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Mayes Wilson & Associates

Have you ever “lost it” with a colleague?

Sara Wilson, CPCC, ACC |

We all have them. Reactions that occur in a flash. Perhaps something your colleague says triggers emotions resulting in a real blow-up, maybe your partner says something and you immediately shut down or storm out of the house. These reactions are often the result of a past situation or experience and not the result of a thoughtful processing of information or a situation.

Blame these reactions on mother nature, says Dr. Bryan Robinson in an article in Psychology Today. Our DNA has gifted us with brain structures responsible for survival that helped our ancestors survive attacks. This system–you might have heard it called the lizard brain–can still start up to protect you from modern-day threats. And according to Dr. Robinson, today our lizard brain activates over psychological concerns like relationship problems, financial pressures, or work challenges like tight deadlines and job performance.  That’s when the lizard brain dumps adrenaline and cortisol through you, “hijacking your rational thoughts, leaving your emotions in control.”

And we’ve all developed habits around how we respond to these situations. Pamela Fuller, interviewed on the Our Body Politic podcast, says “at any moment our brain is exposed to 11 billion bits of information but we can only actively process 40. F-O-R-T-Y. Or brain focuses on what it wants to focus on.”  There it is part of the source of knee-jerk reactions: habits in terms of how we make decisions.

We need to hijack our brain to interrupt the reaction.

Last week when chatting with a friend over lunch I had a knee-jerk reaction. We were talking about a personal trainer with whom I’d worked. I had a very up-down relationship with the trainer, valuing their expertise but not their attitude and approach which I perceived was more critical than encouraging. My brain immediately focused on the negatives of working with this person.

My friend, who has heard me talk about “hijacking reactions” got curious and asked me several questions. We talked about working with the individual, then progressed to discussing things from a different perspective and to how the training had actually benefited me. Collectively we “hijacked” my brain. Since the conversation, I’m able to appreciate how I improved through working with this particular personal trainer. I have a new perspective about my experience.

Can you relate to my story? Perhaps your knee-jerk reaction is about a person, an experience or way of doing – or not- doing something.

Six steps to “hijack” your brain and interrupt a knee-jerk reaction.

  1. Don’t believe everything you think.
  2. Be self aware. Understand your triggers, understand the emotions you may be experiencing.
  3. Pause and reflect. Ask yourself if you just had a knee jerk reaction. Reflect on what past experiences may you be bringing into the present-day situation. Questions you can use:
    • What is really going here?
    • What meaning have I chosen to attach to this situation?
    • What beliefs am I holding?
  4. Ask yourself what 3 different perspectives could you have on the situation?
  5. Be brave and give permission to colleagues, family members, close friends to get curious if they think you’ve had a knee-jerk reaction.

Remember my recommendation to not believe everything you think and to pause? If I had spoken to my former trainer during my knee jerk reaction, the results would have been less than ideal. The time spent reflecting about why I was having such a strong reaction resulted in a much better conversation with a positive outcome.

Managing knee-jerk reactions is hard and easier said than done. Try these steps. I hope they help you manage impulsive responses. Let me know how they work for you.

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