A women checked into the hospital to have a tonsillectomy and the surgical team erroneously removed a portion of her foot. WHAT?  Apparently, 98,000 hospital deaths each year stem from human error. Partly because health care professionals are afraid to speak. Every industry and organization and family has this problem — the need for better communication. In the case of the woman with a missing foot, no less than seven people wondered why the surgeon was working on the foot, but they said nothing. Communication is a necessity!

Everybody benefits from free flowing dialog. When opinions vary, emotions run hot and the stakes are high, it’s easy to cut off the lines of communication. Our brains are hard-wired to fight, flee or freeze. This automatic response doesn’t require any processing time and allows us to get out of the way of an oncoming train. No one needs time to process how fast the train is moving, how far out the engine is from you, or what you need to do first to get back on the platform. No. You simply jump back. This beautiful hard-wiring in our brains is life saving. Unfortunately, when our emotions start to crank up, this hard-wiring likes to take over and shut down our brains. No good conversation has ever come from a shut down brain.

The best way to keep our brain engaged is to step out of the content of the conversation and ask ourselves what we really want. What do I really want for myself here? What do I want for the other person? What do I want for this relationship?  If I keep my focus on what’s being said, I might lose sight of where I genuinely want to end up. Knowing what I want and why I want it causes me not to be derailed by what is said. If I’m confident that the outcome is for my teenage son to see the danger in his decision, I won’t get distracted by his snarky comments. If I’m sure I want my supervisor to give me the afternoon off, I won’t be derailed by her refusal. I can truly listen to their perspectives and engage my creative brain to find a suitable solution for both of us.

Engaging the creative side of my brain, not the instinctive side of my brain helps everyone feel safe in the conversation. When everyone feels safe, we can talk about almost anything. Restoring safety may involve slowing things down, making apologies, reassuring the other person of what we don’t want and what we do want. “I really don’t want you to feel cut off here. I absolutely want to hear what you have to say.” “I don’t want you to think I have a separate agenda. I really do want to move forward together.” Recognizing that our mutual purpose and mutual respect is at risk can help us stop and reconnect before we keep trying to get what we want.

Thinking of every conversation as a collaboration rather than a competition helps us think of the bigger picture. What is best for everyone? How can I get the afternoon off while the supervisor gets what she needs to cover the demanding schedule? What will it take for my teenage son to feel heard and not simply preached at? The way we handle any exchange with the people around us impacts how they will interact with us in the future. What would it take for us to not cut off the foot, when what’s really needed is a tonsillectomy?