A three letter word that makes difficult conversations less painful

Updated to Habits on December 14, 2022.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

I have a surprising discovery for you. And it’s a three letter word.

Before I get to that…let’s talk about difficult conversations.

In high stakes conversations I often choke. My nervous system goes into fight or flight mode, blood drains from my brain, pupils dilate, breathing gets shallow and fast, heart rate races, meanwhile I’m trying to be the best version of myself possible. Good luck.

In times like that, good habits save my bacon. Habits like: not interrupting, reflecting back (if they are concerned, show concern) and not checking my email.

One more habit that works like a charm is the three letter word I want to share with you.


The goal in any conversation is understanding and agreement. The more understanding of the other person’s needs and the closer to agreement the better the outcome. Easier said than done.

Remind yourself that if you think you already understand how someone feels or what they are trying to say, it is a delusion. Douglas Stone, Difficult Conversations

The problem is we get in the way.

I have a bad habit of becoming defensive when I feel like I’m being attacked. “The urge to blame” says Douglas Stone in Difficult Conversations “is based on the fear of being blamed.” And it doesn’t take much to trigger my defensiveness – any accusation or hint I might have been wrong and the six-year-old in me starts swinging back. Pathetic, really.

I am only successful if I remind myself what the real goal is. And it’s not about being right. It’s good to remember the old question: “Would you rather be right or happy?” – you can’t usually have both. The real goal is understanding and agreement.


Obviously they don’t agree with every idea; they simply do their best to ensure that all ideas find their way into the open. Kerry Patterson, Crucial Conversations

With the real goal in mind, it’s time to enter the conversation.

Maybe this sounds familiar…

“I know you needed that done, but this has been a tough time for me.”


“That’s easy for you to say, but you have no idea what I’m going through.”


“I know I shouldn’t have done that but it’s not a big deal so let’s forget about it.”

In all cases, these are counter attacks. Great in battle, lousy strategy in the bedroom (or the office, kitchen, car…). You might even be right, but now they can’t hear you because they’re too busy building ramparts and wanting to defend and attack back. Say sayonara to that romantic night out.

The trick to respectfully disagreeing is to use the three letter word I keep hinting about. And the word is (drum roll, please)…


Now, before you start pouting that it doesn’t have six syllables, hear me out.

The secret to respectfully disagreeing – which is an inevitable part of any high stakes conversation – is to acknowledge their point of view and segue to yours.

It can sound like this.

“I know you needed that done, and I’ve been swamped so it didn’t get done.”


“That’s easy for you to say, and this has been a tough time for me.”


“I know I shouldn’t have done that and help me to understand how you see it”


The trick is to replace “but” with “and”. Sure it’s a tiny change and I know it works (dang! see what I did there).

Here’s your homework. For the rest of the day simply insert “and” when you would normally say “but”. You’ll present yourself as more collaborative and respectful, even a better listener. And you can open the door to being heard and creating agreement.

Difficult conversations are just that, difficult. Presenting the best version of you (thoughtful, respectful, understanding, empathetic) with a few skills, goes a long way to resolution.

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