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Approaching Difficult Conversations, the Polyvagal Way

Productive, relationship-enhancing methods for responding to conflict.


by David Lee, M.Ed., Published in Psychology Today

A friend recently received an email from her colleague, Joe, who had been expecting her to confirm something, and she had failed to get back to him promptly. When Joe followed up, he immediately confronted her with his displeasure at not receiving a confirmation. His words and tone of voice communicated irritation and judgment. My friend immediately became defensive. Later, she observed that she was unable to see herself as at fault in the situation; all she was aware of was feeling attacked.

It’s likely that we all have been on both sides of such an interaction: unpleasantly confronted and reacting defensively rather than responding with empathy and an acknowledgement of our error, and, on the other side: approaching the person with judgment and irritation rather than rather than giving them the benefit of the doubt or viewing the situation with understanding.

Our reactions, and the reactions of those around us, were driven not only by our emotional state at the moment but also by our physiological state. That knowledge should encourage us to not assume negative intent in people’s words or actions. We could approach things more calmly and be less likely to be reactive.

Polyvagal theory can help us do that. It highlights the fundamental role that the nervous system plays in our ability to respond to conflict in a productive, relationship-enhancing way.

How to Use Polyvagal Theory to Create Constructive Conversations Around Emotionally Charged Issues

Polyvagal theory, developed by Stephen Porges, Ph.D., describes the functioning of the autonomic nervous system through three neural pathways—the ventral vagal, the sympathetic nervous system, and the dorsal vagal. Each pathway orchestrates a specific state of arousal and set of behaviors.

Using polyvagal theory to guide your approach to difficult conversation, you can shift yourself and others into a physiologic state (the ventral vagal state) that gives you access to responses that naturally facilitate connection, compassion, empathy, and a rational perspective.

Recognize That When People Act in Unpleasant Ways, They Are Not Willfully Choosing to Be Difficult

When people don’t feel safe—i.e. their nervous system detects cues of threat internally or externally—the autonomic nervous system responds not just by preparing them to deal with the perceived threat but also by blocking access to responses that facilitate productive conversations. The responses that they do have available in the moment are either tactics to fight off the threat or to shut down, depending on the nature of the threat.

In responding to others, they may be short or perceived as having attitude or being difficult—shifting us out of our own ventral vagal state and preventing us from responding skillfully. This is why we must “get our head and heart right” before having challenging conversations. Simple practices like venting to a friend, exercising, or journaling can help discharge stress and calm down the nervous system, shift it back into the ventral vagal state. Then it's possible to engage in a more rational and productive assessment of the situation and generate a more skillful approach to starting the conversation.

How Can I Begin the Conversation so that My Message Is Perceived as Inviting, Not Threatening?

The role of the nervous system in determining a person’s response makes it clear why, from a neurobiological perspective, it is so hard to get a conversation gone bad back on track. Thus, being very thoughtful and intentional about how you start off the conversation is mission critical.

In starting off a conversation, ask yourself whether the approach you are considering would likely foster a sense of psychological safety or a sense of threat. Better still, get feedback from a trusted advisor or friend about the phrasing you are considering.

If the Other Person Gets Defensive or Combative, Ask Yourself “How Can I Communicate Cues of Safety?”

If someone becomes combative or defensive during your conversation, that means their nervous system is registering you as a threat and their sympathetic nervous system has activated. In this state, they don’t have access to open-minded and open-hearted responses.

To help them shift their state, you need to send their nervous system cues of safety. These include consciously making sure your facial expression communicates openness, kindness, and interest rather than judgment. It means using a soft, gentle voice tone that signals a willingness to understand. You can also acknowledge your awareness of the person’s state or situation by saying something like, “I understand why you’re feeling so frustrated by this…” or by paraphrasing what you think you heard (“I want to make sure I’m getting you correctly, are you saying …?”).

Such simple language patterns communicate concern and a desire to collaborate, and cues of safety help lead the other person back to the calm state of the ventral vagal pathway.

Remember to use these communication practices to express an environment of safety:

  • Allow the person to vent without interrupting them.

  • Acknowledge their distress (“I can understand why you’re upset”).

  • Paraphrase their message so that they feel heard and understood. This creates a sense of safety.

  • Ask exploratory questions (“...and then what happened?”).

  • Use an interested, supportive voice tone, and communicate cues of interest.

Understanding that the current state of a person’s nervous system determines what behaviors are available to them enables us to respond in ways that help avert conflict. It offers our best hope for a productive collaboration going forward.

David Lee is the founder of HumanNature@Work and the author of Dealing with a Difficult Co-Worker: Volume One of the Courageous Conversations at Work Series.


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