"Getting creative with uncomfortable conversations"

Transcript of TEDxPickeringStreet talk  (July 15th, 2017)

I noticed, as I was writing this talk, that I wanted to impress you.

To impress you with my insightfulness and usefulness and eloquence.

“How do I do that?” “I don’t know.”
But for a while I tried to appeal to every different kind of person I could imagine; I tried to run in every direction at once.

I started to get really anxious. Then, I started to feel embarrassed by this anxiousness because I’ve given so many talks... I ‘should’ be completely comfortable by now. I knew that I was trying to put too much into too little time, and I felt guilty, because I knew it and I was still trying to do it.

When I was about to start this version, I hesitated. I thought “what if I can’t finish it?” “what if it turns out to be not as good as I imagine it?” “What if I work my hardest and still make the ‘wrong choices’?” 


I realised, oh shoot, it’s time to practice what I preach, to actually do what I know in theory.

Because this talk is about being uncomfortable. About uncomfortable conversations. About exploring and learning from uncomfortable moments.

Over the last 3 years, I’ve been facilitating conversations and designing events on a variety of crucial-but-often-avoided topics -- sex, failure, emotion, disagreement, feedback, religion, death, and others.

Today, I’m excited to share about…why uncomfortable is useful, what I’ve learned, what I’m trying, and some science that’s given me insights along the way.

My personal takeaway from this talk is this: sometimes I’ll feel uncomfortable. I want to take those moments as opportunities to be curious, to look for something to learn, to try doing something different. And, that takes practice. And that practice will feel awkward and uncomfortable, too, every time... until sometimes, it won’t.

Here’s how I remember that:

Let’s all cross our arms for a moment.
Ok, great! Uncross.
Now, cross them the opposite way, with the other arm on top.
Awkward? The usual way feels good to me. The newer way is strange. Falling back on my habits is easy, and changing them takes constant attention… and awkwardness.



A note before we continue:
Today, you’ll hear things that are new and things you’ve heard before. Things that interest you and things that don’t seem relevant.

Take what’s useful to you and don’t worry about the rest.
It might be something I say, but more likely, it’s something you think or feel during this time.

Notice any discomfort, and see where that’s coming from.
Contrast my experience with your own.

Take what’s useful and see where you can put it into practice.



People say that what’s scarier than death is public speaking.
But, I think “private speaking” is scary in a similar way. 

I want to think that I don’t care what people think of me, but when we’re face-to-face, that’s really not true.

In casual conversations, I am concerned with looking stupid -- or too awkward, too weird, not nice, not knowledgeable. I might want to be seen as successful, impressive, intriguing.

In more intimate or important conversations, it feels like our relationship or my sense of identity is at stake. My brain goes wild with fears: will this change everything? What if I AM abnormal, or wrong? What if I AM not smart enough, not good enough? Can I still be accepted or trusted or loved?

Some conversations seemed so risky, so potentially out-of-control. So, for a while, I tried to avoid anything vulnerable, honest, uncomfortable.

How? By pretending. 

With work or friends, I focused on being seen as someone who fit in, who was doing “fine,” better than fine. I’d rather be polite than real: I’m always happy to help and I would never ask for help. I tried to give off vibes of “I have it all under control.” 

Conversations felt like a strategy game, where I was trying to win by saying the “right” things, but I didn’t know all the rules. I didn’t even know the goals.

As I ran from vulnerability, my discomfort grew -- I started being anxious about more and more situations, because everything seemed risky.

Then, I withdrew, avoiding conversation. When I had to talk, I stuck to small talk, repeating my questions and answers, “tolerating” boring conversation. I didn’t try to make interesting conversation, but I did expect others to do it.




Between all that anxiety and frustration, I asked: what is the point of conversations? Why am I talking?
It must be more than trying to shape other’s opinions of me.
On the surface, conversations may be an enjoyable way of passing the time, of sharing excitement and interest.
And then, a way to learn and reflect, finding like-minds and new perspectives. A way to be useful and feel appreciated.
And, most deeply, conversations are about connection, to feel heard and understood, to feel close to and understanding of others -- to feel that we are not alone in our strange, chaotic, and mysterious experience of life.

Maybe a conversation isn’t a strategy game, like I thought, but a way of traveling together.

By pedal-boat. 

Our socks and the hems of our pants are all wet, but it’s ok.

Maybe we’re not competitors on opposite sides of table, but side-by-side, each with half of the pedals, coordinating with each other to loop around the fountain, or explore the tiny tiny islands, or go out of bounds. It’s easier when we communicate where we want to go; even easier when we’re open to being surprised and fine with finding dead-ends. 



So, I asked, “how do I have more of these meaningful, useful conversations?” 

And immediately, I did what I found most comfortable: organising events. 

That was the start of Fuck Up Nights (where speakers share candid business failure stories), and Cut The Small Talk (where people discuss crucial, taboo topics like sex, self-worth, money, imposter’s syndrome, family expectations, and more.)

We picked topics that people traditionally avoid, so soon, I realised that a big part of why we avoid them is because we’ve always avoided them. Talking about them is new. Like learning a new language, it feels awkward at first… to start putting quiet thoughts into words. At events, I usually acknowledge this awkward newness, and it helps people feel more comfortable. 

Soon, it dawned on me that I need to do what I find truly uncomfortable: trying something different in my everyday interactions.



I procrastinated with science, by reviewing research in the area. 

Through that research, I found that I had really only been concerned with 1 of the 5 parts of emotional intelligence: social skills. I only wanted to know how to connect, build rapport, and manage conflict. 

But social skills is really the other 4 put together. It’s empathy (a focus on understanding others), intrinsic motivation (curiosity and optimism), self-regulation (an ability to respond calmly rather than react), and the foundation of everything, self-awareness (knowledge of one’s feelings, values, goals, and impact on others).  [Daniel Goleman, 5 Components of Emotional Intelligence].

When I viewed conversation as a game, I focused on techniques and strategies, rather than trying to understand the other person, or even my own goals. I held my emotions close, like secrets, thinking that expressing them made me weak and knowing the thoughts or feelings of the others gave me an advantage.



And, through that research, I discovered what “nervousness is a stomach of butterflies.” really means, what “feeling uncomfortable” really is.
It turns out, this tingly unsettledness in the belly is the digestive system not getting enough blood. It’s part of the body’s stress response to threats, “fight-or-flight”.
[“Fight-or-flight” was first coined by Walter Bradford Cannon, M.D in 1915, in Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage: An Account of Recent Researches into the Function of Emotional Excitement]

The body does the same thing for social threats. So, if I get extremely angry, afraid, uncomfortable, I reply impulsively, I stutter incoherently; I am aggressive and defensive. And sometimes, I literally walk away.
Ok, how do we calm the stress response?
There’s a fast way, and a slower way. 
The slower way is through the brain’s prefrontal cortex: thinking through fears to realise that they are not so threatening, or not so likely.
The fast way is through the body: breathing deeply to let the nervous system know we’re not in danger, to relax the hormonal processes.

Just the act of noticing and exploring brings the body more comfort. This mindfulness trains the brain, increasing awareness, focus, and grey matter.
[Britta K. Hölzel, et al, 2011, Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density]




Let’s do a practice in “noticing,” a self-awareness workout. There’s no talking, just noticing. Afterward, I’ll share a few more practical things.

This may feel uncomfortable or strange. If you do feel too uncomfortable, please let your partner know.

But first, let’s all stand up!

Notice your feet on the ground.

See where you feel tense, and move in a way that feels good. Maybe roll your shoulders, stretch your neck, or twist. 

Alright, let’s do one stretch together.

Hands separate. Make two fists. Give yourself a little fist bump.

Elbows stay up. Bend your wrists and try to touch the backs of your hands together.

Notice the stretch, and breathe through that discomfort.

Hands down. Now, without talking, without introducing yourself, turn to face a partner. Pairs are best… (but 3 is fine.)
Silently, look at your partner. Maybe smile? You can make eye contact the whole time, or just once in awhile. See what’s good for you. 
You might feel uncomfortable. You might feel nothing. Stay with it.
Let’s take a breath. Inhale.

Notice the air or wind by your nose, the air on the surface of your skin.

Keep facing your partner.

Scan your body and see what you feel.

Where is your attention?
Silently, try to describe what you feel, even if it’s “nothing,” -- empty, warm, buzzing, sharp, small.

Keep noticing.

Alright, let’s take a breath together, inhale.
Thank you! Let’s sit down.



What did you notice? It could be many things, and here are a few possibilities. 
Maybe that eye contact is full of meaning,
that noticing is challenging,
that body awareness is enjoyable,
that awkwardness and discomfort can be pretty funny, a kind of an inside joke.


As I practiced noticing, I became more able to slow stress and discomfort as they came up. 

As I practiced, I became more able to separate physical sensations from their emotional label. 
For example, “excited” and “anxious” feel very similar in my body; “angry” and “embarrassed” feel similar to each other as well -- the difference is the words I use to describe the sensations.
Emotions are a mix of of physiology and psychology: they are what’s in my body, understood through my story, my description.

So then, I realised that the other person doesn’t MAKE me uncomfortable; discomfort comes from how I’m choosing to interpret what’s happening. It comes from the filter of my thoughts, feelings, desires, fears, and expectations.

In this way, emotion is information. Discomfort is data.




As I became more aware of my uncomfortable moments, I realised that some things I do to other people are things I don’t like other people doing to me. 

What’s that? Two examples:

  1. In a disagreement, I’ve often passionately argued, citing fact and logic, yet when other people do that to me, usually feel annoyed, judged, or defensive. That kind of argument has almost never changed my mind.
  2. When someone shared something emotional, I’ve often said something like “at least it wasn’t worse.” But when people say that to me, I feel pressured to just ‘get over it,’ like my problem is simple, small, and not deserving of emotion.

Being uncomfortable is a chance to rethink the things I do naturally, automatically, to see what might suit us more. For these examples, asking questions have often worked better -- questions about what they’d find helpful, and or questions I didn’t expect a particular answer to. With questions, we both learned more and felt good doing it.

Another big habit I had was to speak strategically, rather than being candid… which often lead to misunderstanding, or panic when I lost my train of thought.

Now, I try to verbally acknowledge what’s going on in my brain, by saying, 

  • “I don’t know what to say. What’s coming to mind is [blank]…”
  • Or “I notice I’ve been rambling, my point is [blank]”.
  • Or “Oh no! I can’t recall your name!”
  • And, in more intimate conversations:  “I notice I’m uneasy. I’m nervous that [blank] will happen. What I value most is [blank],” for example, trust and closeness in the relationship.

As I practiced noticing discomfort, I also became more confident in my ability to say “no” -- to change or leave a conversation. Before, I had been just tolerating uncomfortable moments because I didn’t know for sure that I was “too” uncomfortable, and I didn’t want to be “impolite.”

Now, I might say:

  • “Thanks for sharing. I notice I can’t focus now. Do you want to write me everything over email, so I can really give it attention?” 
  • or “I’m too hungry to think, and I want to. How about after lunch?” 
  • or  just “Oh! I’m not comfortable discussing that.”

Even though I organise events about taboo topics, starting those conversations in “real life,” where it matters, doesn’t feel easy. So now, I’m trying to make a habit of offering gentle invitations -- to talk more about sex or failure, I might highlight the relationship or business struggles in a movie, or share an article about entrepreneurial depression or the science of sex. Maybe it’ll spark something!




I’ll end with a story!

At Fuck Up Nights -- where speakers share the frustrating, disastrous, messy moments of business -- people sometimes ask me: “Why would anyone want to share their failures?” “Wouldn’t they be seen as stupid, incompetent, and not so business savvy?”

Embedded in that is a bigger question, “why would anyone want to be vulnerable and honest about anything they’re experiencing?” 

The truth is, the audience sees the speakers as brave, authentic, reflective, and resilient -- even people who ask me this question used similar words. 

To me, this shows that vulnerability is linked with weakness and discomfort, but it looks and feels like strength. It seems illogical but admitting to what’s difficult shows how we are strong even more. 

The truth is, all our speakers volunteer. Many volunteer the night they hear someone else speak.

To me, this shows that acknowledging what’s uncomfortable allows us to feel less anxious and more comfortable. And being open about it gives others permission to do the same.

Slowly, as we practice talking more about the important things we might avoid -- like failure, or sex -- it becomes more ok both to talk about failure and sex, and to experience sex and to experience failure. More ok to experience all the weirdness and complexity of life.



We’re at the end now, so I invite you to reflect back on what was useful for you. What did you think or feel?

Here’s some of what I’m working on: noticing discomfort, breathing more, saying what I feel, asking “why am I talking,” giving gentle invitations, (and pedal-boating). Maybe you’ll want to experiment with those, too, or try something completely different.

Whatever it is, it’ll probably be awkward and uncomfortable at first!