Lost your cool in a conversation? You’ve been hijacked by your amygdala
We have all had the experience of doing something in the heat of the moment that we regretted later. Our reaction flew out of the gate before we could catch it. It’s like our rational mind stopped and what came out not only surprised us but everyone else around. You end up saying “How could I do that, what could I have possibly been thinking?” Well in reality you weren’t thinking straight in your conversation, you were overwhelmed with an emotional reaction. You were hijacked.
It’s hard not to get worked up emotionally when you’re in a tense conversation. After all, a disagreement can feel like a threat. You’re afraid you’re going to have to give up something — your point of view, the way you’re used to doing something, the notion that you’re right, or maybe even power – and your body therefore ramps up for a fight by triggering the sympathetic nervous system. This is a natural response, but the problem is that our bodies and minds aren’t particularly good at discerning between the threats presented by not getting your way on the project plan and, say, being chased down by a bear. Your heart rate and breathing rate spike, your muscles tighten, the blood in your body moves away from your organs, and you’re likely to feel uncomfortable.
Approximately 84% of people suffer emotional chaos, with men and women saying their three greatest sources of emotional chaos are their relationships with significant others, their children and people at the workplace.
—2002 Harris Poll
None of this puts you in the right frame of mind to resolve a conflict. If your body goes into “fight or flight” mode or what Daniel Goleman called “amygdala hijack,” you may lose access to the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain responsible for rational thinking. And making rational decisions is precisely what you need to do in a difficult conversation. Not only are you losing the ability to think clearly but chances are your counterpart notices the signs of stress — your face turning red, the pace of your speech speeding up — and, because of mirror neurons that cause us to “catch” the emotions of another person, your colleague is likely to start feeling the same way. Before you know it, the conversation has derailed and the conflict intensifies.
The amygdala is the emotional part of the brain, which regulates the fight or flight response. When threatened, it can respond irrationally.
Luckily, it’s possible to interrupt this physical response, manage your emotions, and clear the way for a productive discussion. There are several things you can do to keep your cool during a conversation or to calm yourself down if you’ve gotten worked up.
Breathing – the gateway to your nervous system
The vast majority of your autonomous nervous system (ANS) operates below consciousness, which means that we don’t have conscious control over what specifically is going on there. However the breath is one of the 6 “gates” to your autonomous nervous system, and the easiest to use in company. A few moments of “Balanced Breathing” (see Why do some people thrive on stress and others crumble). Take a few moments to breathe a little slower and deeper than you usually would in preparation for the discussion (if possible). Breathe like this when the other person is talking, not only to regain control, but also to give yourself a chance to listen to them without waiting to make your next point.
Notice what’s going on and change your physiology
Focus on your body. Sitting still when you’re having a difficult conversation can make the emotions build up rather than dissipate. Experts say that standing up and walking around helps to activate the thinking part of your brain. If you and your counterpart are seated at a table, you may be hesitant to suddenly stand up. Fair enough. Instead, you might say, “I feel like I need to stretch some. Mind if I walk around a bit?” If that still doesn’t feel comfortable, you can do small physical things like crossing two fingers or placing your feet firmly on the ground and noticing what the floor feels like on the bottom of your shoes. This is called “anchoring.” It can work in all kinds of stressful situations.
Try a mantra or happy place
Come up with a phrase that you can repeat to yourself to remind you to stay calm. Effective ones that I’ve come across include “Go to neutral”, “This isn’t about me,” “This will pass,” or “This is about the business.” Others find it more useful to have an image or memory that calms you down, though you have to be careful with this one that you don’t “Zone” out, which people will pick up on.
Acknowledge and label your feelings
Another useful tactic comes from Susan David, author of Emotional Agility. When you’re feeling emotional, “the attention you give your thoughts and feelings crowds your mind; there’s no room to examine them,” she says. To distance yourself from the feeling, label it. “Call a thought a thought and an emotion an emotion,” says David.
A tool that can help with this is the Emotional Audit. It is designed to ask questions and that can change the focus when you are emotionally charged or about to get hijacked. When you are counting to ten to calm down ask these questions to better direct your brain’s thinking.
This audit is helpful, especially if you are feeling “triggered” by someone or something. Wait 5 seconds till you get answer to each question. To build your self-awareness and self-management, use the audit numerous times during the day.
You may notice certain patterns you have to what triggers you, how you are feeling and how you get in your way. The first two questions access and label your thoughts and emotions. The third question makes conscious your intentions. The fourth question evaluates your actions in line with your intentions. Patterns of how you get in your way may emerge. The last question takes in all this new conscious data and allows you to better direct your brain and actions for the goals you want
- What am I thinking? (Label thoughts)
- What am I feeling? (Label emotions)
- What do I want now? (Become conscious of your intentions).
- How am I getting in my way? (Evaluate actions against intentions).
- What do I need to do differently now? (Integrate needs with actions).
Take a Time Out from the conversation
Take a break. In my experience, this is a far-underused approach. The more time you give yourself to process your emotions, the less intense they are likely to be. So when things get heated, you may need to excuse yourself for a moment — get a cup of coffee or a glass of water, go to the bathroom, or take a brief stroll around the office. Be sure to give a neutral reason for why you want to stand up and pause the conversation — the last thing you want is for your counterpart to think that things are going so badly you’re desperate to escape. Try saying something like, “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I’d love to get a quick cup of coffee before we continue. Can I get you something while I’m up?”
Keep in mind that you’re probably not the only one who’s upset. Your counterpart is likely to express anger or frustration too. While you may want to give them the above advice, no one wants to be told they need to breathe more deeply or take a break. And nobody has ever calmed down when told to do so. So you may be in a situation where you just need to let the other person vent. That’s usually easier said than done though. It’s hard not to yell back when you’re being attacked, but that’s not going to help.
Nobody has ever calmed down when someone else tells them to do so.
Jeanne Brett, a professor of dispute resolution and negotiations at Kellogg School of Management, suggests visualising your coworker’s words going over your shoulder, not hitting you in the chest. But don’t act aloof; it’s important to show that you’re listening. If you don’t feed your counterpart’s negative emotion with your own, it’s likely they will wind down.
Let’s face it. Conflicts with coworkers can be tough. But you’re not going to solve the underlying issues or maintain a positive relationship if you barrel through the conversation when you’re completely worked up. Hopefully, these five tactics will help you move from angry and upset to cool as a cucumber.
Goleman, D., Emotional Intelligence: Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, 2009, Bloomsbury Publishing. Link here.
David, S., Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life, 2016, Link here.
Brett, J., Negotiating Globally: How to Negotiate Deals, Resolve Disputes, and Make Decisions Across Cultural Boundaries. 2007. Jossey-Bass Business & Management. Link here.