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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