Someone once told me that if you stare at a cat long enough, they will get angry. Years ago I was at the zoo watching a lion pace forward and backward over and over again. The lion exhibit was packed with people watching him. It was awesome and I was mesmerized. After a while I remembered what my friend had told me about staring at cats. So I decided to try an experiment. I lined myself up with his pacing so that every time he walked back towards the crowd I was standing directly in front of him. Each time he paced towards me, I made and held eye contact with him. I did this for a couple of minutes. Suddenly, the lion stopped in mid-stride, stared me in the face and let out a mighty roar. The hair on my neck stood on end. It was loud and scary!
What’s interesting is the response of everyone around me. They all went crazy. Some screamed, kids cried, most jumped and several took off running. This despite the fact that we were all completely safe. The lion was behind two sets of bars. He wasn’t going to hurt us. And yet, for a few moments, we all totally freaked out. I learned a valuable lesson from that experience.
When people feel threatened, they don’t think reasonably. It doesn’t matter how smart you are. When we’re scared our bodies go into defense mode. We have a natural desire to either fight or flee. In a sense, our reasoning shuts down and our God-given instincts take over.
Danny Silk explains this in his book, ‘Culture of Honor‘. Check it out.
“God put this little gland inside our brain called the Amygdala. It is an almond-shaped mass of nuclei located deep within the temporal lobes of the brain. This gland is important for determining emotional responses, especially those associated with fear. When somebody does something threatening or unexpected in your environment, when somebody is not safe, your Amygdala kicks on and begins to flood your body with these messages: react, defend, disappear, fight, or flee.
These are some of the responses in which we show our worst. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to discover that people who are scared are not at their creative best. If you’ve ever been near a person who is drowning and scared that he or she is going to die, then you know it would be a good idea to keep your distance. Throw a rope or extend a pole, but do not let that person get a hold of you or you will become a buoy. Oh sure, the person will apologize later, if you lived.
But scared people are not thinking about the team, family, church, or anyone else beside themselves. Fear is a dangerous element for humans to navigate through. Most do not manage it well.”
So what does all of this say about how we should communicate with others, especially during a confrontation?
Hopefully, it’s blindingly obvious. In any confrontation, we must find and maintain safety. We need to help the other person know the conversation is going to be ‘safe’. That is, that we will honor them during the conversation; that we care about and respect them. People feel unsafe when they believe one of two things:
- You do not respect them.
- You do not care about their goals (or what’s important to them).
If you want to experience transformative conversations with others, learn how to maintain safety. Be sure the other person knows you are for and with them. You can do this by reading through ‘Three Keys to Effective Confrontation‘. But you will also do it by checking to be sure the other party still feels safe throughout the conversation. At any time, if you sense they are becoming defensive, it’s time to stop talking and begin working at reestablishing safety.
The fact of the matter is, if you or I feel unsafe in a conversation we will quite naturally get defensive and will emotionally fight or flee. There’s no point in talking when we get to that point, at least not until we’ve calmed down again.
Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Colossians 4:6 reminds us to, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”
Confession time – I still struggle with this. Especially with my spouse and kids. The people I most want to feel safe will sometimes feel the complete opposite when I’m around. I’ve got a long way to go, but I’m committed to getting there. Are you?
How safe do others feel around you?
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photo credit: ekai via photopin cc