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How to Prevent Your Own Brain from Hijacking Work Conversations

How to Prevent Your Own Brain from Hijacking Work Conversations
“Darn! I wish I hadn’t said that!”

“Yikes, I really shouldn’t have done that!”

We’ve all been there. These two phrases, or something like them, have come out of most of our mouths at one time or another. For some of us, more often than we care to admit! They are our regrets after we realize that we probably shouldn’t have raised our voice at that team member, or slammed our fists on our desks, or cursed at that driver who cut us off on our way to a meeting for which we’re already running late.

For most of us, that automatic response may seem unavoidable. Indeed, many of us react, then naturally blame that other person for our behavior – “I couldn’t help it. It’s his fault!” or, “She should know better than to make me have to do that!” Yet, what we often fail to realize is that it’s our reaction to these situations that generally causes others around us to take pause. Like a speedboat, we leave a wake in our path, in this case, what we at Fierce call an emotional wake, leaving our teams, colleagues, friends, and families asking themselves questions such as, Can I trust you? Are you stable? Do you have the leadership qualities that others would choose to follow?

The good news is, there is something we can do to control our responses to the events that surround us if we first understand where the responses come from.

Deep within the most primitive part of the human brain lies the amygdala. This reptilian portion of the brain was designed for our protection to detect danger and initiate our fight or flight responses. This is clearly a very important aspect of what helps us to jump out of the way of a moving bus, or pull our hands back from a hot stove. And there are times when that initial reaction may not be the most appropriate response for the situation. Because the amygdala kicks in before we are able to process the situation through our pre-frontal cortex, where reason lies, we find our fight or flight reactions taking over in what Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, describes as The Amygdala Hijack.

When we experience an Amygdala Hijack, we find ourselves behaving in ways that cause us to later say, “I wish I hadn’t done that!” These are also the times we begin to realize that we might have left a less-than-desirable emotional wake for those in our path.

With so much at stake—our relationships, our business results, our working conditions and cultures—we cannot afford to allow the Amygdala Hijack to rule our interactions. Now that we understand the origin of our responses, we can take the steps to manage them. Here are a few Fierce approaches to help you manage your responses, even when your nature is susceptible to fight or flight.

INTERROGATE REALITY – Is your version of reality the only truth that exists, or are there other possibilities? Try the simple SCC approach below to help you explore the multiple, valid realities that may exist:

1. Stop – When you notice fight or flight body sensations, pause yourself. At times, a simple deep breath will enable this step. The sharp intake of oxygen into the bloodstream will cause a rush of endorphins, promoting a greater sense of calm. Or perhaps you need to step away from the situation. “Bob, I’m not in the frame of mind to discuss this right now. Can we come back together in 30 minutes?”

2. Challenge – Dig into your assumptions and challenge them. Are they really THE truth? Could there be something else at play? Is Bob really lazy, or could there be some other difficulty he’s facing that’s causing this issue?

3. Choose – Pick an appropriate response. Rather than raising your voice or slamming your fist on the desk, choose a response that is more likely to yield a positive and productive result. This is not to say that sometimes folks may not need to see some fire, hear some passion in your voice, or know that indeed you are angry. The point is for you to understand and manage the response, and use that fire, passion, and anger judiciously and with intention.

PROVOKE LEARNING – Go into your interactions with an intention to learn, knowing that you alone do not have all the answers. Entering a conversation with a mindset of curiosity will help you remain calm and will enable an environment in which you and others can take steps forward together.

TACKLE TOUGH CHALLENGES – The environment of curiosity you create will allow you to clear your mind in order to take on the real issues that need your attention, getting you out of your primitive brain and into your rational brain.

ENRICH RELATIONSHIPS – When you are focused on the conversation that wants and needs to happen, outside of the confines of your amygdala, you will be able to engage with others in ways that let them know that you indeed are someone whom they can trust, that you are stable, and that you do have the leadership qualities they just might want to follow.

Unfortunately, following these simple steps is not always as easy as we would like. Indeed, there may be times in which you find yourself actually wanting to let off some steam and just yell, slam a door or bang on a desk. I too have found myself in those situations. And I often remind myself of the words of Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist and preeminent existentialist, from his book Man’s Search for Meaning. When asked about how he was able to survive the atrocities of the holocaust, Frankl offers one of the most powerful insights that may also serve you: “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing–your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”

Whether it’s a horrific event like the holocaust or a brief conversation at work, our emotional wake impacts others. As I consider the many situations in which I might allow my amygdala to hijack my behaviors, I think about Frankl and I ask, what is the emotional wake I may leave behind? How might I manage my response and avoid the Amygdala Hijack?

I like to think that I have a responsibility to use my Response Ability.

How about you?


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