that goes on in the process. I’m launching the School of Conflict this summer because I believe it’s essential we all learn how to be great at conflict. Our personal integrity, relationships and success in all areas of life depend on it.

You will be leading a masterclass with us in July - a how-to for having difficult conversations. What will you be showing the participants, and what do you hope they will take away from the course?

Participants will learn powerful tools to master difficult conversations as well as the mindset required to use those tools in a way that gets results. More specifically, I’ve chosen three essential tools that can be learned in one evening and that have the potential to transform difficult conversations.

My hope is that after the three hours participants will not only feel more comfortable having difficult conversations but actually look forward to making them happen.

Finally, could you give us a few quick tips for having difficult conversations that can be tried at home?

When thinking about a difficult conversation, people tend to worry a lot about what they are going to say. Of course this is essential, but how they are going to say it is at least as important. How you say something determines how likely the other person is to actually listen to you and it also determines the quality and productivity of the dialogue that unfolds.

Actually initiating the conversation is something people are often concerned about. Not only does it usually require stretching into the uncomfortable but you may have noticed that your opening line will have a huge impact on everything that happens next. As a rule of thumb, a difficult conversation tends to end on the same tone it has started, so it is much more strategic to soften the way you start the conversation. With that in mind, here are three quick tips:

  1. Use “I” statements. Imagine a scenario where you’ve been feeling stressed at work and you wish your partner would take your struggle more seriously. Consider the difference between saying “You clearly don’t understand what I’m going through” and “I’d like to tell you more about what’s going on for me so you can understand it better”. In the first sentence, it might sound like you’re blaming the other person for not understanding. In the second sentence, the focus is on you and

    your need to be understood.


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    Source : https://www.theguardian.com/guardian-masterclasses/guardian-masterclass-blog/2018/jun/01/julie-leitz-how-to-have-difficult-conversationsmasterclass-blog

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