Three Barriers to Crucial Conversations with Robert Heath Sr.

When having difficult conversations, tensions can run high — especially when disagreements about politics or strategy arise. In this Klatsch, Robert Heath Sr., US Marine Corps veteran, attorney and CEO of The Legacy Leadership Consulting Group, describes the 3 barriers to having crucial conversations.

Top Takeaways:

  • Amygdala hijack occurs when disagreements lead to an emotional response. As discussions turn into arguments, our primal brain takes over and we focus more on neutralizing the perceived threat (AKA the other person’s contrasting beliefs) and logic centers begin to shut down.
  • Inadequate language often results from amygdala hijack, meaning we can no longer find the words to communicate. As we get frustrated with ourselves, the other person perceives our frustration as being directed toward them, which often triggers their amygdala hijack as a threat response.
  • Unconscious bias has been labeled a controversial term, but a more helpful way to understand it simply the ‘filters’ through which we experience the world. Recognizing your own ‘filters’ does not have to lead to feelings of guilt or blame, but instead should help conversations be more productive and objective.


Robert: We get into a conversation where we start to notice that we’re not on the same page. Your body is primed and ready for a survival level event.

Vince Boileau: Hey friends, welcome back to the Coffee Klatsch, our video series where we bring on people who we think are interesting to talk about issues or topics that you can put to practice in your own organization. Today, I’m joined by Robert Heath Sr., who’s a CEO at The Legacy Leadership Consulting Group. Prior to that he was with the Marine Corps for eight years, where he was a trainer and attorney and a commander. So, welcome to the show, Robert.

RH: Thank you very much for having me

VB: Today, we’re gonna be talking about the three barriers to crucial conversation or successful conversation. I get into, maybe, a difficult conversation with somebody. What starts happening to our bodies and our brains during that that maybe starts to get in the way?

RH: So the basic three top threats to communication are, number one, amygdala hijack; number two, inadequate language; and then number three, unconscious bias. If we start with number one, amygdala hijack, that’s that whole, “What am I feeling? What’s going on?” Generally what happens when we get into a conversation where we start to notice that we’re not on the same page there’s some physiological changes that start to happen in your body that you’re not even aware of, right, and that’s because the amygdala is a small part of the brain that distinguishes whether there’s a threat or not a threat. What starts happening in your body?

Your heart rate starts to increase, you start to get flush and, more importantly, the prefrontal cortex which is right up here in front of the brain, which is the decision centers, your executive functioning, all those things starts to lose blood flow.

Your body is primed and ready for a survival level event.

VB: As this is happening, we’re literally becoming dumber.

RH: We’re becoming more and more of the problem. But here’s the funny thing: the perception is, “Why won’t they just listen?” The perception is, “I know that I’m making a rational argument,” when actually the reverse is normally true. Your argument gets less and less rational. It’s important also to be able to recognize that in other people because if you’re trying to make logical arguments to somebody who’s in the middle of an amygdala hijack, there’s really nothing you can say that’s get them to be calm.

VB: One of the other things we talked about is this idea of inadequate language.

RH -Alright, what does that mean? -Any time that you’ve been in a conversation where you just— “it’s on the tip of my tongue — I can’t — wait, what’s the word?” Right, that feeling — it becomes frustrating after a while when you can’t remember what it is that you want to say, when you don’t have the words — that’s the concept of inadequate language. When I’m frustrated at myself, you can see that I’m frustrated, but you don’t know who I’m frustrated at because I haven’t communicated that. But generally if we’re communicating and you can see that I’m frustrated our communication. I’m getting more..

VB: You’re mad at me.

RH: Exactly.

Now, I’m a threat to you and you’re starting to go into amygdala hijack, right? And so there’s this whole process of kind of miscommunication that’s going on. It’s not, again, based on the intentions of either parties.

VB: We have this third barrier, which we can call ‘unconscious bias.’ For everyone who’s watching this video, you hear ‘unconscious bias’ — There’s like 50/50 — some of you just got amygdala hijacked, you know? That just happened -just by hearing that one term.

RH: -Yes, unconscious bias has been a term that has been hijacked and it’s been used as a cudgel and as a weapon, right?

We talk about unconscious bias, what we’re really talking about is the filter through which you see the world and perceive the inputs that are coming in from the world. You’re not to blame for your unconscious bias. There’s so many myriad factors that are responsible for how we see the world, and that’s the unconscious bias that we have to be aware of. Not to feel guilty or feel like we’ve done something wrong to people or anything like that, but just to be aware that we see the world a particular way. That -doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the way the world is.

VB: We have to understand those impulses. We have to interrogate them a little bit and understand, alright, there’s clearly a misalignment in perceptions here and it may not be because they’re evil and I’m good. It’s just a different mismatch of filters. One of the things that we say is our purpose at our company, right, is to create understanding. So to be able to lean into that conversation and maybe ask some questions and find out, “How did you come to believe that? That’s something that I would really, genuinely like to understand.”

RH: By being aware of these threats, we can not personalize them and act as if they are intentional from the other person, right? That gives us the power back, and it allows us to collaborate and to walk alongside instead of to be in a situation where we’re really adversarial.

VB: Yeah. That’s a powerful way of thinking about those kind of conversations. Thanks again for dropping by this morning.

RH: My pleasure, brother.

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