Have you ever had someone complain to you about something and then, when you give them great solutions, they shoot you down? Whether it’s your partner, kid, mother-in-law or coworker, why won’t people listen to your fabulous ideas? Today I’m going to tell you why that happens and the simple but super effective tool to get everyone on the same page.

There’s a Biological Reason Why They Won’t Listen

I’m going to keep this simple, so for any anthropologists, nurses or doctors out there reading, be kind.

The earth is estimated to be somewhere between 3 ½ and 4 billion years old. But humans have been around a much shorter period of time. You could say we started about 200 million years ago with the first mammals, or with the first primates about 60 million years ago, or you can look at our closest relative, homo sapiens who came along 200,000 years ago.

No matter how you slice it, humans are a blip when it comes to the Universe. Since we haven’t been here very long, we truly haven’t evolved much from when we were living in clans, hunting and gathering together.

Simply put, your brain is still hard-wired for a time when any stress meant that you could die. Literally.

You consistently face challenges with the people in your life. Your partner is typically on top of that list, but stressors arise in all our relationships. From being annoyed that your wife left the cap off the toothpaste again, to feeling angry that you had to ask your boyfriend for help taking in the groceries, to being stressed when your boss piles on one more project, to your friend not looking up from their cell phone when you asked a question.

Whether the stressor is big or small, your brain (without the proper intervention) will treat it like something bad that’s here to kill you.

For example, let’s say your boss calls you and says, “I need to see you in my office at 2:00.” What happens? Well, a bunch of stuff:

  • A flood of stress-inducing hormones like cortisol and epinephrine (commonly called adrenaline) burst into your body giving you an immediate nervous or shaky feeling and make it difficult to concentrate or think about anything else.
  • You know that sinking feeling you get when something really stressful happens? It either feels like the blood is rushing from your head or your stomach drops out? Well, that’s the actually the blood rushing down to your legs – telling you to run!
  • Have you ever started to sweat when you’re nervous? This is to cool your system so you can run from that tiger while also making your skin slick so that, if an enemy or predator got hold of you, they would hopefully slide off.
  • Your heart starts beating a little faster so that you can run faster as your breathing becomes more shallow.
  • Your pupils will even dilate so you can run in the dark!

In other words, you’ve got all the same stress reactions as if a tiger was about to eat you but you’re sitting in your office unsuccessfully trying to complete the yearly report!

When your ancestors were running like hell from that tiger, they burned off all those stress hormones. Since you don’t run from the office, they don’t get burned off, so they hang around and now they’re confused. Why are you sitting here when you should be running?! They keep reminding you to run which translates into having difficulty concentrating, your mind going into a negative-death spiral (I’m going to get fired, then I’ll be homeless and living in a box by the side of the road. This’ll be right after my partner leaves me and I find out I have cancer but no more health insurance)!

Even when there are no real life or death emergencies, our emotions make our bodies act like there’s a huge crisis because the brain controls both emotions and stress hormones. If your brain thinks something terrible is happening, your body will react as if it really is!

Now let’s get back to those hormones. We only have hormones to flee, fight or freeze. A lion about to eat you is a real crisis, fighting with your partner is not. It sucks, but no one (hopefully) is going to die. However, since all these same bodily reactions take place – you’re arguing with your partner, but you’re in fight, flight or freeze mode.

The part of your brain in charge of this chain reaction is your amygdala in the limbic system of the brain. When you’re here, you can’t access the prefrontal cortex in the frontal lobe. That’s the part of your brain in charge of reasoning, problem-solving, values, judgment and planning. When you’re in this argument (or waiting for your boss to call you in the office), you can’t access that part of your brain!

If you’re trying to have a conversation with your partner (or your boss) from this state, you’re going to be in trouble because the only options you’ll see are to fight, run or freeze. You won’t be able to access the problem-solving, thinking, rational part of your brain. This is one of the reasons you think of 100 brilliant things you should have said an hour after you’ve met with your boss or you’ve fought with your partner.

When you’re in a conversation with someone and they’re upset about something or disagreeing with you, the rational part of their brain isn’t working. That’s why they don’t listen to you.

Here’s the good news. The same mechanism that turns on the stress response can turn it off. There’s something called a “relaxation response” and, when this is turned on, you can access that thinking part of the brain again. Your heart and breathing rates return to normal and you find a sense of well-being again.

What you’ve got to do is get the other person from the fear side of their brain to the rational side and this is the simple and effective tool to get there!

The Quick 3-Step Process to Having a Great Conversation: Say “Yes” First

As soon as you, your partner or whoever else you’re in a conversation with decides that a situation is no longer dangerous, your mind and body can relax and calm down. From this state, that thinking brain is turned back on and you’re set for a healthy conversation.

The problem is that we’re often having a conversation when someone is on that fear side. We’re giving all kinds of excellent suggestions and advice but they’re thinking a tiger is about to eat them, so your suggestions are literally not heard. You can’t have a thinking, reasonable conversation because your brain can’t access your problem-solving prefrontal cortex when your fear-based amygdala is in charge.

The next time you’re stuck in any way in a fight, disagreement, standoff, or tense situation, I want you to “say yes first.”

Let me give you an example: Let’s say your partner is complaining that a coworker is completely horrible and driving them crazy. You listen and then start to come up with awesome suggestions. “Do you really need to even talk to this guy?” “Why don’t you just leave the room whenever he walks in?” “Have you told your boss about what he’s doing?”

Your partner replies with how they’ve tried “everything.” Or they have reasons why none of your ideas will work. They start to get more upset and a little defensive so you start getting frustrated and say something like, “Well, if you don’t want to take any suggestions, why are we talking about this?” The next thing you know, you and your partner are fighting and you’re bewildered. How did we get here?! Why are you pissed at me instead of at the guy from work?! (Is this sounding familiar?)

Whoever you’re in the conversation with, you notice that you can’t seem to connect and it’s escalating.

Your strategy: you’re going to “say yes first.”

1. Empathize

In the situation with your partner complaining about their coworker, I want you to see their side of things as best you can and try to really listen. Then your job is to empathize (say “yes”) and say something like, “Darn that sucks. I’m sorry you’re dealing with this.”

By saying “yes” first and empathizing with your partner’s feelings, you’re building rapport and a platform to have further discussion.

When you empathize in any way (“I’m so sorry Bob at work is giving you a hard time!” “It’s hard to watch you be in pain about this.” “I know that must have really hurt your feelings.” “I can see that this feels so scary”) you’re saying that you see the tiger! Now the other person can calm down: “Whew, they see the tiger too! Now I’ve got support! I’m not alone in this!”

When you dismiss and say things like, “It’ll be OK. Don’t worry. No need to be upset” you’re telling the other person that you don’t see a tiger, and they’re going to escalate because now they really think they’re going to die!

The other person is screaming, “There’s a tiger coming!!” so if you keep trying to calm or placate, they’ll just continue to escalate. If you try to problem-solve (Should we run from the tiger? Yell for help? Climb that tree? Tell me your thoughts), they think you’re insane and not realizing the urgency and will escalate or withdraw (because they’re in that fear part of the brain still, not the rational, solution-based part.

2. Match Emotion, Not Tone

One of the little secrets here is that I want you to match their emotion, but not their tone. In other words, I want you to see the other person’s upset and try to feel their feelings a bit. So, when you’re “saying yes,” you need to match whatever emotion they’re having.

But you don’t want to match their tone meaning, you don’t want to yell or escalate even if they are. So, it’s “Man, this sucks. I hate that this guy is still bugging you.” Not, “THIS IS TERRIBLE! CRAP! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU GOING TO DO?!?!” One escalates the emotions, and one curbs the emotions.

3. Ask Questions

Now that they’re calm, they can think again. But, it’s still not time to offer suggestions. Instead, ask collaborative questions. You can’t give anyone else an “aha” and you may not be right with your advice anyway. So, it’s time to be curious and ask lots of good questions to move the conversation forward.

Now You Can Problem-Solve

The next time your mother, brother, partner or boss is arguing with you, I want you to let them say their side of things. Try to really listen to what they’re saying and identify how they’re feeling.

Then, I want you to say “yes.” I want you to empathize first with their feelings about what’s going on. Let the other person know you understand what they’re saying. It doesn’t mean you agree with what they’re saying, but you want them to know that you can understand that they feel a certain way, even if you don’t understand why.


Not sure what questions to ask to move the conversation from defensive to collaborative? Enter your name and email below to download this list of Collaborative Questions to get you started!

 Ready to find out what goes on inside that crazy mind of Abby’s? 

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