We Are Part Lizard

We are part lizard. In a way, it's true. There are parts of us that have been present in our physiological makeup for a very, very long time.

The Lizard Brain
Lizard Brain is a non-scientific way of referring to the amygdala, the part of your brain that triggers your fight or flight response. This fight or flight response is essential to keeping you alive. The trouble with it is that your body interprets life threatening danger when the danger is actually only to your ego.

When you're confronted by a lion, your body reacts very similarly as to when you are confronted with interpersonal conflict. This is a completely natural, reflexive process, and it is something you can do something about.

I find it fascinating that the Lizard Brain is universal - aside from people with a disorder or disease keeping them from feeling emotion. Everyone experiences this reflexive reaction to both physical and psychological threat. Yet so many of us feel shame for experiencing it. "I froze!" "I let my fear get the best of me." "I choked." The first thing I want everyone to realize and accept is that you are not alone in having a Lizard Brain reaction to stress, feedback, or anything else that threatens your ego. Take comfort in this fact. Don't be hard on yourself for this feeling. Acknowledge it, feel the emotion, and let it go. You are NOT alone.

This article is about helping you work through that automatic response so that you can be more effective and consistent when dealing with other people. I think these 4 steps can help you move through the emotions you have when your lizard brain is triggered so that you can choose your response with intention, rather than reaction.

1. Take Notice
Pay attention to what you're feeling. We try to pretend that we don't have emotions at work, but it's just not true. Acknowledging your emotions is powerful and courageous. You will often notice your body reacting to your emotions before you realize that you have emotions.

When your lizard brain has been engaged, you might notice:

your brain getting foggy
a feeling of separation from the current situation
your face heating up
your heart racing
your fists clenching
you might sweat
Think about your own typical reactions and watch for them. Take a minute to do that now, if you can.

Now think about this: How effective can you possibly be when responding from this place?! Your brain gets foggy! Your body starts preparing itself to either RUN or FREEZE. It is very difficult to be in a learning state when your body is reacting this way. And that is NORMAL.

People offering feedback, take notice! The humanness in us creates this situation, and we're usually not choosing it! I'm not suggesting that you have to be 'gentle', but acknowledging that people have a natural physical reaction to feedback and conflict and VERBALIZING THAT can really change the dynamics of the conversation and get both of you back into a learning mode. Helping people acknowledge that these situations are difficult and completely normal can really make the experience a beneficial one.

2. Slow Down
Both the giver and the receiver of the feedback can see that things are going too fast and that you are both feeling more than discomfort. It's not going well. That's normal.

Give it a minute.

Slow down your speech.

Leave space in the conversation. Don't fill the silence.

Walk slower.

Don't rush.

Create a real connection with the person you are talking with. Your intentional slowing down of your own pace will help the other person slow down too.

Interpersonal communication is not just giver and receiver and two way communication. It's a dance between two feeling, whole people, like it or not. When communicating with someone else, your feelings and intention are creating the dynamic. Go into difficult situations with the intention of staying aware of what's happening, slowing down, and being deliberate. It will change everything!

3. Verbalize your feelings
"I'm feeling a little anxious about this. Can we slow it down a little?"

"I notice myself getting upset about this, and I want to be able to really hear what you have to say. Can we take a minute?"

Try not to apologize here. An apology indicates that you've done something wrong. You haven't. Your body is doing exactly what it's built to do. Just acknowledge the feelings and try to get yourself back into a learning and conscious mode of thinking.

4. Prepare to Listen
Give yourself permission to LISTEN. Don't let your brain focus on defending yourself or responding. You might say "What I hear you saying is that you're not happy with how I delegated work on that project. Do I have that right?" Or maybe "It's possible I am misinterpreting this, but what I'm getting is that you want me to change how I delegate. Can we go deeper into what challenge that is creating?"

Be curious about the other person's perspective. Be in learning mode as much as you can! After all, we're all here to grow and get better at what we're doing.

If we can get our ego and lizard brain out of the way as much as possible, we will be more effective at achieving what we've set out to do. Go team human!

Tomorrow I'll write about facilitating trust on teams. As we've all probably learned by reading Patrick Lencioni, trust is the foundation of effective teams.