No one warned us that we’d get mad at our church. You would hope that church work would be different, right?

But church people are still people, and when the stakes are high and emotions are higher, most of us do a lousy job at holding a constructive conversation.

The authors of “Crucial Conversations” say that you can trace it back to biology. When things get scary, your glands start pumping adrenaline. That tells the animal part of your brain that danger is approaching and that you only have three primitive choices: punch something, freeze, or run away. In third grade science class, they called it “fight, flight, or freeze.”

To make matters worse, your fearful reaction borrows blood from your brain, which is now nearly incapable of rational thought. No wonder we don’t handle crucial conversations well. “We’re doped up and dumbed down.”

But you probably know a handful of people who are astoundingly great these tough conversations. How do they do it? Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler studied those rare people and discovered that they have a few skills in common. And they are teachable to the rest of us.

The Safe Zone

The reason people resort to fight or flight is that they don’t feel safe. The people who are great at tough conversations have learned how to create safety, so emotions can settle down.

The authors suggest that “you start with the person you have the most influence over – yourself.”  When you feel the adrenaline building, ask yourself: “What do I really want?”

Just asking this question moves us to the deeper, calmer parts of our brain. As you start to contemplate what you really want – for me, for them, for us – your brain re-engages, and you start to wonder: “How do I need to behave in order to get those results?”

Once you’ve calmed your own nerves, you can start to create a safe, non-adrenaline zone for the people around you.

The “Crucial Conversations” researchers said we have to “step out of the conversation” for a moment, so we can also determine what the other person thinks is at risk. Typically, they think you don’t respect them, or they think you don’t have the same goals.

Mutual Respect

The people who are great at crucial conversations have learned how to examine their own behavior. If they’ve accidentally caused someone to feel disrespected or unsafe, they don’t return to the issue until they have offered a sincere apology.

Of course, sometimes people feel disrespected even when you’ve done nothing disrespectful. That’s when you offer a “contrasting statement” to let them know that your criticism doesn’t define the totality of how you feel about them. It’s usually a combination of do and don’t: “I don’t want to give the impression that I do not value your work. I do value your work. I think it is spectacular. My concern is that you often run late, and the parents are getting frustrated.”

Mutual Purpose

Safety can only be established if you first commit to seeking a mutual purpose. Agree to agree: “We will stay in conversation until we come up with a solution that achieves a purpose we both can share.”

It helps to look for the real “purpose” behind someone’s “strategy.” For example, “I want you to go to ‘X-Men’ with me” is your husband’s strategy. But you hate comic book movies. So it’s time to find his real purpose, which might be: “I need to get out of the house and forget about my day.” If we name the real purpose, we can come brainstorm new strategies that will work for everyone involved.

The authors are quick to point out that these techniques don’t always work the first time. You might have to “step out and return” several times. But if we don’t, then we stay trapped in the fight or flight or freeze syndrome. As Dr. Phil would ask, “How’s that working for you?”

This book summary originally appeared in Group magazine. Check out their website