Think about a time someone nearly took your bumper off as you’re driving down the road? What was your reaction?
Did you think, “Blessings on thee. Go thy way.” ?
When we are confronted with someone who doesn’t act the way they should, we often respond with a similar lack of maturity. We stoop to their level, saying things we wouldn’t normally say, doing things we wouldn’t normally do, and insulting people in ways we wouldn’t normally intend.
Does it make you feel better to know that your brain is hijacked during these times? When you’re in the midst of a confrontation — whether it’s an inconsequential diatribe at a bad driver or a difficult conversation with your boss about expectations — your body is biologically designed for you to fail.
Why? Blame the amygdala.
How the Amygdala Saves Our Lives
You have two almond-shaped masses in the brain called the amygdala. It primarily functions to help you trace patterns and instantly warn you of danger. The amygdala is a very powerful piece of the brain. When it fires a signal, it bypasses the neocortex (the centre of the brain for higher-level thinking), and says, “Trust me. You don’t need to consider this further. This person is a jerk.”
In a confrontation, that’s problematic.
Why do we have this problem-causing (not problem-solving) device in our brains? Well, it also saves our lives.
I was out running with my son recently along a back-wooded path. He turned a corner and went out of my view for a few seconds. Although I couldn’t see him through the brush, I could hear him. I heard a primal scream. As I rounded the corner, he was just landing from a leap. I looked, and sure enough, a snake was slithering across the path.
At that moment, the amygdala triggered him to jump. It said, “Trust me! You don’t need to think about it — JUMP!” And that saved him from a snakebite.
How the Amygdala Ruins Our Confrontations
We need the amygdala for situations like these. But the problem is that the amygdala sends these same signals when it picks up negatives patterns in other people. Sure, we need the amygdala to pick up signals of danger in our environment — but it’s not always right about the signals it detects in other people.
We don’t always know exactly why the person cut us off in traffic. Maybe they didn’t see us or they’re late to pick up their kid from school.
We don’t always know why our boss makes certain decisions. Maybe your boss scheduled you for extra hours because he trusts your work ethic.
We don’t always know the reasons for the actions of our loved ones. Maybe your spouse wasn’t trying to shirk their household responsibilities but is really stressed out from work and simply forgot to take care of their part.
When the amygdala causes us to draw conclusions about why people have done what they’ve done, it creates a problem. It bypasses our higher-level thinking centre and causes us to react on impulsively, not rationally.
So what can we do about it?
How To Get Control of Your Assumptions
When we aren’t our best selves and jump to hasty conclusions, we don’t get to take the easy way out and say, “My amygdala made me do it!” Instead, we need to be aware of our impulses.
Then, when we’re in the midst of a crucial confrontation, we need to be on the lookout for a hijacking.
- Do I know the whole story?
- Am I making assumptions that may not be true?
- Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do this?
When you recognise that you may not know the whole story and that perhaps your amygdala is overriding your more rational thoughts, you’ll see the situation more clearly. You’ll start to see things as they are, not as you assume.
Only then can you move past the confrontation and towards your desired action and results.