Sometimes a conversation at work or home can start well, but then you find it lurches in an awkward direction. You are not quite sure why. Perhaps something that is said has irritated you. Feeling annoyed you react badly. Can you recognise what is happening? Are you able to stop before you say something you will later regret? Many people cannot. Emotions bubble over and may be expressed as frustration, anger and upset. Then there is often blame and even shame. This is what it can feel like when your brain tips into autopilot ‘fight-or-flight’ mode.
This state of being has been termed the "Amygdala Hijack" by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his best-selling book, Emotional Intelligence. Goleman explains that although we have evolved as humans, we retain within our brain the ability to respond quickly and instinctively to any threat. Called the amygdala, this is one of two almond-shaped groups of nuclei that is part of the limbic system within the brain. It is responsible for different aspects of perceiving, learning and regulating emotions, including fear.
Essential in life-threatening situations, the amygdala is triggered by perceived as well as a real threat. This is because the human brain is continually scanning the environment to keep us safe asking “Is this a threat or a reward?” Depending on the answer, the amygdala activates an automatic response either to take steps to protect from the ‘threat’, or to seek out the ‘reward’. Being hijacked by our amygdala can result in unhelpful behaviour because of the poor choices made in the heat of the moment.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s explore a different approach that can lead to having better conversations:
Cultivate Self-Awareness Noticing what is going on is always the first step in regaining self-control and rejecting your “Amygdala Hijack”. For example, if you find yourself saying or thinking in ‘all or nothing’ phrases, then the chances are that you are stuck on autopilot:
- “Everyone says …”
- “Everybody knows….”
- “You just don’t get it ….”
- “You never ….”
- “You always …”
The key is self-awareness and spotting when this happens, then deliberately slowing down your responses, so you come off autopilot. Now you can choose a better direction that allows you to build bridges instead of burning them down.
Press Pause Learn to recognise how it feels when you have tipped into autopilot. You will experience physical symptoms due to the adrenaline that is pumping around your body. These might include trembling, perspiration, rapid breathing and quickening heartbeat. Take a pause, breathe deeply and try using the useful mental tripwire - WAIT. This acronym stands for ‘What am I thinking?’ and ‘Why am I talking?’ Practising this can help you avoid instantly reacting to someone’s attitude or comment. Then you can give a considered reply.
Name Your Emotions Often FEAR is a critical driver which is an acronym for ‘False Evidence Appearing Real’. When we react instinctively to a perceived threat, our brain begins to focus on the worst-case scenario. Soon we are collecting evidence of this in a person’s behaviour towards us. Known as Confirmation Bias, this is the human tendency to search for, interpret and recall information in a way that confirms our beliefs. You can help calm a racing mind by naming the emotions that you are experiencing. Then reframe your thinking to depersonalise what you notice. For example, replacing ‘I feel anxious’ with ‘There’s anxiety’. This way you can acknowledge the emotion but not act upon it. Then you can decide how you would prefer to be and work on that instead.
Stay Curious Good communication stems from being a good listener. Dial-up your curiosity and listen with empathy. Build rapport by focusing on understanding the other person’s position (what is it they want?) as well as their motivations (what is driving them to take that position?) and priorities (what is more and less important to them and why?). Then consider your reply with the answers to these questions in mind.
Be Resourceful If you anticipate a conversation might be difficult then prepare in advance. Think about the best way that you have handled an awkward conversation in the past. What worked well then? Consider what you can do now. By doing so, you are tapping into your brain’s rational ability to problem-solve and plan. Here are some questions to consider:
- What do I want to communicate?
- Why should the other person care?
- What is the outcome I want to achieve from the conversation?
- What is our common ground on this topic?
People usually respond better to those who take time to understand their needs and viewpoints. In turn, this generates trust and creates the goodwill that leads to better conversations