What’s become obvious to me as I coach many high-powered, heart-centered leaders and teams, is there are some fundamentals that, once mastered, take difficult conversations from stressful and destructive to flowing and constructive.

That is, there is an art to conversations. Mastering the fundamentals allows you to acknowledge there are differences to work through and to engage with those differences creatively.

A key fundamental is understanding some basic brain biology. It’s a complex topic and can easily become reductionist. Having said that, whenever I learn about neuroscience, I marvel at how helpful and impactful it is. Let’s see how it can help you too!

One of my influences is Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard-trained neuroanatomist. Her more recent book, Whole Brain Living, tells us that we all have 4 types of brain-based characters living inside of us. Each one has their own personality traits and is influencing our thinking, our decision-making and how we engage in difficult conversations.

Jill Bolte Taylor has named each of our inner personalities simply: Characters 1, 2, 3 and 4. Applied to difficult conversations, we want our Characters 1 and 2 in the back seat and Characters 3 and 4 in the front seat.

So, who are these 4 Characters we want to arrange in our car?

Let’s start by meeting Characters 1 and 2 first. These are the ones we need to notice because they often want to drive our decisions and conversations and they really can’t have the driver’s seat. Neither of them! These two Characters can easily damage relationships and stop collaborative, wise decision-making from happening.

Can you recognize these two Characters – Character 1 and 2 – as parts of you who show up as sometimes – especially when your difficult conversations have not gone so well?

Character 1 – Our Logical Personality – The Judger-Controller

This is the part of us we present to the outside world: our logical, linear, planful part. This part likes quick, simple solutions. The challenge is that this part can also be quite judgmental and critical, making right/wrong and good/bad pronouncements about all manner of things. It can also stifle any real “feeling” parts of us, in an attempt to do what it thinks is appropriate and expected of us. As Bolte Taylor says, this part is competent, controlling, protective, and respects authority. This is our “Judger” part and wants to protect us from perceived harm by controlling things.

Character 2 – Our Shadow Personality – Unconscious Emotional Wounds

This is the part that our logical part judges as unattractive, shameful and irrational. Our logical part will want to suppress this part from ourselves and others, as others also see this part as unattractive. This is the most deeply unconscious part of our identity; behaviours here were often inherited and encoded when we were small. This part is emotionally reactive, does not accept responsibility for its behavior, and is inclined to sacrifice its future through emotionally-driven and impulsive behaviours. We feel intensely and defensively when we are operating from this Character. This part also wants to protect us from anything it senses may hurt us and to keep us safe.

These two Characters shut down the conversation fairly quickly. We are either too much like Spock, all rational and not allowing our deeper heart-felt emotions to flow in, or we’re in our reactive state, thinking too much from volatility or our shadow selves, so we contract.

What are we to do?

Firstly, it can be helpful to acknowledge that our Characters 1 & 2 do want what’s best for us. They may be a bit misguided but they do need to be heard and their feelings and thoughts considered. Yes, their voices need to be heard. Their input is part of your decision-making Just don’t give either of them the driver’s seat when it comes to your important decisions and conversations. They only hold a small part of the picture.

There are two more points of view, or Characters, to bring in and consider. When it comes to difficult conversations and decisions, those other two Characters are very helpful! You want these other 2 Characters, Characters 3 & 4, to be activated before and during difficult conversations.

So, who are Characters three and four?

Character 3 – Our Joyful, Playful Self  

This is the part of us that is creative, joyful, and expansive. This part is open, experiential, fearless, friendly, kind, empathic, trusting, goes with the flow, is awe-inspired, curious, creative/innovative, collective and sharing. When we are coming from this part of ourselves, we focus on the present moment and our joyful, playful selves. This part of us is connected to the pleasures inherent in our senses, is of the body and loves to be active, fun, sensual.

How this part applies to difficult conversations is that we want to do as much as we can to be in that frame of mind for a difficult conversation, within ourselves and with the other. That is a challenge indeed and there is plenty that can be done to support more play and joy and flow in a tough conversation. We want to hang out as much as we can in what Daniel Siegel calls our “Yes Brain” while having difficult conversations. We want to strive to be as open and creative and caring as we can, given the topic of difference.

Differences can automatically start to cause us to contract (Characters 1 and 2 coming in). We want to avoid our “No Brain” states as we work through differences if we want collaborative ends. We also don’t want our conversational partners to be in their No Brains states either. So, the more we can do to relax ourselves and our conversational partners, the more the chances are that we will have a positive outcome. In a way, it’s that simple.

We don’t want to wake up sleeping lizards. We want to keep the conversations feeling as emotionally safe as possible for everyone. We don’t want difficult conversations to be difficult. They can feel uncomfortable, but the same kind of uncomfortable we might feel while White Water Rafting or before a performance. The ideal is playful and we’ll settle for uncomfortable!

We want a FUN kind of uncomfortable that is similar to diving into the unknown. There’s some risk in bringing up a difficult conversation (Oooo) and some reward (deeper connection and the power of being seen and understood at a deep level). We need to have a handle on both the risk and the reward – and find where the reward outweighs the risk.

Which leads us to Character 4.

Character 4 – The Divine Self 

This is the part of us that thinks holistically, compassionately, is flexible and resilient. This part focuses on “we” and is generative, generous, clear, expresses powerful intentions and is vulnerable. This part is our gateway to the divine. This part has many names including: our soul, our creative Essence, our Intelleki. Difficult conversations call us into this fertile territory, if we can see them this way.

It is only when we can navigate through our differences and not get stuck on the rocky shores of Characters 1 or 2, that we can arrive here. We can bring a much bigger consciousness into difficult conversations and the relationship. Conflicts can be fodder for growth. Conflict can expand us and make us grow. Conflict can bring us closer to truly understanding ourselves more deeply, more authentically and understanding others in these deeper ways as well.

This truly is where innovation, creativity, and our fuller, authentic selves live. As a friend of mine said recently: “Conflict is a gateway to Unity Consciousness.” That’s a fairly bold promise, and what if that was true?

The implications for, and applications to, difficult conversations are profound:

* We need our difficult conversations.

Without them, we are not authentic to ourselves or to the other. We all crave deep connection, so must find ways to navigate our different perspectives to bring out the best in ourselves and each other. I know it’s a tall order and it can be done. It must be done to face and transform our most intractable problems, locally and globally.

* Keep the conversations light, playful, meaningful, gracious, grateful, generative.

Another tall order, and, when it works, it works. It takes an awareness of when we are slipping into Character 2 (an impulse to hide, or fight, or be obsequious etc) or Character 1 (wanting to ignore our powerful emotions and impose a logical solution). We are not logical beings first; we are emotional and soulful, artistic and creative first.

* Cultivate Conflict as a Growth Mindset.

Conflict promises to teach us something important, life-enhancing and enriching. For conflict to be such a gift, we need to adopt a life-long learning mindset. I am amazed by how much I keep learning and growing because I move into difficult conversations and move through them to solutions that might not seem logical, but they feel right.

Engaging with difficult conversations and conflict keeps me growing in awareness of myself, others and life herself.

Conversations become an art form as we seek to enrich our relationships into intimate, juicy, vital ones!

And, I see that stretch and growth in others as well. Fruitful, zesty, vital living comes from diving into the topic of conflict. Differences can become the fodder that fuels communities. If we believe.