Difficult Conversations: Social Distancing

Social distancing is challenging. Period. Lives have been disrupted, and with many states and counties under a Stay-At-Home order, it has become increasingly more frustrating to see people not adhering to social distancing guidelines. Top motivational speakers and emotional intelligence experts Dr. JP Pawliw-Fry and Bill Benjamin of the Institute for Health and Human Potential walk us through having a challenging conversation with someone who is not taking social distancing seriously.

When Someone Isn’t Social Distancing: The Last 8% Conversation

A parent came to us recently and asked: how do I have a tough conversation with someone who is not taking social distancing seriously?

If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. When it comes to high stakes conversations like this, our research finds that most people adequately cover the first 92 percent of what they want to say, but when they get to the more difficult part of the conversation—where the other person often starts reacting emotionally by shutting down, blaming, getting defensive, etc.—they either avoid the Last 8% of the conversation or they make a mess of it. And they feel awful for it.

Through our research and work with scores of individuals and organizations who work under high pressure, we’ve identified key strategies that can help you take on this conversation and execute it well.

The Need to Manage Emotions Intelligently

Going into this conversation, it’s easy to feel anxious. We’re all wired to see a Last 8% conversation such as talking about social distancing, as a crisis and start thinking, “This won’t go well,” or “They’re going to get upset,” and “Why bother, they aren’t going to listen to me.” It does make sense to feel a sense of crisis around this issue — because we do feel anxious, and it does feel risky to talk about something so important as social distancing. But if we get into excessive crisis thinking and are not able to manage our emotional brain, we will not be able to think straight or communicate without making a mess.

The key is to honor the crisis we are feeling because it is real, but not stop there. If we can also see the situation as an opportunity to do something good, it helps diminish how much the situation triggers our emotional brain.

For instance, If we say to ourselves, “This conversation is helping me learn how to have tough conversations better with others,” or, “This is an opportunity for me to learn how to manage my emotions in difficult situations,” or “this is going to help that person stay healthy”  we see a bigger picture for why we are doing it, we feel a little less emotional and we don’t infect the other person with our strong emotions. We are able to show up with greater Emotional Intelligence and be a non-anxious presence.

Helping Them Hear Us: State a Positive Intention and Be Vulnerable

Once we are managing our own emotions, we can lessen the likelihood of the other person reacting emotionally in two ways: by stating a positive intention at the beginning of the conversation, and by being vulnerable about how anxious we feel about having this conversation.

This sets the other person’s emotional brain at ease, so they can truly listen to the feedback. An example could be: “I have something to talk to you about, but I need to tell you that I am feeling anxious about having it because I care what you think.  The other reason for my anxiety is that I really value our friendship and I want you to be safe and healthy”

By stating a positive intention for your conversations and starting with some vulnerability, you can help mitigate the person’s emotional defenses, allowing their cognitive brain to hear and process what you are saying.

Ask Questions

Without realizing it, when we enter this type of conversation, we can often start with statements that are accusatory or blaming. The emotional brain is triggered by statements like “you are not supposed to be in groups of five,” or even questions that are really statements to the other person, such as “what were you thinking?” or “didn’t you think about how this would impact others like seniors?”

To avoid these kinds of accusatory statements, ask questions. When we ask genuine non-judgmental questions, it engages the neocortex of the other person (the rational part of their brain) and soothes the emotional part of the brain. This allows the person to process the information we are trying to convey without becoming defensive or closed minded. Example questions could include: “What’s this been like for you?” or, and this needs to be genuine, “Are you finding social distancing difficult?”

The other advantage of asking non-judgmental questions is that many times people will own up to a mistake or something they did wrong without you even having to bring it up.

Last 8% Conversations is a Critical Skill to Build

Having effective, Last 8% conversations applies not only to talking to our elderly parents about why they can’t do their own grocery shopping or speaking to a neighbor who doesn’t seem to be practicing social distancing, it is also one of the key differentiators of high performers and world-class organizations. In our research, it was one of the behaviors most highly correlated with Top 10% performers, and also one of the skills people most admired in their exceptional leaders.

This is a time of heightened stakes where it is natural to feel anxious. Know that it is possible to have these conversations and still maintain your relationships. It is possible to talk about social distancing and not avoid it or make a mess of it. The key is to start by managing your emotions and then helping others hear you by stating a positive intent, being vulnerable and asking questions. This is not an easy time and these are not easy conversations to have but if you can have them in a way where they can hear you, you may just save their life and the lives of others.

For more information about Last 8% Conversations and Emotional Intelligence, and to get access to many free resources, join our Last 8% Facebook group or visit our Last 8% Resource page

Dr. JP Pawliw-Fry is the New York Times bestselling author of Performing Under Pressure and is a performance coach to NHL and NBA teams, and Olympic medal winning athletes. Bill Benjamin holds advanced degrees in Mathematics and Computer Science and has over 30 years of business experience. They are the cofounders of IHHP, a research-based training company with over twenty years as a leader in Emotional Intelligence.