Calming the Lizard Brain: 5 Steps to Dealing With Drama at Work

Lisa Lampinelli on the Celebrity Apprentice

You know that surge of energy or sick feeling that takes over your body when someone takes credit for your work, makes condescending remarks about your presentation, or steals the pomegranate juice you left in the office fridge? Anytime you get triggered and feel it in your body, you can be sure the ‘lizard brain’, AKA the amygdala region of your brain, is at work. For anyone wanting a colorful (and particularly cringe-inducing) demonstration of a lizard brain in control, watch Lisa Lampanelli on the Celebrity Apprentice where she proudly defends her angry outbursts: she sees anyone questioning or criticizing her as a “vicious animal”, putting her in attack mode.

From an evolutionary perspective, the amygdala is the oldest and least evolved part of your brain. And it’s easy to judge ourselves for reacting from this primal place, but remember: you want your lizard brain to react instantly with a pretty fierce fight or flight response when faced with a knife-wielding psycho in a dark alley, or a cougar protecting her cubs that you encounter on a weekend hike. At the workplace, however, you want to neutralize such instinctual reactions–you don’t want to end up fired for leaving a disastrous meeting and staying home for days, eating Chunky Monkey and watching reruns of Oprah because you can’t bear facing your colleagues again. Nor do you want to end up in jail because you threw an insubordinate employee down a broken elevator shaft.

Basically, there are four responses we can have to difficult people or situations: we can react aggressively, passively, passive-aggressively, or assertively. So just pick door number four, right? Bingo, easy-peasy. Except it’s not. When our lizard brain kicks in, rational intentions to assert ourselves respectfully tend to go by the wayside. But with practice, you can subdue that wild reptile. Here’s my personal strategy for dealing with messy situations these days, honed after countless numbers of difficult conversations with employees, partners, family members and friends:

  1. Recognize that you’re upset, and honour your feelings. You might need to write them down, or share with a trusted friend. Close your eyes and feel what’s going on in your body: is there a tight feeling in your chest? Your stomach? Does your head throb? Surrender to the sensation (yeah, I know, the last thing you want to do) and let yourself feel it all the way through. As long as you resist any physical or emotional discomfort, it will stay with you–the old cliche “what you resist persists” is annoyingly accurate. Listen to the thoughts and feelings coming up–what’s the real reason you’re upset? Do you feel like your safety or security is threatened, because someone is coming after your job, or they might be stealing from your company? Get clear on what’s really going on for you. Taking lots of deep breaths, going for a walk, or lying down even for a few minutes can help calm you down enough to see what’s happening inside your troubled mind.
  2. Recognize that the other person is feeling threatened too. While it might feel satisfying to regard them as a malicious sociopath, the truth is that they’re doing their best to feel safe and secure, and their behaviour is quite possibly motivated by fear… just like yours. When you can feel compassion for your fellow human beings, no matter how they’ve treated you, you’ll be able to resolve your issues with them much faster and easier. Ask yourself what assumptions you’re making, and consider what the other person is thinking, feeling and wanting.
  3. Think about what you want from the situation. My assumption is that you want to resolve the situation and preserve, or build a trusting and mutually-beneficial relationship with the other person. But maybe what you want is to end that working relationship entirely, in the best way possible. Take some time out to get clear on your choices and desired outcome.
  4. Ask the other person to have a one-on-one conversation in a private space, and let them know your intention is to have a respectful, calm dialogue. If they want to speak first, let them. If they’re reluctant to speak, you take the lead. Be very conscious of your body language and word choices–you don’t want to unintentionally come across as defensive or angry. Remember that you are upset about their behaviour, and separate what they’ve done from who they are as a person. Tell them how their actions made you feel and what your fears are, and don’t be afraid to show some vulnerability because this will help them see you as human and feel compassion for you. Caution: if you’re not coming from a completely authentic place, people will see you as being manipulative and trying to make them feel guilty (AKA emotional blackmail). And–this is crucial–make sure you really listen to them and seek to understand them.
  5. Agree on a resolution. After you’ve both shared your feelings and perspectives and cleared the air, ask them how they see the situation being resolved. Paint a picture of how you’d like to see it happening, and work with them to come to a mutual agreement. Ask them how you can support them in making it work, and ask for any specific help you need from them.

The way you handle difficult issues is where you really demonstrate your character. In my businesses, I never promoted someone to a managerial position without seeing how they responded to others while under intense pressure. And as ugly and painful as these situations can be, if you confront others respectfully and come out the other side it can be a wonderful opportunity to become closer with the very people you wanted to throttle.

How have you dealt with workplace drama? Are you more likely to fight, walk away or confront the issues calmly? What are your secrets to navigating workplace relationship challenges?

2 Responses to Calming the Lizard Brain: 5 Steps to Dealing With Drama at Work
  1. Roger Downie
    May 4, 2012 | 1:23 pm

    Great subject Natalie. Reacting in anger is never a good way to solve problems. The lizard brain lurks in all of us for sure. The trick is to not let the lizard escape. Your article is insightful and helpful.


  2. Procurement Books
    May 25, 2012 | 4:06 am

    Great eye-opener! Drama will always be present in the work setting. Various people work there. It’s only natural to meet different temperaments at one time especially when stress overwhelms everybody. Resolution is indeed the most important. It is the ultimate end to any conflict.

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