Remember your last argument? Neither of you remember how it started or what it was about and before you know it it’s off to the races.
Twenty minutes later a great comeback pops into your head … Aha! “Damn, I wish would have said that instead. Why couldn’t I think at the time?”
Because of Lizard Brain and our brain’s hard wiring, did you know we cannot manage our emotions?
The good news is we can learn to manage our behavior and respond instead of react to our emotions. The bad news is it is harder than we think. The good news is “practice makes permanent.”
A complaining customer, a whiny child, an out of control teen or a grumpy boss, at some point we all lose our cool. People push our buttons and we feel irritated, frustrated, overwhelmed and sometimes we just explode. Or, we hold it in, tell ourselves it’s no big deal, it doesn’t matter what I do, it won’t make a difference what I say, so I’ll say nothing and pretend it’s okay and march on (a recipe for stress-related disease).
Either way, we feel regret, shame, and humiliation at how we’ve just lost our temper again. Here come the “should’ve-s”: I should’ve known better, stayed calm, counted to ten, remembered what happened last time I lost my temper. Lizard Brain makes it impossible to act on the should’ve-s, and here’s why.
What is Lizard Brain?
The part of the brain responsible for survival, our amygdala, an almond-shaped area at the base of our brain way down deep and part of our limbic system, otherwise known as “fight or flight central” still exists, even though we are no longer running from saber toothed tigers. Otherwise knows as “reptilian brain” or “Lizard Brain.”
The good news is our brain has evolved since we were cave dwellers. Today, humans have complex language, use tools to make and fix things, and send people into outer space, due to the evolution of the Pre-Frontal Cortex. But before the “thinking” part of the brain evolved, our reactions were dictated by Lizard Brain.
Despite the existence of the Pre-Frontal Cortex and our ability to reason, in response to stress (even perceived stress), our limbic system goes into high gear and our fight, flight or freeze response gets activated. This is an automatic, instinctive reaction and there’s no thinking or deciding involved.
Triggers might be his/her yelling or icy stare and can often include what I call Universal Lizard Brain Words such as (hands on hips, finger wagging eye rolling optional): Why did you …? You always or You never …! You should… No!
Our limbic system has been triggered and Lizard Brain is now in charge. We feel emotionally hijacked and now our “thinking brain” is rendered helpless. These triggers can bring up strong emotions (i.e., pain) from the past right into the present moment, as if it’s happening all over again. The Lizard’s primary responsibility is to protect us from perceived harm. The Lizard has now jumped into the driver’s seat and we are in the back, a passenger hanging on for dear life, yet the road is oddly, comfortably “familiar.”
How come Lizard Brain happens repeatedly to highly intelligent people? Because it’s not about IQ or an inability to learn from past mistakes. It’s just the default wiring of our very human brain.
The Lizard Brain(LB) switches off the Thinking Brain, or the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC), where reasoning, understanding happens and which explains why your aha! moment after an argument comes later in time, probably after a few deep, belly breaths when the reactive
Lizard Brain is no longer driving the bus and your Pre-Frontal Cortex gets the oxygen it needs to regain control. It’s a myth that if we understand “why” we react then we will automatically be able to respond calmly next time our buttons get triggered. The rational PFC can’t always prevent the LB from engaging, it’s out powered and just not that evolved. It is impossible to “not feel” a feeling. Not a weakness, just wiring. So, stop trying.
What’s the Good News?
The good news comes from recent scientific discoveries that our brains aren’t hard and set like concrete at age three, which is what neuroscientists (brain researchers) believed until very recently. Neuroplasticity is the good news. Our brains can and do make new connections and build new neural pathways by the millions every day, most of which we are not even aware of …. Scary.
How? By changing your habits and creating new neural pathways, the process is actually quite simple. Becareful not to confuse the two – I said simple, but not easy. Change is hard, but not impossible.
Pick one person or situation that triggers your Lizard (the holidays are coming up, it won’t be hard family gives us ample opportunity to practice).
Begin by simply noticing opportunities to recognize Lizard Brain as it creeps up on you or identify situations where Lizard Brain gets triggered.
Next, we’re going to create a new habit or neural pathway.
1. Notice the pattern – Simply become an observer of the pattern, as if you are watching from the sidelines. What has to happen to trigger your own, your partner’s or your bosses Lizard Brain? Describe the pattern sequence to yourself or someone else. Do you react to “Lizard Brain Words?” If so, which ones? Do you use them with others? Notice what happens when you replace a judgmental Why did you …? question with a sincere question, for instance How do you see it? When asked with genuine curiosity, words such as What or How land differently than Why and allow you to create more productive pathways in your brain (and his/her brain).
2. Acknowledge the emotion – Use your powers of observation without judgment (ban the should’ve-s). Notice the opportunity to acknowledge the emotion without feeling you “should” change it, stop it, or judge it as “bad” or “wrong.” Instead, see what happens when you respond with an emotion such as curiosity and words such as “Mmm, interesting …” (with your eyebrows up, please!). See if you can get a little distance and prevent an emotional hijack by observing the conversation, as if you were a bystander.
3. Rename the feeling – Label or rename the feeling (not the person, not their motivation, not their intention) as “sad, scared, hurt” instead of ANGRY. Anger is actually not a primary or real emotion, it is a secondary emotion, just a “safer” feeling and often hides primary emotions such as Sad, Scared or Hurt. When we believe someone is angry, our LB gets activated and we can feel defensive. When we can re-label anger as “Sad, Scared or Hurt” or a combination of those feelings, the part of our brain responsible for empathy is engaged, the Lizard can get out of the driver’s seat and our thinking brain can work again.
Practice makes perfect and new neural pathways. Changing our behavior or learning to do something new takes awareness, intention, action and practice. Just like when you learned to ski, ride or play the guitar. There’s no way around it.
By understanding a few simple facts about how our brain works and making small adjustments to the words we use and practice.
Hint: Just the act of imagining yourself taking these steps will create new neural pathways because our brain doesn’t know the difference between what’s imagined and what’s real), you can create new habits and stay cool under pressure, lower your blood pressure and, as crazy as it sounds, begin to see conflict as an opportunity for practice (and have a little fun, too).
Christina Haxton, MA LMFT is the Chief Potential Officer & Founder of Sustainable Leadership. An executive coach, business consultant and speaker, Christina assists busy business owners, high potential managers, executives and CEOs to achieve successful work/life balance and peace of mind to become exceptional leaders who are built to last. For more information about leadership training or presentations for your team, meeting or conference, contact Christina at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 387-8935.
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As the boss, have you ever “lost it” in a meeting? Even if your answer is “Of course not!” would your team agree with you?
The way we communicate determines our ability to engage, motivate and inspire creativity in our team.
Unfortunately, the skills needed to communicate effectively are sometimes lost because what we see and hear in ourselves as a leader is not always the same as what our employees experience during conversations and meetings.
By using Brain Based Learning Strategies we can develop a new understanding of our approach and the impact it has on results.
Coming to terms with how we lead is the first step to improving our effectiveness and ability to develop into a Sustainable Leader, one that can face challenges and drive his or her team to success over the long haul.
I wrote a post describing an executive coaching session with “Jeff” (not his real name) where you can see Brain Based Learning, self evaluation and creating a new mindset for improved leadership effectiveness in action:
It was “Jeff’s” (not his real name) third team meeting this week, and after this particularly long meeting he was beyond frustrated. “Why can’t they just get it right? How many times do I have to tell them what I want? Why don’t they get it? Are they that stupid? Or do they just not give a damn?” Click here to read the entire blog post at ManagingAmericans
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Your behaviors are a result of your feelings … which are a result of BS!
Believe it or not, that’s good news …
Because there IS one question you can ask yourself to turn STRESS into PEACE …
Find out what this question is (and the other 20 Ways Managers & Leaders Can Eliminate Workplace Stress) on a free webinar:
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You know them: the managers who ignore the fact that human beings don’t (actually can’t) “leave their feelings at the door” when they come to work.
These managers ignore conflict and avoid confrontation, especially when there’s a “pot-stirrer” in the office and everyone is just wishing the boss would step up and put and end to he drama so we can all just get the job done.
This boss will suffer the consequences: a slow, painful erosion of the trust … or worse.
Read the rest of my article over here: Leaders: Do you lead, manage or are you just in charge?
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“The Neuroscience of Leadership Stress: Myths & Solutions for Busy Professionals, Managers & Executives”
“What Your Brain Wishes You Knew About Leadership Stress & 5 Simple Solutions to Successfully Do More With Less & Have Fun Doing It!”
We all experience stress and to a certain degree need it to be motivated into action. Left unchecked, even low levels of chronic stress will not only reduce your ability to solve problems and make decisions, your stress will reduce your team’s productivity and engagement. Click here to listen to the webinar replay (available for a limited time only):
Yes, I said “BS.” Let’s start at the beginning:
Question: What makes a problem a problem?
Before I answer this question, how would you answer it? Think of a recent situation you’d define as a problem. Got it? Now, describe that problem. For example, “I was frustrated because I was stuck in traffic.”
What was the problem? Being stuck in traffic wasn’t the problem. Being late wasn’t the problem. Was feeling frustrated the problem? Almost. My feeling or emotion of frustration (interpreted by my brain as a negative, painful emotion) resulted in my behavior (honking my horn).
But where did THAT feeling come from? It came from BS.
Answer: Bulls*&t? Could be. Belief System (which are often interchangeable concepts). My BELIEF (or my “rule”) was that if I was late to my meeting, then I would feel pain. Was that bulls%t? Maybe, maybe not.
Recent studies in the field of social cognitive neuroscience show our human brain works harder to avoid pain than to seek pleasure. My brain was working hard, very hard. Maybe as a child being late was severely punished. Maybe I had one negative experience being late for a meeting (and feeling embarrassed or ?) which combined to create a cellular memory (or rule so I didn’t let it happen again in the future) of pain so my brain could keep me safe.
So what makes a problem a problem is the not only the negative or painful emotion attached to it, but the rule or pattern your brain created when it connected the feeling to a situation in the past and projected it into the future.
So, why is this important? Empathy. The #1 secret to keeping cool under pressure is drumming up the feeling of empathy. Because of the wiring in our brain, we cannot feel empathy and angry at the same time … the experience of empathy occurs in a different part of the brain and we can’t feel both at the same time.
Next time a peer or colleague gets upset about a situation you feel is “no big deal” and you wonder why she’s so upset, just say “it’s not her, it’s just her brain.”
Perhaps empathy on your part could subvert a potential conflict or misunderstanding and you both could get the job done more easily.
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Are you paid to think? Sustainable Leaders® know that the secret to success is not only managing time, but also managing energy, is an essential practice to making great decisions, especially under stress.
Successful leaders also know being efficient with their energy is critical to their success.
The latest research in the field of neuroscience (how our brain works) describes our pre-frontal cortex as the part of the brain that’s responsible for thinking. However, since it’s relatively newly evolved, it is also very inefficient as compared to the basal ganglia, the part of the brain that stores our hard-wiring, what we can do “automatically” without too much thinking power.
David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, describes the pre-frontal cortex as “powered by rechargeable batteries” and needs frequent re-charging, in the form of sleep, glucose (and Ill add play and fun!).
How do you know when you’re pre-frontal cortex is running on empty? Here are some common signs:
1. (More) easily distracted by sounds, visual stimuli
2. Difficulty focusing
4. Unable to make a decision
5. Unable to remember things you “should” be able to remember (like your bosses’ name)
Here’s an ironic conflict of interest. The pre-frontal cortex is responsible for higher order thinking or “executive functions” such as:
In order for us to increase the odds we are being most economical with our brain’s limited brain-power, we must take time to recharge, and make time for our self, and preserve our limited brain power.
1. Unplug/Disconnect for 10 minutes a day no cell, no tv, no radio, no computer – Turn off notifications on your phone, your Blackberry, your computer email program. Go for a walk without your phone. This is completely doable even if you are marginally neurotic.
2. Give up on perfectionism in areas where you don’t need perfection – What if you can get away with a C instead of an A? Let your friends know from now on when they receive a return email from you and see: a that means “I like it!” This might not fly for business emails. For work, do your response emails really need to win a Nobel Prize? Will “C” work be satisfactory for some things so you can save “A” work for the really important things?
3. Schedule a one minute break every hour during the busiest time of the day – Set a timer/bell at the end of every hour or pick a number between 0 to 59 and at that minute in that hour, take a one minute “bathroom” break. Take 20 deep breaths, pay attention to your breath, nothing else.
4. Practice saying “I’ll check my calendar and get back to you” instead of “Yes.” Think about how responsible you’ll feel saying this rather than irresponsible because you’ve over committed, again.
5. Schedule a 10 minute session with yourself (yes, put it in your calendar) once a day (with no deliverables) and totally unplugged. Early mornings or right before bedtime is a perfect time to reflect and think.
How do you recharge in 1 to 3 minutes at work? Reply to this blog with your suggestions and … Thanks for playing.
… I’m off to recharge with a 5 minute walk!
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If you are a leader in your organization (and anyone who makes a difference can be a leader), what if you were to notice opportunities to make a positive difference in another person’s self-image. What difference could you make today?
Common sense and now recent discoveries in brain science of social intelligence research, proves it: It is within a conversation in a relationship we learn and grow and our minds are shaped (ideally) to become more of who we are supposed to be. However, in many conversations we end up feeling criticized, deflated and unmotivated. Especially if that conversation happens with the boss or where there is an imbalance of power, as in a leader vs. direct report relationship.
Let’s make this practical and now take it a step further. We communicate through language (verbal, non-verbal). Stay with me now … In our conversations we influence and change our minds and subsequently our neural connections. When new neural networks and connections in our brain are made, due to neuroplasticity, our self-identity is constantly shaped and re-shaped and in turn we influence the self-identity of others. Oh, and many of us are in contact with more people and have more conversations with people at work … therefore many opportunities to create positive, constructive neural connections in not only their brain, but our own.
ScienceDaily (2010-08-27) — In the first study of its kind, researchers have found compelling evidence that our best and worst experiences in life are likely to involve not individual accomplishments, but interaction with other people and the fulfillment of an urge for social connection.
What if you were to notice opportunities to make a positive difference in someone else’s brain … what difference could you make today? Go ahead, I dare you.
I posted a question asking what Senior Leaders do to recharge on the LinkedIn Group Developing the Leader within You. Below is a quick summary of great suggestions and ideas for creativity, solution-finding and recharging from senior leaders from around the world, and included:
The consensus seems to be in order to recharge or to find solutions, we can get there easier and in less time when we switch off the thinking brain and switch on the the being and doing brain and “mindless” (preferably enjoyable) activity.
Activities in which we enjoy and lose track of time (the state of flow) also may encourage alignment of our heart waves and brain waves, which will clear the clutter and allow you to recharge your thinking brain (which is why we have Aha! moments doing these very things).
The evidence in the latest brain-science research proves it. Now … go forth and play (and of course, shower)!