Humans are incredibly deep. Our thinking is hierarchical, each layer of thought depends on a layer of thought that is more fundamental. The bottom of our self, the core of who we are is rooted in millions of years of evolution. You are at the end of a chain of life that has managed to replicate itself for over 3.7 billion years. Yet since the beginning of time, through that vast, unimaginable period, nobody in the universe has ever seen things the way you do. Nobody will cause a response in another the same way as you. Nobody will ever feel or think in the specific way you do. You are special and unique. That’s not just my opinion, it’s an immutable fact of life. The first rule in effective communication is to appreciate that the same is true for every person you ever enter dialogue with.
If we rewind just a few thousand years, humans were primarily concerned with basic survival. The odds of making it to adulthood were slim, but it wasn’t until you got there that the real fun started. We were surrounded by perilous danger – other humans fighting for scarce resources, predators with teeth as long as your forearm, the need to get within close proximity of extremely dangerous prey and almost constant exposure to harsh elements of the natural world. This is the environment within which our brains had to adapt and develop self-protection mechanisms.
One of the most ancient examples of this is the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ survival mechanism. When your brain senses danger it sends a signal directly to the centre of your adrenal gland, which then releases adrenaline through your veins to various parts of your body. This produces a range of different automatic responses. Your liver produces more glucose which spikes your energy levels. Your breathing and heart rates immediately increase.
Your brain then moves blood away from areas it deems a lower priority. Digestion slows down which can make you feel nauseous. Your bladder relaxes which can make you feel like you need a trip (or sometimes multiple trips) to the bathroom. Blood drains from your head which can lead to you feeling faint, provoke a sudden headache or cause your mouth to feel dry.
Your brain diverts all that blood towards areas it deems a higher priority. Parts of your body that can better enable you to respond to the perceived threat – your muscles. Hands sweat, knees tremble, tension around major muscle groups increases.
This incredibly important chain reaction is what enables us to avoid life-threatening danger; from a sabre-toothed tiger pouncing on the open savannah, to an out-of-control Volkswagen veering on to the pedestrian crossing of a high street.
Whilst biology works well for us in situations where we are genuinely in mortal danger, this same mechanism is triggered when we sense a threat during a social interaction. We cannot prevent it. The greater the perceived threat, the stronger the physical and emotional reaction, leaving us in a state where our ability to manage the situation effectively is significantly diminished.
Every one of us has endured this experience many times and it can be very difficult to contend with. For some of us these stressful experiences build up to a point that before they even happen, we distrust ourselves. We lose the ability to sense what is a real or false threat. We tell ourselves stories that exaggerate our own innocence or the guilt of others. We act on impulse. We lose dialogue.
A helpful starting point is to draw a distinction between a debate and dialogue. The etymological root of “debate” is from the Latin battuere meaning “to beat”, which gave rise to the French debatre, meaning “to fight”. Someone has to win, someone has to lose. The word “dialogue” is rooted in the Latin dialogus and French dialoge meaning “discussion” or “conversation” through speech. The Greek origin dialogos is particularly interesting because it conceptualises dialogue as being a reciprocal conversation through words, speech and logos. This provides much deeper significance as it defines dialogue as using the free flow of meaning to solve a problem or discover a shared truth that ultimately builds a stronger, mutually advantageous relationship. If you achieve that then you both win, if you do not then you both lose.
This distinction is so important because it is fundamental to the purpose of your communication. It defines what a successful outcome is in your most important relationships or the moments that really matter in your life. When you focus on winning as an individual, when you withhold meaning and divert away from truth, the further away you move from genuine success. No matter how difficult the choppy waters of a conversation may become, however dark and dangerous it may feel, your guiding star is to understand what is true and to overcome life’s challenges together. Not only does this instil a strong sense of purpose into your conversations and relationships, but into the core of your life.
The deepest meaning you can find in your communication is through dialogue with yourself. On life’s mission to continually improve your own character, there is no relationship more important to build. Your internal dialogue propels your entire existence. The emotions you feel, the decisions you take and the way you communicate at the centre of a gigantic network. If you assume that you know 1,000 people in your life and each of those people also know 1,000 people, then you are one person away from reaching one million and two people away from reaching one billion. The way you communicate matters, and this starts with the dialogue you have with your own conscience.
The principles of effective external dialogue apply in exactly the same way for your internal dialogue. Pursue endeavours of deep meaning. Recognise the importance of overcoming personal challenges. Seek the truth, or at least turn away from things you know not to be true. Build a dependable relationship with yourself. Professor Jordan Peterson was once asked how to change the mind of someone who was determined to end their own life. It is difficult to think of many scenarios where dialogue could be more important. Peterson shared a story in return which affected me in a profound way. He had a friend who had lost their granddaughter to suicide. The grandmother, who was a good person, was understandably beating herself up about it, drowning in feelings of regret and guilt for not having done more. Peterson asked the lady if she was blaming her husband in the same way; telling him how useless he was, that he had failed completely as a grandfather. She replied, “No, I would never do that!”. Peterson responded, “Well, don’t do it yourself”. We are often much harder on ourselves than we are on other people. The important lesson I took from this is that you should always talk to yourself in a way that you would talk to someone who you care about.
The speed of your internal dialogue is frightening. You speak at 125 words per minute, yet you think at over 1,250 words per minute. When self-talk is negative you are verbally assaulting yourself at a rate ten times quicker than you can speak. You have to slow things down. Pause. Breathe. Focus. This is one of many reasons why expressive writing and journaling is so effective, a topic Sonam has dealt with brilliantly in previous workshops.
The tone of your internal dialogue is important. It is perfectly fine to look retrospectively and be disappointed with something you said or perhaps wish you had done better in a particular activity. That means you have standards and expectations for which you are holding yourself accountable. Be proud of that, embrace it. However, to shout at yourself, to tell yourself that you’re an idiot, to say that you’re useless – these are all examples of things I am sure none of us would say to someone who we care about.
The same is true when looking prospectively into the future. Pursuing things in our life that have meaning is one of the deepest, most natural instincts we have. It is an internally led process. So how do we know the difference between negative self-talk and fear? This is where truth comes in. Negative self-talk is something that we tell ourselves will hurt us or something we don’t want to do that that is not grounded in fact. Fear is more rational, because overcoming it will move us forward in life. Peterson suggests the following test: “If you think that you should do something, and you think the reason you are not doing it is because you are afraid, then you know it’s fear.” Overcoming fears and challenges in life provides incredibly deep meaning and it is one of the most effective ways to develop a strong, trusting relationship with ourselves and others. Of all the relationships we have in life, this is the one we must be able to depend on the most.
The content of your internal dialogue is also important. Sonam has dealt with this really well in her recent Communication Workshop. Cross-examining your inner critic and taking a different perspective can be very effective. Test your thoughts, don’t try to self-justify. Be as formidable with the act of challenging yourself as you are with your self-talk. Reframe the negative emotion as a problem to solve; from a threat to an opportunity. The act of broadening your focus from being on a problem to considering the cause, then the prior cause (and so on) all the way to the root immediately increases the scope of what your brain is processing.
When addressing negative self-talk in your relationships, this process helps you take account of the immense complexity that exists within yourself and others. It steers you away from ruminating and helps avoid accepting simple answers to what are usually complicated situations. Cut through the mind’s chatter and be specific, for example: “my mother’s overbearing behaviour makes me angry”. As you start to broaden your frame of focus you will start shifting to quite different emotions: “She always wants to be involved. She has a lot of insecurity about mistakes in her past. Many people have let her down which caused her to develop trust issues. She wants me to take opportunities she never had. She has a different way of measuring success in her life. Her intention is actually to help me. She loves me”.
When addressing negative self-talk in relation to yourself, reframing can be equally effective. If you say to yourself that you cannot get something important done, challenge that statement. I often use to tell myself: “I feel unhealthy but I’m too busy to exercise” – this wasn’t true. I was simply not prioritising it. I reframed the thought and asked myself a different question: “Why is exercising not important enough to me?”. This challenged my internal dialogue to pursue truth. It quickly helped me to realise that the regret of not exercising was far more difficult to contend with than the exercise itself, and I can honestly say that the only workouts I have ever regretted are the ones I missed. This process of challenging my intentions, holding myself accountable to pursue truth and take action, then actually experiencing positive results, helped me develop a better and more trusting relationship with myself.
Sonam often use to tell herself: “Life will never work out for me” this was also not true. She was failing to recognise the extraordinary progress that she had already made and was becoming overwhelmed by focusing on things outside of her control. Reorientating her mind towards making the best of what she had and comparing herself to who she was yesterday, rather than to who someone else is today was extremely important. No matter how negative experiences were in the past, they do not justify negative assumptions in the present, nor do they predict negative outcomes in the future.
My intention with this article was to share my thoughts on how we can manage our brain’s automatic response to perceiving danger within a challenging social interaction and how we approach understanding the nature of dialogue with ourselves and others. There are many other ideas and techniques to consider when things don’t go as planned and how to regulate your emotions throughout the process, but I really hope that some of the points I’ve addressed provide some useful perspective and help set you up for success.
Here is a summary of what I really wanted to get across:
- Appreciate your own unfathomable complexity and recognise that everyone who you enter dialogue with is uniquely complex in their own way.
- Talk to yourself in a way that you would talk to someone who you care about.
- Challenge yourself with at least as much strength as the negative self-talk itself.
- Orientate yourself towards dialogue – you know you are on the right path when all parties are sharing meaning, pursuing a shared truth and acting in a way that demonstrates that they want to build a relationship.
This isn’t goodbye, but hello to a new adventure,
Andreas NLP, NLP Client Session: You’re Not Good Enough (2009)
Andreas NLP, Using Framing Patterns Recursively, Advanced Mastery Training (2010)
Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life (2019)
Jordan B. Peterson, ‘Who Dares Say He Believes in God?’ Lecture (2019)
Jordan B. Peterson, Q&A 03 March, YouTube (2018)
Kerry Paterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler, Crucial Conversations (2012)
New World Encyclopedia, Dialogue (2017)
Phillip C. McGraw, How Anxiety Can Change Your Internal Dialogue (2017)