Defusing the Lizard Brain

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When an employee or coworker blows up in anger, frustration, or tears, most people have one of two reactions: run for cover or try to solve the problem. Unfortunately, neither is likely to truly help. The best thing to do is to help the person get it out of their system so that they can return to a place that lets them deal with whatever is behind the blow-up.

When someone is upset or angry, they are generally being controlled by their limbic system, often called the lizard brain. The limbic system is concerned with survival and drives most deep emotions, particularly fear. Before someone can start dealing with an upsetting situation rationally, they need to calm down enough to move back into their prefrontal cortex, where they can use reason rather than emotions to guide them. This sounds simple, but it isn’t. And telling someone, “Calm down. Just calm down!” isn’t going to help.

To help someone move out of their lizard brain, first you have to make them feel safe, which normally means that they feel heard. First acknowledge their emotional state – no, not by saying “Boy, you are emotional today!” Try “I see that you are really angry right now.” If you get the wrong emotion, they will tell you and you can get it right; normally, your effort to get it right will help them settle down.

Once you have the emotion right, acknowledge their concerns or fears; this doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, just let them know that you hear what they are saying. “If I understand it right, you are angry that Bob got the promotion you wanted.” You may need to wade through a lot of details to find the underlying problem. Don’t judge, don’t shame, don’t inflame them, just summarize what the issue seems to be about. Once you get it right, most people will start to calm down; if not, repeat the cycle until they get to the bottom of the problem.

By the time you know what the problem really is – that the employee is scared of not being able to feed her kids rather than angry about being overlooked for a promotion – the person will usually have calmed down enough to talk rationally. Now that they are back in their rational brain, this is the time to start helping them solve the problem and offering resource suggestions.

If someone can’t or won’t calm down after several rounds of this process, it may be time to enlist a professional to help them deal with their emotions so that they can deal constructively with the problem.