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Daniel Coleman, the father of what has become known as emotional intelligence is also responsible for coining the term amygdala hijack which refers to the type of purely emotional, unreflected  knee-jerk response to a perceived threat.   It is a survival mechanism as old as humanity itself that can save our lives but also land us in really hot water.

In situations perceived as threatening,  the amygydala or emotion-hub of the brain causes the body to be flooded with a number of stress hormones before that part of the brain responsible for rational thought and located in the prefrontal lobes,  has the chance to think things through.  Since survival is of paramount importance and the ability to respond to perceived threats fast, absolutely essential when faced with a fierce animal with nothing but a club and a loin-cloth to defend oneself, the amygdala does its job within nano-seconds demanding instant action (either eat or be eaten/fight or flight) and leaving the rational thought process way behind with little chance of catching up while so much adrenalin is in the bloodstream.

This is what it means to be so overwhelmed that we can’t think straight! Hence the term “hijack” – the amydala literally takes us hostage and for as long as we are under its influence, reason disappears out the window.  Only when the adrenalin ebbs, do we gradually “come to our senses” and remorse for our actions often sets in.  An amygdala hijack therefore displays three characteristics:  a strong emotional reaction, a sudden and immediate response and the later realisation, that the reaction was inappropriate.

What is particularly tricky about the amygdala’s involvement, is that it does not distinguish between a physical threat such as coming face to face with a fierce animal or an emotional threat such as an insult or slight to our honour, an attack on our intelligence, a need to win at all costs or a challenge to our competence.   Both the physical and the emotional threat are perceived as equally dangerous, and the amygdala equips us to respond to both with equal intensity.  Little wonder that things get out of hand really fast!

As is so often the case with transformation processes surrounding conflict habits – breaking out of the hostage cycle involves change within ourselves first.  Self-awareness is the name of the game – awareness firstly of the process of being taken hostage by the amygdala, secondly of the triggers that give rise to the response and thirdly, awareness of how best to meet the hostage situation so as to come out of it with as little damage as possible to ourselves and those around us.

Do you know where your hot buttons lie?  Are you an amygdala hostage?


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When arguments and disagreements get stuck in really deep ruts, it is often because the face-value disagreement disguises the real issues underneath. In other words, what we’re arguing about is not what is really bothering us, what we’re hearing is not truly where the rub is.

This is what mediators mean when they speak about the difference between positions and interests.  While positions refer to the concrete things we say we want in an argument – the amount of money, privilege or objects that we lay claim to, interests refer to the true nature of the dispute – the often intangible needs, motivations, fears and desires that drive us to these positions.  The rule is – as long as we’re arguing positions, there’s going to be a lot of posing and getting told off, finger pointing and justification, bargaining and deal-cutting.   It is only when we start speaking the language of “interests” that we approach the heart of the matter and the opportunity for meaningful conflict resolution arises.

It may come as a surprise to discover that we are often unaware of what our own interests are. We uncover these by asking ourselves two simple questions:  “why?”  “Why do I really want that?” and “what?” What is the problem that I really want to solve?”  The answer might be something like “Not because I really need it as I say I do, but because I want attention or a sense of connectedness to this person; because I want to be acknowledged or respected. ”

Once you’re aware of your own interests, it’s time to explore those of your partner.   Do so by trying to imagine what is important to them, how they are likely to feel, what the outcome could mean to them or where they are coming from.  Step into their shoes, look behind the claims and explore the motivations and the human need behind the face-value positions.

Once interests are uncovered and recognized, your search for resolution becomes directed, clear and meaningful and the resulting solutions form the basis for truly lasting solutions.  Interest-based conflict resolution saves time, energy, emotion and resources and serves to connect rather than to separate  disputing parties.

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