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Tools For Getting Back On Track When The Topic Of Discussion Starts To Derail

Brad Stevenson

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Why do we keep arguing and fighting? Why is it that when we want to discuss issues of concern, we'd rather walk on glass barefoot rather then attempt to talk things out? There was a period in my life that offered me the opportunity to face these questions. It wasn't just with my wife that I'd react, but with my supervisors as well as other family members.

Embedded in the following story you will read about the 6 most common characteristics that derail a topic of conversation. Dealing with these characteristics, as you will read have all been a part of my learning process. They very much parallel solid research that has been done, which helps to explain why we struggle so much when attempting to communicate, and what we can do to keep the conversation from derailing.

There was a moment in time when the question arose for me “Why do I have so many conversations with my wife that derail"? I would react with defensiveness and my reaction would be filled with disdain and contempt (defensiveness is the 1st characteristic and disdain and contempt are the 2nd characteristics). I would respond with “I can never do anything good enough for you and I'm just a big F Up in your eyes" (shifting the focus to me is the 3rd characteristic).

My voice would either be raised or I'd be seething, intimating that I am outraged. I would then have a need to make my wife feel bad, by criticizing or berating her (criticism and berating is the 4th characteristic) in an attempt to try and make her feel wrong. Needless to say, we didn't experience satisfactory outcomes or complete the dialog. My mission had been accomplished. And by the way, my wife was not engaging in these derailing characteristics.

The 1st awareness that I came to understand was that my reaction was quite disproportionate to the topic at hand. I also discovered that I was having a physiological response within my body (characteristic # 5). My pulse rate would increase (John Gottman's book The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work), my breathing would become shallow, my gut and jaw would tighten up and I recognized that I had a lot of adrenaline pumping through my body.

This physiological response plugged right into a belief system that I had about myself. “I am flawed, inferior and inadequate, and I don't measure up". I started to learn that this belief system was called “Toxic Shame" (John Bradshaw's book Healing the Shame that Binds You). I would immediately go into “fight or flight" feeling deeply misunderstood (characteristic #6 is a distortion of the truth), when in reality it was me that was misinterpreting what my wife was attempting to transmit.

I have learned through a combination of my own experiences, as well as reading the existing research and working with thousands of couples, families and businesses, that fear and shame are usually the core culprits. These energies that are embedded within so many of us are most often the derailing mechanisms that get disguised in so many forms, such as the ones stated above.

I have spent many years working on regulating my responses and consciously slowing down my initial impulsive reaction. Although there are challenges that still present themselves, I have been able to create a good deal of success in keeping a conversation from derailing. It is personally gratifying to converse on hard to talk about topics successfully, and to equal measure work with others, helping them accomplish this goal as well.

You learned in the first 3 e-newsletters of this 4 part series, the value that exists in the use of empathy, conscious expression and creating a safe structure. These skills and techniques, in and of themselves are your best bet for regulating the emotional climate in hard to talk about topics. There are going to be times however, when you'll attempt to engage in a conversation, and the anxiety and/or anger will begin to escalate. Leaving the warning signs unchecked, the risk of the dialog derailing from your desired outcome will be greatly enhanced.

The following is a list of warning signs to watch for:

1. Interrupting

2. You start to feel agitated

3. Difficulty listening to the speaker while attempting to remaining in empathy

4. Pulse rate starting to increase

5. Becoming defensive

6. Voice volume beginning to raise

7. Starting to blame, criticize or attack

8. Not feeling heard and/or understood

9. Breathing gets shallow

One thing will be indispensable; the true desire to have a successful conversation. It is only then that you will be willing to look at your internal landscape to assess how you are doing. It is very useful to implement the use of a SUDs (Subjective Units of Distress) scale. This will help you assess how you are holding up in the dialog. It compels you to be 2 places at once. To be present and engaged with the person/people you are in dialog with, while simultaneously being acutely aware of your internal experiences.

On a scale of 1 to 10 you can assess where your anxiety, anger and overall distress level is at. If you are between a 1 and a 3/4 you will be able to stay engaged quite well. If you have escalated between a 4/5 and a 7 you are in the “Warning Zone" and will need to take certain measures to avoid the derailing of the conversation.

The following are a few tips on what measures you can take to secure the well being of the dialog when your SUDs scale is between 4/5 and 7 and you've moved into the “Warning Zone":

1. Request a 1 minute stoppage of the dialog and let the others involved know that you need a moment to regroup. Close your eyes and breathe into your diaphragm (breaths into the belly where you can actually see your belly balloon out) for a minute. It is likely that if you need a moment to self regulate, others in the conversation do as well, and will benefit equally from you taking the initiative. It clearly lets the other(s) know that you want to work through the topic.

2. Excuse yourself, get up and leave the room. Get a glass of water or go to the bathroom as a way of creating a moment of physical distance. This will help you to recalibrate your internal landscape.

3. Check to see if the structure is still in place (see e-newsletters 1, 2 and 3 of this 4 part series).

4. If you are feeling under attack, let the speaker know. Either try to empathize to make sure you are hearing and understanding accurately, or ask the speaker to restate their expression and clarify what they are saying.

5. Sometimes, just a verbal reminder to all participants that the goal is to achieve a positive solution or outcome, can be a way to reset the safety and structure of the conversation.

If your SUDs level is above a 7, you'll need to request a break. It will be imperative at this level of distress to separate, or the conversation will derail. To stay engaged at this level of tension would be like trying to extinguish a fire with gasoline. It will be your responsibility to let the other participant(s) know when you are willing to reconvene, and assess if that works for them. Remember, you are 100% accountable for your actions and your actions only. Leave the room and take a walk. Focus on diaphragmatic breathing as well as slowing down your thoughts. These 2 components will be vital to implement as they will serve to shift the physiological responses and the victim thinking that is occurring. Once you have self regulated, remember to reconvene with the other participant(s) at the designated time.

The many groups, businesses and couples that I have taught to use this model, do best when everyone involved has learned all of the intervention techniques to stop the derailing process. This will not always be the case however, and it would be useful to take a couple of minutes and speak to the other participants about the skills you'd like to exercise and implement during the conversation. Let them know that your sole motive is to create a successful experience for everyone involved.

This work is not easy. We as a nation have moved so far away from communicating effectively, and have strong predispositions to feel powerful and in control of others. I implore you to work with these skills. It will not only serve to improve your own quality of life, but it will also serve to teach your children and the many others that you will come in contact with throughout your life, that healthy dialog is the answer to healing and creating connection. Let's all do our part in diminishing further separation and distance from one another.

Brad Stevenson and Robert Sugar of Trans-World Dynamics’ (TWD) mission is to guide individuals, couples, executives and businesses toward the practice of-

Trustworthiness, Honesty, Authenticity, Neutrality, Kindness, and Surrender (THANKs®).

As these sustainable principles serve to guide individuals in all areas of their lives, the rewards that we have seen CEOs, companies, executives and individuals experience are unprecedented.


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