Updated: Aug 17
BACKGROUND: Yesterday I was interviewed on The San Diego Union Tribune Community Spotlight program by host Drew Schlosberg. We were talking about how to express ourselves to others, when Drew asked me, “Isn’t it just common sense?” I looked at him and said, “Well yes, it is common sense but the point is when we are angry or highly stressed our common sense is not available to us.” Let me elaborate.
What happens in the brain is that when we feel very bothered by something, either hot with anger, very scared, or overwhelmed, the primitive reactive part of the brain in the limbic (emotional) region reacts to protect us from perceived danger. We cannot afford to waste time “thinking about the right thing to say or do” if a rattle snake slithers out of the bush and readies to attack us. Survival depends on quick action. All we need is the adrenalin to fight or flee. So we immediately attack or jump far enough away to safety.
Usually we can consider our feelings and thoughts and come up with effective responses to others. Someone makes a remark. Their words first hit that limbic area which engenders feelings that travel up a pathway (the cingulate gyrus) to the advanced human brain. In this part of the brain (the neo-cortex) we consider our feelings along with our values and thoughts to put together our measured response in words or actions. All is well. Common sense is victorious.
PROBLEM: However, when we are in a tense conversation and feel our blood boil with anger or bones chill with fear, our brain wants to do the same thing as if we encountered that snake. We want to fight or flee. We are hijacked by that lower primitive part of the brain and our higher brain in the front and top of our head is useless. We flip our lid. This means our advanced thinking brain that considers our feelings to make meaning and helps us come up with reasoned “common sense” responses is gone! Now what do we do?
SOLUTION: My book on communication looks at best practices through the lens of brain science and using body cues. Why? Because understanding that we are wired to protect ourselves and will react defensively when we feel threatened can bring self-awareness, acceptance and compassion to our human nature. But that only tells us “Why” we react defensively. We need the body, particularly somatic techniques in order to shift moods, so that we can cool down from the fires in our head that burn away our common sense.
Here is one quick trick to help when someone says something offensive, hurtful or provocative and you feel like you have been punched in the stomach. Remember the primitive response is to withdraw or fight but in this case you want to keep communicating. So, first say nothing and take a slow breath in your belly. Next, validate the other person by repeating what they said, like, “So you are angry at me for…” This does two very useful things that can change the outcome. It buys you time to recover from being stung and allows a moment for your thinking brain to come back online. When you communicate that you heard the speaker, they often soften their approach, which can help calm them down. It does not mean you agree, just that you are open to hearing them. It is only in this calmer state that we re-open our hearts and can communicate with our best “common sense” approach.
POSTSCRIPT: More brain and body tips are available in my book and other blogposts on my website. I won a 2018 notable book award for #communicationbreakthrough. It is available on Amazon, Kindle, IngramSparks and barnesandnoble.com. Links are accessible on my website, vincentiaschroeterphd.com. As it is my mission to spread good communication, I am available to speak at civic, community, academic and corporate settings. For bookings contact Susan Farese @sjfcommo.