245 I Tackling Difficult Conversations with Jen Dalton

Jen joins Mark Silverman to discuss the difficult, angry, and emotionally triggering conversations people often find ourselves in within close relationships and the people they love. She shares the moment an offhand political comment from her husband fired up an overwhelming emotional reaction in her, leading her to investigate why we struggle with hard conversations. Jen explains the primal reactions of how our brain’s work and shares tips on how to manage our strong emotional responses. She also discusses the importance of managing such conversations in society as a whole and how with an empathetic ear you can connect with those you don’t agree with without intense conflict.

“A difficult conversation isn’t about winning. It’s just about listening and moving forward together.” – Jen Dalton

 Learn More about Mark Silverman and his amazing work here.

Mark Silverman:               00:01                     So if you’re a long time listener of the Mastering Midlife podcast, you know I talk about a posse. You know I am adamant that you have to have people in your lives that you trust, that you trust in business, that you trust for personal, that are your unshakeable people. And one of my five people is my next guest. Jen Dalton is the person I trust with anything I do in my career, with my personal life, with decisions I have to make, how I present myself in the world. And I’m just so tickled to be able to share her with you. She is a master brand personal strategist, and she’ll correct me later when I let her talk whether or not I have that right. She is the CEO of BrandMirror. Her expertise is helping CEOs, leaders get their message out, get their messaging out, and present themselves to the world.

Mark Silverman:               00:56                     She’s helped that with me with Only 10s and Mastering Midlife. And anything that you see in the world is because I run it by Jen and ask for her input. She wrote a book called The Intentional Entrepreneur, absolutely great book. And now she’s working on a new book that came from a conversation that she’s been having and I had with her about a year, year and a half ago about why can’t we all get along? Why can’t we talk? Why can’t we have these conversations that we need to have? And Jen being Jen said, “You know what? I think I’m going to research this, I’m going to learn this, and I’m going to write a book.” So I said, “Please come on the podcast, let’s talk about this.” Because Thanksgiving’s coming up, Christmas is coming up. We’ve all been locked in with COVID all this time. We need to know how to talk to each other. So Jen, thanks for being on the show.

Jen Dalton:                          01:42                     Thank you so much, Mark, for having me. And I love being a part of your tribe and the feeling is mutual. So I appreciate-

Mark Silverman:               01:49                     I don’t know what I would do without you.

Jen Dalton:                          01:51                     Vice versa. I appreciate that.

Mark Silverman:               01:52                     Yeah, with you writing a book, me writing a book, COVID and all that, and not seeing you, I’m glad that I get to see you on camera and I get to share you with the world. So we were talking before the camera went on, before the microphone went on. And by the time this airs, there will be a name for this book, but we had difficult conversations, telepathy is not as strategy, avoidance is not as strategy. Talk about why you’re writing this book. What was the impetus?

Jen Dalton:                          02:21                     It’s funny. A few years ago, I remember it was right after the election and I’m sitting on the couch in a moment of quiet, which I rarely have, with a coffee and a book. So I was very calm. And my husband was walking by and he said something off the cuff political. And I remember thinking I went from being calm with a cup of coffee to really mad. And I was like, “Why am I overreacting?” And I didn’t do anything because it was such a visceral reaction.

Mark Silverman:               02:54                     Actually, in the book you say you wanted to jump over the couch and were ready to fight.

Jen Dalton:                          02:58                     I did. We had this knee wall. And I do think I envisioned myself jumping over it, which is foolish because there’s no way I would be able to jump over it. But I was. I was really mad. And we all have those moments where someone says something and you just go into this fight mode. Or you’re in flight mode and trying to flee. And so that prompted me to think about and start to research the topic. And then a few, almost a year went by and I gave a talk and I was sort of meandering with this idea. And then last year when my mother passed away, I had a lot more difficult conversations that had to be a lot more intentional. And that really is what kick started writing a book. Because the more I shared my stories with other people about hard conversations, the more they shared. And I realized there’s something here that we still haven’t cracked the code on. And I want to go on my own journey to find the best practices for how do we navigate those high-risk conversations with people we love?

Mark Silverman:               04:03                     Yeah. I can hear the emotion in your voice when you started to talk about when your mother passed away and you really in earnest had to have conversations that were just raw and intimate. And that’s what I want to hear about, why do you care whether or not we have better conversations?

Jen Dalton:                          04:26                     I think a lot of it stems from being your authentic self. And so when I think about personal brand and reputation, a lot of times people can think of it as marketing yourself like a product. And that’s not how I think of it. I think of it as you live your purpose, you know your why, and you want to make a change in the world. Even if it’s 10 people that you help, 1000, 10,000, whatever the number is, it’s just important to be clear on who you are.

Jen Dalton:                          04:57                     And what I’ve found is between politics and religion and conversations about death or money, you name it, a lot of us bury those thoughts and questions and concerns because we don’t want to make someone we care about mad, we don’t want to have a battle over Thanksgiving dinner about politics. So we just avoid it. And avoiding it is not the right strategy because that keeps you from being your true self. And I think that instead of avoiding it, most people believe don’t ever talk about politics or religion. And I’ve had a real shift in that philosophy where if we can learn to talk about it and keep calm and understand why we freak out, then we’d probably be a lot better off with ourselves because we could be who we are. And we certainly would have better relationships with the people around us.

Mark Silverman:               05:53                     Yeah. In Only 10s, my book, there’s a section on difficult conversations. Because in order to get things on and off your to-do list, you have to have difficult conversations. In order to delegate, in order to hold people accountable, in order to set boundaries, you need to have these difficult conversations. So you and I have talked about this for years. When I read your book, I really liken it to Brené Brown’s style of … Because Brené Brown is an intellectual, right? She’s not a touchy feely person. But her books are raw and make you feel. So when I was reading your book, I loved going back and forth between the absolute raw stories. And mine is one of them. I read my own story in your book and I was raw just finishing it.

Mark Silverman:               06:41                     But then you go into the research. So when you give us examples of the difficult conversations of talking to teenage children, where there was one story of a man talking to his teenage daughter about going to have sex. And I was just like, “That’s so hard, right?” But then you go into the research of this is why you have these conversations, this is the best way to have the conversations, and this is what keeps us from having the conversations. And I love the back and forth. So the way your brain works is really suited to helping us have these conversations. After writing the book and after really taking in all, because I know you’re a feeler also, after taking in all these stories, what were you left with as far as the what, why, and how of these conversations?

Jen Dalton:                          07:31                     So one of the things when you go to write a book, as you know, that is really hard is what’s the change you’re trying to drive? How are you adding to the conversation and not just regurgitating what others have said? And trust me, there are a lot of books about difficult conversations. There’s Difficult Conversations, Crucial Conversations, How to Have Impossible Conversations, not to mention 20 others. And so there is a lot of research. And what I try to do-

Jen Dalton:                          08:02                     There’s a lot of research and what I try to do in my book to make it add to the conversation, one, I go a lot deeper into through the stories, the thinking of where people were at, what were they feeling? What were their fears? And every chapter is a different topic because the other thing I’ve realized, I’ve been fortunate not to have that many difficult conversations in life sort of thrust upon me, but as I get older, I now I see more and more of them coming, whether it’s about teenage conversations or conversations with your parents about health and so difficult conversations are not going away. Even with COVID talking with your parents or friends about who’s wearing a mask, who’s not, and why? How do you navigate that without burning a bridge? And so my hope is that the book will share stories that are relatable. That there is some research, but it’s not overwhelming research because it’s not an academic book.

Jen Dalton:                          09:01                     It is a book that I hope people can pick it up, read a chapter, be transported into this story, see how conversations might unfold or did unfold, and how those might help them. The last chapter, as my conclusion for what’s the takeaway, what’s the framework that might help people navigate difficult conversations and comparing it with all of the other frameworks that are out there. And really trying just to give a different view. I mean, clearly we still need to work on difficult conversations. No one has cracked that code, whether it’s in person or online, and that’s why we have more and more books. So I’m hoping that this framework and the approach gives a different lens and helps people think a little bit differently about how they approach it and why we overreact to the way we do because that’s what I had to learn about myself.

Mark Silverman:               09:59                     Why do we overreact?

Jen Dalton:                          10:02                     A lot of it is we’re wired that way, right. Our brain is not our friend when it comes to difficult conversations. There’s lots of research, whether it’s Daniel Coleman or others around your amygdala sort of steps in, takes over your logical brain, and says fight or flight. And your amygdala can respond in less than two or three milliseconds. And just like when my husband said something and immediately I had already reacted and I didn’t even know enough at the time to be able to pause and go, “Wait a minute. By the way, this is my brain. I need to press pause, take a deep breath. Now think about how I want to respond,” because we can very quickly escalate. And I think that’s a big driver and maybe some people know that, but I think reminding people of that, reminding people of how much our brain really does keep us from having conversations. But if you know that, it can help you navigate that and sort of override that instinct.

Mark Silverman:               11:09                     What I hear you saying there is fear. Our amygdala automatically senses fear when someone says something that goes against our worldview. It triggers us so we can’t think rationally. We can’t be in relationship until we calm that amygdala down and understand and pause. Let’s just take what you mentioned wearing masks. We’re talking about politics. You and I both, we’re in relationships where we’re on the opposite ends of the spectrum on the political. I mean, we share a lot of the same values, but the political just seems to divide us in incredible ways. Let’s take something simple like masks. If one partner wants to wear a mask and another partner doesn’t believe in masks, how do you navigate that?

Mark Silverman:               11:50                     Because one person thinks that there’s life and death consequences to whether or not you [inaudible 00:11:56]. Mask. And it’s very reasonable, even if you don’t believe in the life and death consequences, why can’t you just fucking wear a mask for me, right? And you can just get all riled up about that instead of being in relationship. So that’s a conversation that’s very real time for people to have now. How do you approach that? Let’s say you have two people who are on different sides of the mask debate, which I can’t even figure out why there’s a mask debate, but there is. How do you navigate that?

Jen Dalton:                          12:22                     There’s a debate it seems about everything now. Everything becomes politicized if it’s not, but so there are a couple of important things. One is again, to keep in mind that your brain might go into fight or flight. And so just have that in the back of your head. I think the important thing is to set ground rules. And so if you’re talking… For example, I have to talk to my dad about is he wearing a mask when he goes out when I went to see him in Georgia, which was not the best place to go because he was having surgery. Approaching that with him really was around look, I’m not trying to change your mind or force you to wear a mask, I just know that we have similar values. We care about each other. We love each other. So tell me more about why you want to wear a mask or don’t want to wear a mask, right? The most important thing-

Mark Silverman:               13:13                     How did you get yourself to the point where you can ask a question? My elderly parent is not going to wear a mask and he’s not going to wear one of the N95s. For me, I wear a mask so that I don’t infect the grocery store worker, right, or someone else or your dad, but your dad needs to go out and he needs to protect himself. So how do you get yourself into a place where you’re able to actually ask those questions?

Jen Dalton:                          13:36                     One of the things I had to learn was I can’t tell someone to do something, especially not any person in my family who has the stubborn gene out the wazoo. What I can do though is say, “Dad, I really care about you and I’m worried. I’m worried about you and I want to make sure you’re okay. Help me understand what makes you feel safe? Wearing a mask, does that help you feel safe? What else are you doing? Tell me a little bit more.” And so there are a couple of things that happened in what I just shared. One is we have to remember that if we tell someone to do something and it’s already against what they want to do or it’s implying that they’re wrong, they’re going to go straight into fight or flight. And when your amygdala kicks in, you’re in stress mode and the last thing your brain and your heart are ready to do is create a solution or collaborate.

Jen Dalton:                          14:36                     And so when I say instead, “Hey, I’m worried about you,” now I’ve created an opportunity for my audience for my dad to engage and try to help me not feel worried. And so they’re part of it and it’s a dialogue. I find when you say, “Would you just wear a mask?” That statement in and of itself as a monologue, you’re the messenger. We all know what happens to the messenger. They get shot. So don’t be the messenger, right. It’s very important to think about how can you ask a question that’s not leading? How can you set ground rules to say, “Look, I’m not actually trying to change your mind, I’m just trying to understand because I care about you?” The more you can remind people of your similar shared values and that you love them and you’re just trying to learn and listen, you’re not trying to change anything, they will be open to talk with you.

Mark Silverman:               15:27                     That’s so good. I love that piece. You remind them and remind myself of our shared values. My partner and I have been practicing these conversations, because again, we’re on polar opposite ends of the political spectrum and everything means something dastardly, right. So reminding myself that we both want peace. We both want people to be together. We both want all these good things for people. We’re just seeing it from a different lens has really been a game changer for us to be able to actually have conversations that were impossible…

Mark Silverman:               16:03                     … Game changer for us to be able to actually have conversations that were impossible before.

Jen Dalton:                          16:05                     I think the other thing that I learned through a lot of the interviews is people don’t know what others’ experiences are. So, people might share a comment or say something, but if they haven’t asked me why I believe what I believe, what’s my experience been in the past, you could really hurt a relationship by not understanding, “Gosh, what’s happened in your life that made you so passionate about this topic?” If you’re talking about politics, what was the first moment you can remember where you loved being a Republican or Democrat or whatever? But it’s important to ask and get context because a lot of people’s stories, we make assumptions. And if you understand why they are where they are, then you might be able to collaborate better. You certainly would have more empathy. And you can understand why something is important. So the most important thing in a difficult conversation is your audience has to believe that you care. And they have to believe that you’re really trying to understand them for the sake of understanding.

Mark Silverman:               17:12                     And that goes for us too. We’re more responsive if someone makes… Just turn it around. If I’m talking to someone and I feel like they actually care about what I think, what I feel, what I experience, then I’m more apt to listen to them.

Jen Dalton:                          17:27                     And don’t get me wrong. I practice this every day. I still haven’t cracked the code. I’ll still feel myself starting to tense up or freak out. And I just have to remind myself, “Look, that’s your brain. Take a deep breath. You know you care about this person. What can we do to make sure they know you care? And just take a deep breath and step back.”

Mark Silverman:               17:47                     I do that all the time. My brain is screaming, “You’re such an idiot! I can’t believe you even believe that. Why do you care about this? Oh my God.” And I’ll be breathing from my belly, and even say, “My brain is racing, but I’m listening.” And it’s so hard to do that. That amygdala just wants to take hold.

Jen Dalton:                          18:06                     Totally. Well, and once you practice having that sort of two things in your brain at once, you’ve got the brain freaking out and your mind trying to have a rational conversation, it does get easier. It doesn’t mean you’re perfect at it. But that one thing has made a huge difference. And I think the listening to understand, having empathy… Because you don’t know someone’s story. You’ve got to really learn why they believe what they believe. Because as soon as they think you’re just trying to change their mind and you don’t really care, you just want to be right, then you’ve lost the entire point of the exercise. A difficult conversation is not about winning. It’s just about listening and moving forward together.

Mark Silverman:               18:51                     I did a coaching training on modality called Circling, and it’s the most gentle, most loving coaching I’ve ever seen. And it is all about someone sitting in the center of the circle and people standing around them. And all they do is reflect back how they feel, what they see. And the whole purpose is to learn someone else’s world. And the premise of Circling is that we do not understand other people’s worlds. We all live in our own world that we made up, that we have perceptions. And the extent to that, there is very little shared reality. And in Circling, you spend all this time really trying to get the person’s world before you ever do any coaching, before you ever do anything, is really understanding. And that’s been a huge part for me in the whole political conversation is how do I get… Because the day I realized that my partner and I, we don’t have a difference of opinion, we live in completely different worlds, just completely different realities.

Mark Silverman:               19:55                     And it’s not a matter of opinion. Once I got that it’s not a matter of opinion or right or wrong, that we just don’t live in the same world, now it stopped being personal. Now I can have a conversation. It’s still hard, but now I can have a conversation. So question, in the book, I’m reading gut-wrenching story after gut-wrenching story in the book… Some of them actually are gut-wrenching and uplifting at the same time. Because they’re gut-wrenching because I put myself in the space of having that conversation. But then the wisdom that comes from either failing or actually doing it well at the end of each vignette is really, including my own, which is like, “Wow, I’m really wise. I’m really cool.” But it’s really good. What sticks out from the book and the conversation? Which story really moved you and taught you something new?

Jen Dalton:                          20:47                     There are so many. It’s like choosing your favorite child.

Mark Silverman:               20:51                     And I’m going to ask you to do it.

Jen Dalton:                          20:52                     I know. Well, one of my good relationships, good friends, Diane, shares her story about talking with her dad and helping him understand why he needed to move into assisted living, or independent living, excuse me, because he was so not there. And she is so good at planning for that conversation, thinking about location, where does he need to be, asking him questions, having questions ready to ask to really learn. And I know with all of the boomers, and as somebody in the same space where you’re starting to have to ask your parents, it’s a very poignant, timely story and it’s heartbreaking. And so I think the story itself and her wisdom and the takeaways are mind-blowing. But to your point, when you put yourself in someone else’s shoes… For me at least, I’m extremely empathetic around that.

Jen Dalton:                          22:05                     As much as I love logic and structure, I can see a story and be a part of a story. So hers is really powerful. But there are a lot of different stories from race, to politics, to money, to health that I really wanted a book that people could flip to a chapter and have at least two stories to read and go, “Huh? How does this feel?” And not every conversation’s perfect. So that’s the other thing is one of the chapters is about an individual that I met a few years ago named Cash. And they came out to their family. And that story, especially in the transgender community where there’s so much inspiring work being done, but there’s also so much hatred also, that hearing Cash’s perspective on how they navigated that. And how did they make sure they felt safe? What were they looking for from their parents? What is success?

Mark Silverman:               23:14                     And right now, you’re using the pronouns they for Cash. Cash’s pronouns are they, their and them.

Jen Dalton:                          23:21                     Correct. Which is a little bit weird to write. But I learned a lot as I was going through that. But yes, pronouns matter. And when you read Cash’s story, it becomes really clear why. And also when you read about how their parents don’t always adopt that, it really breaks your heart. Because again, all of this is about people want to be themselves. I believe everybody should be able to be who they are authentically without judgment. Hopefully they’re also good. That’s one of my requirements, to be good people. But everybody in this book, they are just trying to do the-

Jen Dalton:                          24:03                     But everybody in this book, they are just trying to do the best they can, whether it’s a conversation about leadership, about a family business. And we all have those moments every day where we’re so stressed, especially with COVID. We’re so swamped. It can feel really hard to press pause and seek out or even embrace a difficult conversation. But they are one of those things where if you start to practice, they become easier, and it takes a huge weight off of your shoulders. Because they’re like the “eat the frog”. Right, Mark Twain says, “Eat the frog in the morning and everything else will be easier.”

Jen Dalton:                          24:42                     Find a difficult conversation you can practice with someone you trust and just start, because they’re not going to go away. You’re only going to have more of them. And we need to figure out how to do this as a society, but especially with the people you care about.

Mark Silverman:               25:00                     It’s intimacy. Having a difficult conversation is intimate, and it’s really hard.

Mark Silverman:               25:04                     Just before we started this recording, I was coaching a client and he was saying that he thought he made a mistake by bringing up a really difficult topic while he and his girlfriend were on a vacation at the beach. As he’s telling me the story, all I can notice is he looks light and he looks good, and he looks in a much better space. But he’s telling me this story about how hard it was to have this conversation, and the back and forth, and all this stuff.

Mark Silverman:               25:38                     And I said, “So what are you left with?”

Mark Silverman:               25:40                     He goes, “I just feel better. Everything’s on the table. It just feels better to have everything on the table and now we can actually work through it.”

Mark Silverman:               25:47                     And that is the definition of why we have these difficult conversations is, because as icky and horrible and sweaty palms as they feel, now we have everything on the table. We can be intimate, we can be real and we can do something with it, so it’s really cool.

Jen Dalton:                          26:02                     Well, and I do have a crush on Brené Brown. I mean, you and I went and saw her in person and-

Mark Silverman:               26:07                     Yes, we did. You can’t hate up close.

Jen Dalton:                          26:08                     You can’t hate. Well, right, and she’s fabulous. And one of the things that she talks about is the stories we tell ourselves. That the truth of the matter is, we’ve already had difficult conversations in our head and imagined them, and they usually are way worse than reality. As long as you plan ahead a little bit, think about what’s the worst thing that could happen, are you okay with that, and just be ready for how to take however the other person reacts, however they do.

Jen Dalton:                          26:43                     They only reactions you can control are your own. If you can find a way to know what are your triggers, how do you try to stay calm? If it’s take a deep breath, if it’s just pause for a minute, if it’s ask a question to give yourself time to think. But it is important for each of us to recognize that a lot of the conversations we’re afraid to have, their way worse in our head than they probably will be in reality. And the more you can plan and just go into it with love, and again, just trying to learn and be open, and take deep breaths so you don’t lose control-

Mark Silverman:               27:22                     I think what you’re describing is a decision to be emotionally intelligent. My amygdala may want to wrestle from me, but I’m making a decision ahead of time to be mature, to be adult, to find ground no matter what happens.

Jen Dalton:                          27:35                     And if you remember that the person you’re speaking with, that you love them, that they love you. I mean, that’s what I had to think about with my husband. I was like, “Why am I freaking out? I know he loves me and I know he doesn’t want to hurt me.” We just haven’t figured out which words to use yet to move forward. And so how do I re-say something? Or how do I ask him to explain or tell me more before I go to judgment? Because your body and your brain are all of the time going, “How do I keep you safe? How do I help you survive?” And we have to disrupt that because that does not serve us well when we need to have an emotional and an intellectual conversation.

Mark Silverman:               28:19                     We don’t have a title for the book yet. It’s going to be about having these difficult conversations. By the time this airs, we will have it. How can people find you so that they can find the book?

Jen Dalton:                          28:32                     People can go to noisebreaker.com. The book will be listed there. It will be available for pre-order. People can also sign up and just stay on the sort of waiting list newsletter. And then it will also be available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble and all those fabulous places December 7th.

Mark Silverman:               28:51                     And if people want to work with you as far as your brilliance in personal branding, where do they find you?

Jen Dalton:                          29:00                     Brandmirror.com is my company site. You can find me at brandmirror.com or noisebreaker.com. Noisebreaker is really my personal effort to have these provocative conversations and push some of this content out that’s really in my voice, right, where I want to move things forward in this space and help people be more authentic. You can think of it like my speaker website, but noisebreaker.com, brandmirror.com. They can find me on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, Instagram, always looking BrandMirror and you will find me.

Mark Silverman:               29:37                     I’ll put all that in the show notes. One last note about this. I’m really proud of you. Because on Mastering Midlife, we talk often about finding our authentic voice and really giving honor to that because you have a thriving career and a thriving business, and you’ve been talking about wanting to speak your mind. You’ve been wanting to make an impact in the world other than your specific business, helping other people make impact in the world. And I’m just so proud of you for writing this book, writing this book in such a raw and real manner, and speaking your heart and your mind in the world more and more. You’re an example of what I’m trying to do with the podcast and with my work. I’m just so proud of you and this book. I’m able to read half of it so far as you dole it out to me drip by drip. It’s so good, so congratulations.

Jen Dalton:                          30:26                     Well, thank you very much. It’s been a journey, right? Anybody who wants to put themselves out there or like Brené Brown says, “Step into the arena,” it’s scary, right? This is not a space I’m an expert in. My first book is my expertise. This book was really a journey about, how do I create something that adds value when I don’t know all the answers, but I can go research and find them and it’s important.

Jen Dalton:                          30:52                     And so I think for anyone trying to figure out, do they step into the arena and maybe they’re afraid, trust me, I have a lot of fear and imposter syndrome and who am I to write this book? But I also know that if this book helps one person, 10 people, a hundred people, that it’s made a difference. And either way, it’s helped me become better, which I know my husband and my family and friends appreciate, so there’s that.

Mark Silverman:               31:20                     Well, I will say it’s actually moved me, and I’m an expert in this. It’s really well done, so thank you. Thank you for being on the show and thank you for your friendship.

Jen Dalton:                          31:30                     Thank you so much. I know I’ll see you soon.

Mark Silverman:               31:32                     Yes. And to everybody else, really thank you for your precious time and attention. I know everything is competing, the stress, the noise out there; and I just urge you, take care of yourself, drink lots of water, be kind to each other, and I love you. Have a great rest of the day. 

Listen: How to Embrace the Difficult Conversations Life Throws at You

Listen: How to Embrace the Difficult Conversations Life Throws at You

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