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Challenging Conversations - Reaction Awareness

Otama welcomed Derek in and indicated a seat for him. Her heart was beating a little faster than normal and she could feel a flushing in her neck. She has deliberately worn her high-necked shirt to conceal this as she felt it was like a beacon signalling out to Derek that she was a little agitated about this meeting.

She glanced over at Derek. He was unusually quiet for him and she couldn’t help noticing his food tapping furiously and his eyes seemingly darting around. He seemed hunched a little over the edge of his chair and she could tell that his breathing was short and a fast. Interesting, she thought to herself as she thanked him for coming in. She had spent some time working with her coach on this conversation helping her recognise her thoughts and feelings and how to manage them. She was now noticing Derek’s signals too.

Having a challenging conversation can present many thoughts and feelings, some of which can be unhelpful to us. The challenging conversation need not be a deep challenge to us, with a little knowledge and preparation. This month’s blogs we are covering the basics of how to develop confidence through six key steps.

Realise the Reason

Recognise the issues

Reaction awareness

Raise with 4P’s

Respond with 4P’s

Review for growth

This week, we explore how we ‘Reaction awareness’ to give us clarity of reactions we can both have and to recognise them. Forewarned is forearmed.

Cortisol Reaction

The brain is a marvellous thing. It enables us to think and problem solve, to plan a conversation and then deliver it. And then there are those moments when you have a speech or presentation to make or a challenging conversation to have. Your normal rational thought can then go all over the place, your mouth dries up and you lose the power of speaking clearly and calmly. Things you can do with ease become a challenge because they are important moments. It all starts with our thinking from the limbic system and the Amygdala part of our brain. This emotional centre of the brain is a primal part of our thinking. It is there to look out for threat and instigate the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mechanism for our survival. Understanding how it works and what it does to us can help us understand the reaction that we are having and do things to reduce the impact of it.

When we process a situation, both before it happens and, in the moment, we use our ears, eyes and other senses to evaluate if it is a threat. It is processed against our memories of similar situations and then by our Amygdala. If it deems it is a threat it sends a signal to the Hypothalamus to wake up the Pituitary to send hormones to the Adrenal gland. This then releases the hormone cortisol to travel through the blood to tell other body parts to react to stress. So, the heart may start to pump faster. The lungs may breathe faster. Blood pressure rises. The frontal lobe at the front of the brain where the rational problem solving takes place starts to feel slower or foggier. All these things preparing for fight, flight or freeze. This is great if being chased by something, but not so helpful for the challenging conversation or presentation, especially as the frontal lobe thinking is needed.

Take a look at the body reactions in Otama’s and Derek’s start of their meeting.


  • Her heart was beating a little faster than normal

  • She could feel a flushing in her neck.


  • His food tapping furiously and his eyes seemingly darting around.

  • Hunched a little over the edge of his chair

  • His breathing was short and a fast.

All of these are little indicators of a rise in Cortisol.

So, now you know what is happening, what can you do?

Before the stressful situation, it is about lowering the threat. Remind yourself of times it has been ok. Remind yourself that it is just a conversation. If you find yourself panicking about what you think is going to go wrong, then do some ‘pre-mortem’ thinking. Look at what could go wrong and plan some simple things that will reduce the chance of it happening.

There are also some simple cortisol stress busting actions that can help to reduce Cortisol.

  • Exercise – a simple walk about

  • Peace & Quiet – Find a quiet place. Stop

  • Thankfulness – think of 5 things that are going well. Remind yourself of what you are good at in this context. Thankfulness releases the hormone DHEA which combats Cortisol.

  • Physical - Slow the breathing down – breathe in for 5, hold for 5, out for 5 and repeat 5 times

  • Physical – open the body up. Stand like wonder woman for 2 minutes

  • Ground in the present – think of what you are in control of now. What is the one thing you can do and focus on now to improve things?

Chimp Reaction

Steve Peters, in his brilliant books ‘Chimp paradox’ and ‘Path through the Jungle’, explain that our emotional centre, the Amygdala is like an agitated chimp. He explains there are some key things that we can do to calm the chimp.

Acknowledge the emotion. Tell yourself what you are feeling and that it is ok. I am feeling anxious and that is ok. You can also do the same to the person that you are meeting with. If you see them looking anxious, acknowledge that. You look anxious and I want you to know that I am here to help you with XXX.

Remind of a time that it was ok. Tell your chimp of times you have dealt with this person or similar situations that have gone ok. Remind the chimp of your skills and who is around to help if things get tricky. If you are working with someone who is anxious, remind them of times that it has been ok and that you are not a threat. If you remember, when we looked at YYY we were able to find a really helpful solution.

Box in your chimp. Explore the issues of concern and let your chimp know how you will keep the risk low. Let the chimp know the sort of things that you will do if they come up. This pre-mortem, examining what could die is visualising, walking the route so it is no longer something to be afraid of. There is a plan for the unplannable!

Transactional Analysis

Because Otama had worked with her coach, she was aware of her own emotions and her cortisol and had spent some time working on her Cortisol reduction. Derek however was not aware what was happening and he was finding himself increasingly on edge and agitated. This was not his first conversation with Otama and he was aware that things were not right between him and the other staff.

“Derek, I can see that you are a little anxious and I want to reassure you that I have asked you to come to this meeting to help you to improve some things in the office.” Despite Otama’s best attempt at calming him, he couldn’t control his feelings. He felt a hot anger swell inside him that burst out before he could think.

“Improve what?” he snapped. “I’ve been here for years before you turned up and I’m old enough to be your dad. Who do you think you are telling me what to do.”

Had Otama not done the work with her coach, she would have been all at sea with this reaction. Otama took a deep breath. “I can see that this has made you feel annoyed and I am sorry that this meeting has led you to feel this way. I am here to work with you to help you and your work colleagues to work well together and for you to all enjoy being at work.”

The work that Otama had done with her coach was to understand Eric Berne’s work in his book ‘Games People Play’ on ‘Transactional Analysis’. To understand that in each situation we all operate in one of 3 states; parent, adult and child. We can either be a

  • Critical parent – “how dare you?”

  • Nurturing parent – “oh poor you, there there.”

  • Adult – can we work on this problem together?

  • Adapted child – tantrum, tears, sulking

  • Free child – I will do it because I want to

The trick is to spot what is happening and respond accordingly. The appropriate response is always as a responsible adult seeking solution, encouraging us to meet them in that adult space. Sometimes, we may need to give them a little natural response to the behaviour they present.

  • Critical parent – give them a little adapted child of apologising to the cross parent

  • Adapted child (tantrum, tears) – give them a little nurturing parent to reassure

Don’t stay there long though and come back to the calm adult, encouraging them to join you. It is the only place that you can solve things. Have a look at Otama’s response to Derek’s critical parent response. She doesn’t take it personally, because it isn’t. It is just behaviour Derek has learnt gets him his way normally.

“I can see that this has made you feel annoyed and I am sorry that this meeting has led you to feel this way. I am here to work with you to help you and your work colleagues to work well together and for you to all enjoy being at work.”

In this, she gives some adapted child apology, but quickly returns to the adult level.

Know the reactions

Understanding yourself and how you react to things is important. Our self-awareness allows us to prepare for conversations and to recognise our early signals of Cortisol increase. Understanding the basics of how others react too can help us take steps to calm the situation in the conversation. Do you know your body and thought signals? A little time preparing for the meeting and preparing for the reactions can make the world of difference.

Next week we will examine the 4 key steps of raising an effective Challenging Conversation.

Can we help you?

We hope this blog has been helpful and if you would like some more targeted support to explore having difficult conversations and gain better insight then Everyday Leader is here to help you. Our clients find their coaching empowering, as we help them gain a full perspective and find a way forward. We equally run group training on ‘Holding a challenging Conversation’ which we can run online or in person. If you have a challenge and you would like our support, then do get in contact with us. Give us a call on 01449 710438 or email if you would like us to help you explore this and empower you.


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