You have to have a conversation with someone you work with. Maybe the person is:

  • a client who’s pushing you to cram four months of work into four weeks (or four days)
  • a business partner who’s a bully
  • a team member whose work isn’t to spec

You’ve prepared for this conversation, using all of the how-to’s and tips you’ve found on line or in books. But time goes by. The situation is spoiling your mood, reducing your productivity, completely taking the fun out of solving intriguing, complex problems. Why haven’t you had this conversation that you know how to have?

It’s because you haven’t taken care of your lizard brain. Yes, we all know there’s really no such thing as a “lizard brain.” But there is a part of your mind that needs something besides the preparation you’ve done. It needs an experience.

Here’s what you need to do for your lizard brain.

  1. Put on your rose-colored glasses.
  2. Disguise yourself.
  3. Cast a spell on the other person.
  4. Promise yourself a reward. Then give yourself the reward.

Let’s take each of these in turn.

1. Put on your rose-colored glasses.

If you’re not looking forward to this conversation, chances are your conversations with this person haven’t gone well in the past. The thing is, having a lot of difficult experiences primes you, subconsciously, to have a bad experience again.

You can create a good “experience” for yourself by imagining a good outcome. Studies show that simply imagining a good experience of a particular activity helps you have good experiences with that activity. (I’ll cite some articles at the end, if you’re interested in looking at the original research.)

Imagine the best possible outcome

Allow yourself about 10 minutes. More time is better ‚Äì say, 20 to 30 minutes ‚Äì but you can get benefit from even a small amount of time. First, imagine yourself in a future in which the conversation has had the best outcome it possibly could. You planned what you would say, you took care of your lizard brain in all the ways that we’re talking about here, you accomplished everything you wanted to in the conversation.

Being as specific and vivid as possible, write down everything that would be true in the best possible outcome.

By imagining a good experience with this conversation, you’ll prime yourself to have a good conversation.

2. Disguise yourself.

So, what do you do if the person you need have this conversation with intimidates you, annoys you, or patronizes you? Or, at the other end of the scale, the other person clams up, complains that you’re “arguing,” or even starts crying?

Give your lizard brain a positive image of yourself that it can re-create during the conversation.

If the other person is scary, a bully, or intimidating…

Imagine yourself as someone, or something, that’s impervious to whatever the person does. For example:

  • you have an adamantium spine
  • you’re a shape shifter
  • you’re a mountain

If the other person is nicey nicey or passive aggressive…

Imagine that you’re something dangerous, so you unconsciously won’t overwhelm them. For example:

  • you’re a hurricane
  • you have wolverine claws
  • you’re Rogue (or another comic book hero)

Either way…

Whatever you choose, spend some time imagining yourself as that someone or something. What attributes does that thing have? What adjectives would you use to describe it? What kind of “body” does it have? By creating a positive image of yourself, you’ll give your lizard brain something it can use to help you stick with your plan for the conversation.

3. Cast a spell on the other person.

Another way to get your lizard brain on your side is to mentally transform the other person into something that can’t affect you:

  • a small, localized weather phenomenon or natural disaster; for example, a thundercloud over the person’s head, a campfire, or a geyser.
  • some of harmless creature; for example, a dog barking, a bird chirping or cawing, or a squirrel chattering.
  • a mechanical device; for example, a benign video game, a DVD spinning in a drive, or a leaf blower.

Be sure to choose something that your lizard brain won’t find disturbing or scary, or ridiculous.

By creating a harmless image of the other person, you’ll help your lizard brain diminish the other person into something you can talk with productively.

4. Promise yourself a reward. then give it to yourself.

The last thing you do for your lizard brain, before you have that difficult conversation, is to promise yourself a reward for afterwards. This can be anything you can easily do right after the conversation:

  • play your favorite video game for a while
  • enjoy some gourmet chocolate
  • go out for a drink

Then, after the conversation, give yourself the reward, even if the conversation wasn’t as hard as you thought it would be.

By doing this, you’ll get your lizard brain to associate good things with having difficult conversations.

This may sound “woo woo,” but it works.

When you’re better able to have difficult conversations, you’ll be better able to

  • manage your client’s demands
  • stand up to your bullying business partner
  • get your team members to stay productive, and

Your mood will improve, your productivity will increase, and you’ll enjoy your job more.

So take care of your lizard brain, and your lizard brain will take care of you. It will help you remember and use all of the tips and “how-to’s” you’ve learned and practiced for having difficult conversations, and succeeding.

Journal articles on the subject

Become more optimistic by imagining a best possible self: Effects of a two week intervention, Yvo M.C. Meevissen, Madelon L. Peters, Hugo J.E.M. Alberts. J. Behav. Ther. & Exp. Psychiat. 42 (2011), 371-378.

Mental Imagery combined with Physical Practice of Approach Shots for Golf Beginners, M. Brouziyne and C. Molinaro. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 2005, 101, 203-211.

Fruitful plans: Adding targeted mental imagery to implementation intentions increases fruit consumption, Bärbel Knäuper, Amanda McCollam, Ariel Rosen-Brown, Julien Lacaille, Evan Kelso and Michelle Roseman. Psychology and Health, Vol. 26, No. 5, May 2011, 601-617.

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