Your Brain on Emotion: 6 Steps to Avoid a Hair-Trigger Outburst

by Jesse Lahey on August 12, 2013

Your Brain on Emotion: 6 Ways to Avoid a Hair-Trigger Outburst (photo courtesy of DepositPhotos - 6456572Effective leadership requires emotional intelligence (EQ). That includes responding rather than reacting in emotionally charged situations.

Recently, Erin and I were enjoying a great day with another couple, touring wineries in a beautiful region. We’ve been close friends for a few years, and among many conversation topics, sometimes we talk about God or church. We attend a church that’s pretty different from theirs, and it’s been interesting to discover the similarities and differences in our beliefs and the way we do things.

Just after sunset on that gorgeous day, Norm asked about a certain aspect of our church. I started to describe our church’s approach, but it seemed like I was only a sentence or two into my explanation before Renee and then Norm jumped in to passionately explain why our church is wrong.

My blood pressure immediately rose, and I began a heated defense. For a minute, I felt they had “baited” me … they seemed so quick to jump on me that I felt like they already knew the answer to their question and were simply looking for a chance to “correct” us.

Fortunately, we all quickly settled back down into our normal, easy-going conversational style. It ended up being part of the rich conversations that made the day a truly perfect moment. In that pivotal moment when the conversation almost turned ugly, here are the thoughts in my head that kept me from turning to the dark side:

  • Wait a minute, I’m feeling angry and defensive; but why am I assuming they have a mean intent?
  • Perhaps what I perceive as an attack is actually genuine surprise (and even shock) about a way to “do church” that had never occurred to them. Their church is more traditional than ours; obviously there will be things we do that seem “wrong” to them, and likewise things they do that seem “wrong” to us.
  • Religion is obviously a topic that many people are deeply passionate about. Any of us are susceptible to getting emotional and overreacting about it. Even though they like and respect us, and vice versa, our emotions have temporarily gotten in the way.

Brain scientists report that it’s quite normal for an emotional reaction to hijack what could have been a positive interaction. In what’s known as an amygdala hijack, the emotional part of our brain responds instantly in moments of surprise or danger – milliseconds before our neocortex (the “thinking brain”) kicks in to let us respond more rationally.

“Hence in situations that might be tense, we retort rather than respond,” says leadership communication expert Terry Pearce, “often with consequences we would not have chosen.”

If we let our emotions hijack us inappropriately, we risk ruining conversations … and relationships. At work and in our personal lives, we risk reducing our influence with the people we care about. Here are six steps that I’ve found helpful to manage emotional conversations and respond appropriately:

  • Take a breath, listen, and think. This is the most important step, because talking immediately almost guarantees the amygdala will hijack your mouth and make you say things you’ll regret.
  • Admit to yourself that you’re feeling an emotional response. When I identified my anger and defensiveness toward my friends, it helped me realize this was a subjective reaction to whatever reality was taking place … and that I had the power to choose a more effective response.
  • Assume good intent. I learned this from Emerson Eggerich, Ph.d., writes about the surprising truth that many marriage conflicts are sparked by the assumption from one spouse this his/her partner doesn’t have good intentions. In fact, most people are truly well-meaning and want what’s best for their spouse. In the same way, most of your friends and colleagues have good will.
  • Start in learning mode. Rather than being quick to speak and defend yourself, be quick to ask genuine questions to learn what the other person is thinking and why they think that way.
  • Try to imagine yourself in their shoes. With my friends, even after I listened and learned what they were thinking, I still didn’t agree with them. However, I could imagine why they might think that way, and I accepted it as a valid viewpoint from worthy people.
  • Express your feelings and views, but acknowledge that you could be wrong. And be OK with agreeing to disagree. Even if the topic seems terribly important, the fate of the universe does not actually hinge on everyone agreeing. You can still be great friends and colleagues who think differently from you. And in the long run, an open-minded and honest attitude will bring you greater influence.

Most of us have a natural tendency to react emotionally in tense situations or when someone criticizes us or otherwise really ticks us off. To be an engaging leader, and make a positive difference in the world, requires developing our EQ. When you notice your emotions hijacking your brain, pause – respond appropriately instead of reacting.

Do you have a story to share or tip about responding appropriately (or not) in an emotional situation? Let us know in the comments section below!

Jesse Lahey, SPHR, is the host of the Engaging Leader podcast, host of the Game Changer podcast series, and managing principal of Aspendale Communications. Connect with him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn.

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