How Challenging Conversations and an Open Mindset Boost Mental & Brain Health + Tips on How to Have Difficult Conversations Correctly and Effectively

I am currently reading an amazing book by Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race, and read a passage that really struck me:

“Take care in your conversations, remember that you are dealing with the real hurt of human beings. But be brave in that care, be honest in that care. These conversations will never become easy, but they will become easier. They will never be painless, but they can lessen pain. They will never be risk-free, but they will always be worth it.”

This got me thinking: what does having these kinds of conversations look like? How do we get comfortable with the uncomfortable? How do we become brave enough to look in the closet of our personal and public history? How do we face, process and deal with any painful skeletons we may find there?

This is something we all need to do—myself included. So, don’t see this blog or podcast as me instructing you. See this as the beginning of many fruitful, painful, uncomfortable, freeing, and powerful discussions we need to start having to live better, healthier, and happier lives.

This kind of work is what I call "mind-in-action" work. It is integral to the life well lived. As we face, process and reconceptualize the thoughts, mindsets and worldviews we have in our heads, which have affected and still affect our communication and behavior, we “renew our minds”. This builds up our cognitive resilience and our intellect, and boosts our mental health. Yes, this kind work is both powerful AND painful, but be assured that you are not alone. We are all in this together!

1. Recognize that each person comes to the table with their own lived experiences (their own mental luggage), which affects how they receive your words and messaging. Try to see how someone's lived experiences, emotions, and trauma are just as valid as yours before you just lash out. 

2. Go into the discussion with a learning mindset. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything someone says (or even believe everything they say), but it does mean that, by listening with sincerity and integrity, you are both respecting and sharing in their humanity.

3. Before going into a difficult conversation or responding to a challenging idea, pay attention to what your brain and body is telling you. Do you notice any physical or emotional warning signals, such as anger, an adrenalin rush, and so on? Pause and take a few deep breathes (I recommend doing this for 60-90 seconds). Never start a conversation on a highly emotional or agitated note.

If you need some time to calm down, that is fine. Say something like “I am not in the right headspace now to give this conversation the attention and emotional strength it deserves. Let’s talk later.” Also, try avoiding tough conversations when you are hungry or tired, as this affects the brain and body, and you will be less likely to make good decisions!

4. Watch how you frame your words. Be careful you don’t put the other person on the defensive from the start, as this will be counterproductive. Be clear, direct and respectful. Don’t assume you know what someone is thinking or trying to say. Avoid trigger words or statements like “you always….”, “just calm down”, “you just think…..” or “you never…”. Rather, say something like “this is my opinion, so let me know if I am misreading you” or “I do not think I understand what you are trying to say, can you clarify…..”. You can also ask questions like “can you explain what you mean….” or “why is this important to you?”.

I found this helpful:

“You always…”
“Calm down!”
“You never…”
“You should…”
“You must…”
& Name calling
How you feel, not what you think
Sorry and take responsibility for what you feel you may have done wrong, but don’t say sorry excessively
“I feel like you are not quite understanding me, can we talk about this for a minute?”
“What I heard you say is ____; is that accurate?”
“From your perspective, this is about ____?”
“I am struggling to understand….."


5. Remember that being open-minded and engaging in challenging and difficult conversations is one of the best things you can do for your brain! It strengthens brain muscle, increases stress resilience and cognitive flexibility, and, if done correctly, will build healthy, happy thought structures in your brain!

Your brain is always changing (this is called neuroplasticity). How you respond to someone directs this change, determining what is built in your head as a thought structure, which, in turn, affects your mental and physical health, as well as your future behavior. This can be either negative, neutral or positive—the choice is yours.

6. Check your mindset before going into an argument. Are you doing this because you want to win—do you perceive this discussion as a power struggle? Do you see these conversations as zero-sum games, where there is only one winner and one loser? Are you trying to be better or are you just trying to be “right”?

Don’t go into a conversation trying to fix someone, correct them or save them. That is not your job.

7. Watch your body language! Stay calm, don’t throw hands up or raise your eyebrows, and try control your facial expressions. Remember, 50% of communication is nonverbal; what you are really thinking will come out through body language.

8. Don’t bring up any past mistakes, arguments or experiences. Talk about what is happening now. Bringing up past hurts and mistakes will only make things worse, putting the other person on the defensive.

Encourage the other person to express themselves and be honest with you.

9. Always ask yourself “is what I’m about to say coming from a place of love, or with the goal to win?" Do you want to speak to this person or hurt this person?

10. Watch your tone—keep it even and try to avoid raising it.

11. Before engaging in a conversation on a difficult topic, be sure to educate yourself on all sides by reading books and articles, listening to podcasts or watching talks or documentaries. This does not mean just collecting information that supports your viewpoint! Read and engage with materials that have a different point of view. There is always more you can learn!

Educating yourself doesn’t mean you are agreeing to all the ideas. It does, however, allow you to be better informed and more understanding, and will stimulate the brain to think deeply, which is very healthy!

12. Avoid social media fights. Social media is good for a lot of things, but trying to have real, deep and respectful conversations on platforms like Instagram and Facebook is often impossible, and can become very toxic very fast. Avoid being nasty, name-calling and traumatizing people with your comments. And don’t use major platforms to push forward your own point of view. This will only make you look bad, or get you banned for being uncivil. Yes, you are free to speak your mind, but other people are just as free to not listen—especially if it is their platform and you are being discourteous. If you have something to say to someone who has a major platform send them a private email with your points. Be clear, direct, respectful and courteous.

13. Don’t interrupt. This is incredibly annoying even in a happy conversation! Let the other person speak and listen to what they have to say with respect.

14. Take care of your mental and physical wellbeing. Make sure you have a support system in place you can turn to, i.e. a group of people you trust or calming rituals like yoga and deep breathing, which will help you process and deal with challenging conversations. If you are worried a conversation will get very toxic, avoid being alone with that person, and make sure they can't corner you.

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