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Posts Tagged ‘amygdala hijack’

I know a woman who created a winning design label in her cellar at night while navigating the stormy waters of marital disintegration.  She would put the children to bed, clean up and then go downstairs and cut, match, sew and assemble pieces of fabric until the early hours of the morning when she had something to show for her labours and her head was “clear” of the nagging questions and worries that beset her days.  It was when she was focussed on a specific task, working out the practicalities of making a zipper disappear into the folds of a pair of trousers or a dress float like gossamer that her mind would switch off and she could distance herself from the gnawing worries of an unravelling life.  And it was often at the end of a long night of working that bingo! – she had the answer to the next sticky question:   “It would just pop into my head, as though someone was talking to me” she said,   “I had no idea where it came from but it was always surprisingly enough, the best next move for me.”

My personal refuge in such challenging times is generally the kitchen and although I love both cooking and baking, it’s preserving fruits and changing them into jewel-coloured jams and marmalades that is my refuge of choice for truly creative conflict resolution.  The wonderful smells of sugar and fruit marrying to form a heady perfume banish all negative thoughts while the activity of washing, cutting and paring fruit, sterilizing and heating jars,  getting out the sugar thermometer and then watching over the process until the setting point it reached, takes care of the rest.    I take no short-cuts and no recipe is too difficult or time-consuming. I seek to lose myself in jam-making nirvana and yes, in the process of switching off I am always able to let go of the problem that besets me and almost always find solutions popping into my head that I had simply never thought of before.

So what is it about throwing oneself into creativity that fosters great conflict resolution?

  • Psychiatry has long known of the benefits of crafting and creativity on mental health.  World War I soldiers suffering from shell shock were taught to knit and knitting remains one of the most popular therapy crafts used in managing depression today
  • Creativity and crafting switch activity from the left, problem-solving side of the brain to the creative, right-hand side of the brain.  In so doing, the pressure to think is literally taken off the cortex, heart rate, blood-pressure and breathing slow down, the amygdala’s fight or flight response ebbs and we become physically and mentally quiet and peaceful.
  • The often repetitive patterns and the focus on detail required in a lot of crafting activities are deeply calming and require us to be “fully present in the moment” as is the case in practising meditation.  In doing so, we are able to distance ourselves from worries about the future.
  • Crafting is also a source of pleasure that brings with it a sense of accomplishment.   Creating something to share with others heightens this pleasure even more. This activates the pleasure centres in the brain that flood our bloodstream with beta-endorphins, dopamine and all the good vibe chemicals that make us feel great.

So instead of focussing all your mental energy on actively solving problems, try gardening, baking, doing woodwork, putting ships into bottles, sewing, knitting or whatever it is that gets you going creatively.   Reap physical and mental health benefits in abundance and surprise yourself with some of your best decisions yet.

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Ever gone into a difficult conversation reminding yourself to “stay on the mat”,  to “stick to the facts” or to “keep the lid on” and found at some stage (and generally sooner rather than later) that your emotions have run away with you?    There is probably none of us who hasn’t.  This is because whether we like it or not, conflict is always about emotions irrespective of whether we’re hot-blooded or cool-headed by nature and quite independently of whether or not we’re well-intentioned.

In Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate, Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro of  Harvard Negotiation Project  fame turn their focus to just this problem.   They identify five core concerns that if ignored or impacted in difficult conversations are guaranteed to lead to strong emotions and to negotiation derailment.   The key to avoiding such unfortunate results in challenging conversations lies in understanding how these five core concerns affect our emotions and those of our partners in conflict.  Once we  do, we become able to prepare for these emotional landmines, to maneuver our way through them skilfully,  to avoid frustration and disaster and to reach satisfying solutions.

The 5 core concerns are as follows:

  1. Appreciation:  we all have a need to feel acknowledged and appreciated.  Statements like “I like your thinking”; “I see where you’re coming from”; “that’s a great point to make” make us feel valued.  Don’t make the mistake of following these up with “but” if you have another point of view you wish to put forward; try “and” instead and acknowledge that both viewpoints have equal validity.
  2. Affiliation: making someone feel that they don’t belong is certain to trigger strong emotions:  “that’s how WE do things here” is not welcoming to a new team member and does not encourage a sense of belonging.  “We’re used to doing XYZ like this here.  How would you tackle it?” is more likely to draw someone in and give them a sense of being valued.
  3. Autonomy: imposing solutions on people pulls the mat out under them and strips them of their autonomy.  Whatever the issue at hand, we do not like to feel tied and bound to someone else’s dictates.  Be careful not to point that authoritative finger and lay down the law in difficult conversations but instead to invite cooperation, contribution and initiative at all times.
  4. Status:  acknowledging someone’s status, be it their expertise, their life-experience or their social or organizational standing is crucial if you wish to avoid major derailment.  Particular caution is advisable around status issues where cultural differences exist between  parties.
  5. Role: who doesn’t want to feel part of the solution?  Including people by carving out a role for them goes a long way in getting and keeping them on board and in tempering the frustration that comes with being overlooked.  Invite someone’s evaluation, ask for their advice on how to proceed or draw them into the resolution process as brainstormers or planners and in that way make them feel essential to the solution.

So for your next difficult conversation, start with yourself: check what needs to happen and how you need to feel to satisfy these five core concerns – and then as ever, step into your conflict partner’s shoes and apply the same five point check making sure that you think of ways to meet their essential needs for appreciation, affiliation, autonomy, status and role.  Then and only then, are you equipped to “keep the lid on” and to reach constructive conflict solutions.

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I recently listened in on a discussion on the merits of opposing political systems between two people very dear to me.  Each stated his position, defended it and described what was bad about the other’s preferred system and why his own preference was superior.  The other then did the same: positioning, defending, disassembling and re-stating the original position in ping-pong fashion until it was clear that they were going nowhere.

Suddenly, one of them interrupted the other just as his position was being proved lacking for the umpteenth time with a little question that knocked my socks off:   “What’s good about it?” (“it” being his preferred political system currently under attack). The person asking the question was my 20-year-old son.  Both as a mother and a conflict resolutionist, I was impressed by the tool he had instinctively chosen to turn a conversation that was heading for the sticky wasteland of intractable positioning into an opportunity for expanding viewpoints and finding common ground.  A short while later I found them both taking an amicable refreshment break in the kitchen.  They continued their discussion and in the end were both happy with the outcome describing it as constructive, informative and “adult”.

Lying awake in bed a few nights later with the usual line-up of problems robbing me of sleep, “what’s good about it?” popped into my mind.  I started applying the question to each of the persistent problems that haunt those gloomy hours and the result was amazing – eyes shut and stretched out in the dark, I found new and positive angles to my old problems and within no time was relaxed and off and into a deep sleep once again.  Since then, I have applied it in my coaching practice and have received a similarly grateful response from clients who were amazed at the power it holds to change our hitherto held take on things.

So, what’s the secret of this little question and how does it turn the tide on a conflict experience?

1.  Fight or Flight Response

The anxiety and fear surrounding conflict, the horror scenarios of how everything is going to go belly-up are all outgrowths of our fight or flight response, that millisecond answer to conflict that the amygdala holds ready for us.   These doomsday visions shut down creative thought around conflict and stand in the way of constructive conflict resolution.

“What’s good about it?” takes us out of the automatic pilot mode of doom and destruction and shuts down the knee-jerk amygdala-driven response of fight or flight.

Instead, it takes us by the hand and leads us to that part of the brain responsible for logic and reason, for creativity and new ideas bringing with it a wealth of physical benefits including lowering of blood pressure and heart beat as well as the release of chemicals into the bloodstream responsible for positive emotions.

2.  Perspective

“What’s good about it?” is a call for a change of perspective around a problem.  Particularly in the case of stubborn or recurrent conflict,  negative thought patterns and conflict narratives become firmly entrenched in our minds preventing us from entertaining alternative outcomes or viewpoints. In this state “nothing good about conflict” becomes our mantra.

The invitation to search for the positive contained in this little question therefore comes as a surprise and following it forces us into a perspective-shift on established thought-patterns.  It takes us out of our dark tunnel-view of conflict and onto wider plains where we are invited to see and discover new aspects of a problem from different vantage points.

3.  Creativity

“What’s good about it?” is nothing other than the essence of the brainstorming exercises that fill flip charts and whiteboards across the planet millions of times a week in an attempt at finding new answers to old problems.  It introduces creativity to problem-solving by challenging us to break out of old thought patterns and entertain new.

To get to the “good” about something that we perceive as “bad” requires quite a stretch of the imagination and this is where creativity comes in.  We’re invited to think differently, to believe everything is possible, to dream big and to entertain the hitherto inconceivable. Simply posing the question as you ponder a problem lifts the spirits, widens the gaze and introduces an element of playfulness and pleasure to the challenge of facing conflict. It makes you shake your head, sit up straight and put on a different thinking-hat.

4.  Optimism

In Learned Optimism: How to change your Mind and your Life, Martin Seligman, one of the fathers of  positive psychology claims that contrary to common belief, we’re not born either optimists or pessimists and that optimism can be learned.  In the process of proving his theory, he shows in scientific studies that optimists are healthier, happier and more successful because of how they think about what happens in their lives.  “What’s good about it?” is a question that could be almost tailor-made to suit Seligman’s theory – hence, a tool of choice for the optimist.

So, no more counting sheep and no more pacing the floorboards when you lie awake in the wee hours visiting and re-visiting the same problems:  instead, ask yourself “what’s good about it?”,  indulge yourself in the unexpected pleasure of creative conflict resolution and enjoy your best and most restful night’s sleep ever.

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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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