Have it out in the car! Why the car’s the best place for a tricky conversation

Two people in a car

Turn the key and buckle-up, it’s time for that chat you’ve been dreading. It’s okay, your car can help steer the conversation in a more positive direction.

By Shilpa Ganatra

Think of two people having a difficult conversation, and it’s likely to conjure up a specific scene. Most likely they’re sat opposite each other, poised and ready to argue their case. It may end up with pacing around, shouting, storming out, or someone in tears… but the way it begins is largely similar.

The perfect conditions

Yet there’s a new school of thought that sees the humble car as the perfect place to start a difficult conversation, whether it relates to work, family or love life. One in ten of us have hopped in the car to take a difficult phone call, although more – around one in eight – have used a car journey to have a tricky chat with another person in the car 1, according to an Aviva survey.

That’s because it has the perfect conditions: two people are stuck together for a set amount of time, and sufficiently relaxed and distracted enough that it’s likely to steer the discussion away from turning heated.

“Because talking is the secondary action when driving, it’s less confrontational,” says Allegra Salvoni, a therapeutic coach and psychotherapeutic counsellor. “And because you're not fully engaged on the one task of having a difficult conversation, you might not be as defensive.

“It’s a technique hypnotherapists use a lot. They give the central executive function – the part of the brain that operates on a conscious level – an easy task because our mind needs to be busy with something. That leaves the rest of the brain free. Then we can subconsciously begin to understand our emotions and problem-solve, which is a better state to be in when you’re having a difficult conversation.”

The side-by-side factor

The importance of sitting side-by-side in a car shouldn’t be underplayed. A conversational back-and-forth isn’t expected while cruising down a motorway, so both parties can take their time in thinking before they respond, which immediately makes it a more considered response. Also, part of our brain is still triggered by animal instinct, and in difficult situations animals use eye contact as a threat, so avoiding this naturally helps the other person to not feel under attack.

Plus, it means our ‘mirror neurons’ won’t be unhelpfully switched on. “When we sit opposite someone, these mirror neurons fire up – so if I see you hold a cup, that part of my brain lights up and I might subconsciously imitate it,” says Allegra. “It’s how babies learn through watching their parents. But in difficult situations, it means we subconsciously read people’s facial cues and body language, and become attuned to that, which can cause an upwards spiral in the conversation,” she adds.

Finding the right drive

What kind of a drive is good for bringing up a serious conversation? 

First, the driver will need to be practiced and confident, otherwise the act of driving will be too demanding to talk and drive safely. Newer drivers could still find benefit in parking the car for ‘the chat’.

It helps if it’s in a car that doesn’t need extra attention, as that becomes a distraction. Similarly, if it’s a drive through a city centre with lots of stop-starts and for a short time, it’s not the right place to raise a sensitive subject. Roads with no barriers are better, as is a familiar route that allows you to be safe while having that conversation.

Longer drives with changes of scenery help. “Have you ever been in a place where you're in one mood, and then you’re in another place and you suddenly feel different? Or you work differently in the office than you do in your living room? That’s the principle,” says Allegra.

“When we're in movement, it creates the sense that we're not stuck with the problem. There's a coaching technique which specifically uses geography to move you from one state to another state, helping with lateral thinking and creativity.”

When we're in movement, it creates the sense that we're not stuck with the problem.

If you know a difficult conversation needs to happen, it helps if you’re the one in the driver’s seat, literally and figuratively speaking. “If it’s your domain, it’s known and comfortable. Some people use their car to ugly cry, or scream at the top of their lungs, because it’s a safe, contained space,” says Allegra. “And if it’s your car, you’re the one who’s in control.”

Lastly, the prep for the conversation shouldn’t start when you turn the car key. Think about how to discuss the issues beforehand. Says Allegra: “The important thing to remember is that we are humans who misunderstand each other, and this dialogue is a way to bridge your two realities.”

A guide to positive conversations

1. Use Nonviolent Communication

‘Nonviolent Communication’ is a technique that helps to resolve issues harmoniously. Rather than go in emotions-first, which immediately makes people defensive, “firstly you offer the facts without any emotional attachment,” explains Allegra. “It could be, ‘you turned up late three times this week’, or ‘you didn’t deliver on this project’, or ‘you shouted at me’. Then you want to share the impact of this – so your emotions. You might say, ‘I felt ‘sad’ or ‘frustrated’ or ‘disappointed’. Then you state what it is that you need to be different. And finally, you ask them to take an action on it. That way you’re placing the issue very much in your corner.”

2. Use ‘I’ statements

Share the impact the issue has on you and your needs and feelings, rather than telling the other person what they should be doing. It’s less easy to argue, and means the other person won’t feel attacked.

3. Active listening

Listen to the other person’s response ¬¬– and add in an extra step of understanding what they want to get across. Use this to see if your position needs to change accordingly.

4. Hear the subtext

“Listen to what they're saying underneath too,” says Allegra. “Because often, people will throw stuff out there, but actually what might be underneath is hurt or frustration. You might need to respond to that, rather than what they’re saying.”

5. Take your time

Take a few seconds before answering. You don’t have to bat responses back and forth quickly, which can raise emotions.

6. Be compassionate

“It might seem a bit cheesy, but try to come at things with compassion,” says Allegra. “We don't know what's going on for people and we don't know their reality. And sometimes people can't even verbalise that. Maybe this is a chance to find out what’s going on.”

7. Don’t expect a happy ending just yet

The conversation will be useful to explain how the issue is making you feel, but it might take a few days before the other person can digest what you’ve said. So don’t necessarily expect a resolution, but pick up on it next time. On your next drive, perhaps?

Embrace the unexpected

Seatbelts on. Mirrors adjusted. We're celebrating the driving moments that move you – before your car even starts.