Why Are We Yelling

Buster Benson | 21 mins

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Watch How Anxiety Sparks

Anxiety is a signpost pointing out our personal beliefs and expectations.

Has this ever happened to you? You’re doing something around the house, and things are a bit chaotic. You grab your lidded coffee cup from earlier in the day off the table and take a big swig. Too late you realize that it must have been an old cup from a week ago that never got thrown away, because you can feel something too horrible to even consider floating in your mouth, and you spit old coffee all over yourself in revulsion. In my defense, this happened to me in college, and I’ve never looked at an unidentified coffee cup without suspicion since. Experiences, unlike intellectual arguments, can change your mind about something instantly and forever.

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Even if you haven’t swallowed moldy coffee, that story probably still sparked some disgust and anxiety in you. Most of us have never received guidance about how to interpret these spikes of anxiety, and thus we often don’t remember them or assign meaning to them. But we should, because these sparks are the blazing signposts that tell us that something important to us feels threatened. These signposts are unique to our personal histories and, as a whole, represent a map of our personal expectations, hopes, dreams, and disappointments about the world.

COMMON ANXIETY TRIGGERS

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Expectations fall short of reality when:

  • Someone says they hate a movie/book/song that you love.
  • You put a ton of effort into something that ends up flopping.
  • You learn that you’re the last person to find out about a shocking family secret.
  • Some of your foundational beliefs are challenged in a way you aren’t prepared for.
  • You get caught doing something that you thought you’d get away with.
  • You can’t find a way out of an awkward social situation.

Left unquestioned, each of these sparks of anxiety will dictate how we respond to the world like an invisible program: we’ll misread people, we’ll react incorrectly to new information, and we’ll always revert to trying to forcing the world to change to meet our expectations rather than updating our expectations to better fit the world. Given how little we know and how big the world is, this is almost always a recipe for more anxiety and, ultimately, failure.

AN OLD GLASS OF WATER

One of the first surveys I ran when I was beginning the research that eventually led to this book (and a question I still like to ask people at parties) was about collecting a list of long-running arguments that people have gotten into over and over again. I was looking for the gnarly, twisty, recurring, never-ending arguments, the ones that people repeatedly fell into over the span of years—sometimes decades! These repeating arguments could be with significant others, family members, friends, or just random strangers on the internet. I was especially interested in the ones that seem pretty trivial on the surface but keep coming back again, because something about them taps into deeper emotions and parts of our beliefs and identities. I had a hunch then, and have since confirmed, that arguments live long lives in our heads. Sometimes they stick around for our whole lives, and we practice and refine them with different people at different times. Others are linked to specific relationships, especially with siblings and parents and spouses, and certain topics and perspectives become landmarks to return to over time in these interactions.

One of my favorite arguments came from two good friends of mine, Sharon and Ian. They’ve been married for over ten years and are both lovely, authentic people who are unafraid of tossing around strong opinions. The argument that Sharon shared with me via private message was surprising all the same: “Does water go bad when it sits out for a few days? We’ve been arguing about this going on about ten years, and still don’t agree. PS. Obviously, yes, the water does go bad.”

Perhaps because of my old coffee-cup experience from my college days, I had an immediate reaction to this question and emphatically agreed that the water would be completely and unquestionably undrinkable after a few days. Ian, who grew up in Australia and has a more . . . tolerant relationship to germs, scoffed at us and called us derogatory names. To him, this was just more evidence of how much we had been coddled and possibly ruined by our germophobic culture.

I clarified and opened up the question to a broader group of people to see if it would spark conversation.

Question: If you find a glass of water on your bedside table that’s been sitting there three full days, are there good reasons NOT to drink it?

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The responses came in fast and ranged across the board. Some of the people who believed the water was okay to drink said things like:

You’re all part of the reason we’re destroying the planet.

I’ve even been known (because I’m thirsty or because I hate wasting things) to drink bottled water that’s been opened, drunk from (sometimes not by me but by one of my kids), and left in my truck for a week. I’ll hesitate more the more uncertain I am of the timeline.

Water left out in a home or office just isn’t going to be dangerous or growing any bad bacteria (any more than would be growing on some fruit left on the counter).

And then in the hell-no camp:

No one can change my mind about it. If water has been sitting out overnight, I pour it out and get a fresh one. Every time.

I’d choke on all of the dust and particles that have settled in the open glass.

I can always get another one. There is a risk, admittedly very small, of potentially getting sick, so why take the risk, when the act of getting a new glass of water is so little effort?

I am so closed-minded about this it isn’t even funny. That water is absolutely stagnant and will kill you within minutes.

The first surprise

I collected a bit more information from each of the people who responded and created this visualization of their responses so we could all look at this important issue together.

Seeing our very visceral reactions and positions in a two-dimensional space helped us appreciate their diversity. It also had the added benefit of making the responses to the question less personal. The little dots on the chart didn’t have names or faces attached (mostly because that would have been beyond my skills). When you were looking at the results, it was hard to even remember which dot was your own.

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When you depersonalize a position in an argument, it becomes possible to imagine having other positions, in the same way that you might walk around a room and try sitting in different chairs.

The second surprise

The next thing I did was to go back through all the comments people had left and try to cluster reasons people had shared for holding the positions they held. It took a little bit more questioning and back-and-forth, and then some clustering of answers, but fairly quickly I produced a prioritized list of beliefs that each camp used to justify their reactions.

The hell-no camp had a general fear of bacteria and the unknown: “Nobody knows what’s growing in there.” People who owned cats had this even more so, because their general assumption was that if a glass of water had been out in their house for more than a couple of minutes, then the cat’s dirty paws had gotten in there and filled it with whatever evil germs live in cat poop. That hadn’t even occurred to me, since I’m not a cat owner, but it made a lot of sense. Even without cats, I learned that it’s true that bacteria will begin to grow in the water, but almost all evidence points to it being generally harmless bacteria.

Another big cluster of responses in the hell-no camp was about taste. Some described the water tasting stale. Others swore that they could taste bacteria and just didn’t like that flavor. And a couple of people provided evidence about how water’s flavor changes when it gets warmer, and then changes again when the chlorine off-gases. The flavor that some people preferred was most likely a lack of flavor, with a light hint of chlorine. I also learned, in this conversation, that carbon dioxide will dissolve into water that’s been left out, and that too has a slight flavor to it.

From the drinkers camp, there seemed to be more personal stories about how respondents overcame their fear of bacteria. These were people who had done a lot of camping, people who grew up in more rural areas of the country or world, people whose parents were doctors and nurses. Here’s one of those stories:

My parents were nurses and we have a lot of medical people in my extended family—I think I was raised with the idea that germs and bacteria aren’t all bad. Totally ate food off the floor if it fell, got in the dirt a lot, went camping and got dirty a lot, etc. I also don’t wear Band-Aids very much, which I never thought was weird until someone pointed it out. Instead I clean a wound with a really strong antiseptic like Hibiclens and let the air take care of it. Maybe just a lot of faith in the body’s ability to take care of things? I do wash my hands often because I work with children and grew up watching my parents do it so thoroughly. That said, I’m definitely privileged in that I was blessed with a healthy body and immune system, which is a big part of it. I also have been known to pick up a piece of random food on pretty much any table and pop it in my mouth to see what it is. So half of this reading audience is probably nauseated now.

And finally, there was the person who was the most adamant about not drinking the water, even though she acknowledged that it was probably totally fine. She said:

My strong preference against old water was formed as a young girl just based on taste. Later I formed an actual paranoid delusion about water based on my anxiety disorder. For a time I didn’t trust that water was safe to drink if it had been sitting out. When my anxiety got really bad I convinced myself that the water was actually poisoned and would kill me. Now that I’ve got the anxiety under check, it’s a little less nuts, but I still dislike drinking water that’s been sitting out. It’s mostly taste related but also that I don’t want to drink water that has been exposed to dust, pets, and my own mouth bacteria.

We’re complicated creatures, and our reactions to things are rooted in long histories and complex emotions. After hearing the variety of stories, and especially this last one, people in the drinkers camp saw the question differently and admitted that personal circumstances inevitably inform our default positions even when they feel purely logical after the fact.

The third surprise

As a first experiment, I felt pretty happy with the results of this survey. I had expected to find a couple of interesting stories, but I also learned some new things about water, bacteria, and flavors along the way. What I hadn’t expected was to become curious about what old water tasted like and actually change my preference to drink water from an old glass now and again. When I do, I try to pay attention to the flavors of carbon dioxide, the lack of chlorine, and the faint strains of early bacteria communities sprouting up. I had set up the experiment with a very explicit plea to avoid trying to changing people’s minds, and I had marked my own position as fairly unlikely to change based on new information, and yet something had shifted. Did my mind change? Or did my perspective just expand to include a broader set of possibilities?

It didn’t do anything to change my skepticism of old cups of coffee, but I have looked at water differently ever since.

FIRST THING TO TRY

Watch how anxiety sparks

Anxiety sparks when a perspective we value bumps into another perspective that challenges it in some way. If we find this new perspective to be unacceptable, that’s when our “Someone is wrong on the internet; I must correct them!” impulse leaps into action.

When anxiety sparks—poof!—it’s like a little anxious dragon is born in our minds, ready to light things on fire. It’s the first sign of a disagreement potentially on its way. What else can we notice about this automatic emotional spike? What sparks big anxieties and what sparks little ones?

As we saw in the old-water conversation, the same information (a three-day-old glass of water) can spark a wide variety of anxieties in different people. You can imagine how an early experience like accidentally drinking moldy water, or repeated instances of associating water with poisoning, could magnify the automatic response you’d have the next time, and the next time. Alternatively, growing up in an environment where anxiety was repeatedly reduced by, say, doctor parents or the realities of rural living would result in a completely different response. It’s normal to feel the spark of anxiety and immediately assume that it’s a reflection of the true qualities of the object we’re reacting to. Ivan Pavlov famously showed that dogs could learn to associate dinner with the ringing of a bell until they would salivate when they heard the bell, even before dinner showed up. When we pay attention to the spark of anxiety, we can glimpse how we’ve learned to react automatically to specific kinds of information. Sometimes, we’ve learned something that stands up to reflection, like associating gunshots with danger. Other times, we’ve become conditioned to a belief that doesn’t stand up to reflection. We can’t know which is which until we look at them.

Let’s use a 1 to 5 anxiety-rating scale. We can use it to capture the level of discomfort you experience when you accidentally put something terrible in your mouth and also for the much more general case of expectations and perspectives clashing in your head.

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Level 1: Pretty manageable. You put on one of your favorite shirts and realize it has a tear in the elbow.

Level 2: You sweat a bit. You hear that your favorite actor committed suicide. You learn that you have a condition that prevents you from eating dairy, gluten, or sugar for the next six months and, depending on the results of the trial period, maybe the rest of your life.

Level 3: There’s a mild emergency going on now. Your boss tells you that the business isn’t doing as well as hoped and the company has to eliminate some positions, including yours.

Level 4: The problem won’t kill you, but you’re not going to recover from this unscathed. You learn that your partner cheated on you a few years ago and that it might still be going on. A freak accident kills a close friend.

Level 5: Really bad things happen: you end up in the hospital, a brush fire burns down your block, you lose your spouse or child to a freak accident—you get the point.

Anxiety is subjective. The examples above may even be way off and out of order for you—if so, spend a few minutes calibrating the scale to your own experiences.

You’ll also notice that anxiety doesn’t have to lead to a disagreement. The kind of anxiety we’re discussing is caused by any internal inconsistency between two perspectives. Sometimes one perspective is your beliefs and another is someone else’s beliefs; other times one perspective is your expectations about what’s real and the other is new information that contradicts those expectations.

Scan this list of potential triggers for anxiety and attempt to rate them 1 to 5 on your own anxiety scale:

You are in a rush to get to work and your main route is unexpectedly under construction, adding an hour to your arrival time.

Your friend throws a plastic bottle into the garbage can, even though there’s a recycling bin sitting right next to it.

You learn, as a child, that adults were lying to you about something (Santa, for example) when someone tells you that what you believed isn’t true.

Your friend tells you she thinks your house is haunted by the previous owner of the house, who apparently hung herself in the basement. She wants to help you find an exorcist, but they’re pretty expensive.

You learn that you were not accepted to the college you wanted to get into, or weren’t hired for the job you just interviewed for and really wanted.

Your mom tells you she voted for a different presidential candidate than you did.

You get diagnosed with cancer, and the doctors think you have less than six months to live.

Your favorite television show gets unexpectedly canceled.

Your childhood friend who never went to school or worked a day in his life wins several million dollars in the lottery.

You sense something off in an old, dusty house and hear a voice that sounds like a scream, but you’re the only person there.

Your horoscope tells you that something bad might happen soon, and the next day your car gets a flat tire and you almost crash.

Your friends who you considered to be the perfect happy couple are getting divorced.

You find out the man you thought was your father isn’t your biological father.

You get to a friend’s house and find them burning a pile of American flags in their fire pit while taking a lot of selfies.

You learn that most parents in your kid’s elementary school don’t vaccinate their children.

You are at a restaurant with a communal table and realize, after an hour of pleasant conversation, that the party of ten people next to you are all registered sex offenders.

You’re camping deep in the forest and wake up feeling a little itchy, but it’s pitch-black outside. You turn on a flashlight and realize you and your entire tent are covered in ants.

CAN A BAGEL BE TRIGGERING?

Once you start noticing how anxiety sparks, you’ll see it happen everywhere. What’s your first reaction when you see bagels sliced vertically, like a loaf of bread?

If your response is anything like the responses that I saw when this was posted on Twitter, you’re probably feeling something like level 2 or even level 3 anxiety. The responses on Twitter were entertaining:

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Officer, I would like to report a crime.

First of all, how dare you

Who told you this was ok

It’s not unusual to routinely feel anxious when other people do completely harmless things that don’t align with our preferences.

The bagel meme trended on Twitter for a day or two, and it’s a good example of why the internet is fun: we’re playing social games that help us reduce shared anxieties, even silly ones, while at the same time pouring our other anxieties into the platform.

The setup of any joke, story, or headline in the news requires the creation of anxiety. Anxiety, in fast-moving formats like these, is highly motivating. The psychological term for this is cognitive dissonance, and every time we experience cognitive dissonance, we are motivated to Whac-A-Mole it (or “reduce it,” if you’re using the official words). Think about it: every single performer, publisher, comedian, product, service, business, advertiser, or other entity that wants your attention for marketing purposes, entertainment purposes, or more nefarious purposes uses ideas that generate cognitive dissonance as a way to grab your attention. If they can make you feel tense, then you’re more likely to pay attention to whatever they point to for resolution.

Social media help with shared anxiety reduction because we can band together in either qualifying a conflicting perspective (“These aren’t real bagels”; “This is a St. Louis thing, and they’re weird”) or rejecting a conflicting perspective (“If you slice a bagel like it’s a loaf of bread you deserve life in prison. No exceptions”). The downside of this fast, reactive social game is that we become dependent on social media to resolve our anxiety, and we don’t get as much practice resolving it on our own. If social media makes you anxious, this might be part of the reason why.

Depending on which social game we use to reduce cognitive dissonance in ourselves, we may end up with less charitable and less accurate understandings of other people. Recall that a disagreement can be about what is true, what is meaningful, or what is useful. Your job is to identify which type or types of disagreements you want to have. Maybe you want to focus on whether it’s meaning ful to slice a bagel only a certain way. Maybe someone else wants to focus on whether it’s useful to slice a bagel only a certain way. If we’re talking about personal preferences and values, we should confirm that this is what others are talking about too before making a case for what we prefer. Questions about cultural context, tradition, and circumstances will become relevant. Similarly, if we’re talking about the utility of different methods, then we should confirm that others are on the same page with us on that, because it leads to questions like “What is this method useful for?” and “What goals are involved?” Each realm of disagreement is a different world of investigation with different ways to validate or resolve perspectives. When anxiety sparks a disagreement, and you not only notice it but also rate it on a 1 to 5 scale, you’re at a fork in the road, and the way you choose to reduce cognitive dissonance will play a giant role in how productive the next few minutes will be. Even if you start in denial, you can slowly work through qualification and maybe even updating if you allow yourself to dwell in the dissonance a little longer.

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HOW TO STOP ANXIETY
FROM DERAILING YOUR DISAGREEMENT

  1. When you notice anxiety, pause and ask yourself: are you anxious about what is true, what is meaningful, or what is useful?
  2. Ask the other party the same question. Do they give the same answer or something different?
  3. Narrate out loud what each of you is anxious about (this buys more time and slows things down). Reiterate how each of you answered the question to see if that leads to new connections for yourself or the other person.
  4. Check to see if either of you is willing to switch to what the other is anxious about. Who has more cognitive dissonance happening and could use the other’s help?

If you both settle on a question about what is true, you can ask:

  • Is there a source of information we both trust that could give us the answer to this question?
  • What qualifies as a trustworthy source?

If you both settle on a question about what is meaningful, you can ask:

  • Why is this important to us?
  • What past experiences led to us having these preferences or values?

If you both settle on a question about what is useful, you can ask:

  • What would happen if we didn’t do anything?
  • How confident are we in the outcome of these different proposed actions?

The other thing to be mindful of is the level of anxiety, or cognitive dissonance, in the room (even if it’s a virtual room). The amount of cognitive dissonance different people experience will vary depending on how much their in-group identifies with being picky about bagels. New Yorkers might be so anxious about the prospect of “bastardizing” a bagel that they’re immediately triggered when that preference is violated. People in groups who are neutral about bagels (of which I’d consider myself a part) might not feel much cognitive dissonance at all. People who are familiar with bread-sliced bagels already (like St. Louis residents) won’t feel as much because mere-exposure effect (we tend to prefer things that we have become familiar with) has already reduced their dissonance there.

A third way to reduce cognitive dissonance beyond qualifying or rejecting the conflicting perspective is to update your perspective with the new information. A reaction of “bread-sliced bagels is a different way to cut bagels that some people do” is less commonly adapted into social games, because it doesn’t have as good a punch line.

When I saw the bagel tweet, my first reaction was rejection (“No way; that’s so wrong!”). I favorited a few funny tweets but didn’t tweet anything myself. The next time it popped up, I began to understand that this was happening specifically in St. Louis, a detail I had missed in my first pass. I was reminded of a similarly weird trend in Seattle, wherein hot dog vendors had begun putting cream cheese on hot dogs, and how much I enjoyed that at the end of a night out. This didn’t make me want a bread-sliced bagel, but it did make me see that strange local trends happen that seem weird from the outside. This tiny bit of empathy gave me a path to qualifying my belief—I accepted that it’s probably okay with me if people want to slice bagels this way—and eventually updating my belief to allow difference on its own merits. (“It’s a big world.”) This is one way to reduce cognitive dissonance internally—but it also feels weird to have to approve of how other people do things that are completely harmless, doesn’t it?

My reaction is partially a function of the level of anxiety I initially felt. I’m not a New Yorker and am not even a very strong bagel enthusiast, so I didn’t have to do a lot of work to resolve the anxiety. When dissonance is low, the question of “What is useful?” might be enough to resolve it without additional help. When dissonance is high, it might not be enough, which means people who disagree will need to keep looking for another way to resolve the anxiety.

Jokes and social games are great for off-loading the work of high-anxiety cognitive dissonance. Unfortunately, ridicule, insults, and denial also reduce cognitive dissonance in the moment. Collectively, these are strategies that entangle us and make us dependent on the very communication platforms that caused the anxiety in the first place. This entanglement may have a hand in explaining how meme culture has sprung up so quickly on these platforms. If everyone is using these networks to reduce anxiety while also increasing their chances of being exposed to it, a positive feedback loop of growth begins to develop.

Now that we have a language for talking about the levels of anxiety (1 to 5) and the types of anxiety (head, heart, or hands), we can begin to disentangle ourselves from relying too much on the tools that create cognitive dissonance to also resolve it.

START WITH THE SPARK

My wife, Kellianne, informed me about a school holiday coming up that we hadn’t added to our calendar, which meant Niko would be home for the day unexpectedly. I had planned to work as usual, and Kellianne had some important errands to run, so she asked me if I could hang with Niko that morning and head in a couple of hours late. I mentioned, perhaps too nonchalantly, that it would probably be fine to let Niko stay home alone for that time; he’s a pretty responsible kid. In the way that these things sometimes happen, this sparked an argument about whether or not it’s legal to leave an eight-year-old home alone.

If I had been watching how anxiety sparks, I would have noticed that I had level 1 or 2 anxiety around the possibility of not being able to work that day. My response was to deny that possibility and to reach for the easiest solution to the problem: let Niko stay home by himself. Problem: solved (for me).

Except it wasn’t solved for Kellianne. Instead of being resolved, the disagreement only escalated.

KELLIANNE: We can’t do that! That’s against the law, and I don’t feel comfortable leaving him home by himself. What if something happened? We’d have no way of knowing.

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If I had been watching how anxiety sparks, I would have noticed here that my strategy for reducing anxiety didn’t work for Kellianne, which should have been enough to make me realize that she’d need another answer. This makes sense, because the source of my anxiety was that I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to work, and that was unlikely to be the cause of Kellianne’s anxiety. I could have asked at this point what she was worried about, to get a better sense of the disagreement’s real source. At the very least I could have dropped the proposed solution that worked only for me and kept looking for one that worked for both of us. Instead, I chose to start a new disagreement about whether or not my solution was legal in California, blindly hoping that that was what she was actually worried about.

ME: I’m pretty sure it’s not illegal.

KELLIANNE: No. It’s not negotiable. I just don’t feel safe. I don’t see why you can’t just stay home an extra hour. I have been on kid duty every sick day ever, and you never have.

ME: I can stay home for it, but I just think Niko could also handle being alone for an hour or two. He’s a responsible kid.

Because I wasn’t paying attention to the source of my anxiety, I couldn’t see that it was different from Kellianne’s source. Therefore, I couldn’t see how my solution didn’t resolve her problem. Worst of all, I was insisting on having a disagreement that she didn’t actually care about while ignoring the one that she actually wanted to discuss.

If I had been paying better attention to all of this, I would have very easily noticed that for Kellianne, our disagreement had nothing to do with California laws or even with the possibility of leaving Niko at home alone. For her, the disagreement was actually about a value judgment of my willingness to pitch in for the family. By the time this became clear to me (it took a bit longer than it should have), my offer to stay home was no longer enough to salvage the conversation, because it had shifted to a much broader disagreement about my general behavioral trends and even my inability to communicate effectively.

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When one person is trying to manage a large source of anxiety, and the conversation focuses on strategies that aren’t sufficient to resolve that anxiety, the disagreement will escalate and escalate until a solution that’s sufficient appears. Recruiting past disagreements and comparisons to other people and reaching for less healthy methods of resolution like yelling, insults, resentment, and denial become increasingly necessary methods of anxiety management.

This embarrassing personal example points to one of the most common errors made by people who are particularly drawn to “reasonable” debate. People who value cool rationality make this mistake all the time—we focus on arguments in their simplest form (what is true?) when all the emotional evidence is screaming that it’s really an argument much more rooted in meaning, value, and/or purpose. Disagreements about information are by far the simplest conflicts to resolve, because there’s a source of truth out there, somewhere within reach. All we have to do is reach for it—problem solved. But this easy answer applies only to easy questions, and overrelying on it makes us blind to other more ambiguous and messy parts of relationships that aren’t as easily addressed. Many more arguments than we’re usually willing to admit are about personal preferences (why was I putting work above family?) and/or about strategy and pragmatism (was leaving Niko home alone the best option in this particular situation?). By holding on to the easy, information-based conflict, I exacerbated the other two kinds of conflict. I believed that I always try to put family above work and that I was willing to stay home during Kellianne’s errands . . . but I was proving with my actions that this wasn’t in fact true.

Instead of reaching for the easy but misguided disagreement, I should have asked myself, “Is it possible that I’m not contributing enough to our family?” Yes, it’s definitely possible. “Is it possible that Niko isn’t quite ready to stay home by himself ?” Also definitely possible. “Given these possibilities, what questions could I ask and what things could I do to more conclusively eliminate them as possibilities?” These questions were my takeaways from the conflict retrospective that I held in my own head, a day later, and they led to follow-ups and brainstorming with Kellianne over the subsequent weeks.

Asking those questions wasn’t natural in the moment and continues to be something that I practice in many of my conversations. The key to beginning to shift these deeply wired conversational habits that we’ve picked up over the course of our lives is to start with the spark.