Have you ever had a moment in your life where you made what you thought was an innocent comment or asked a simple question, but was met with a verbally violent response? This happened multiple times in my career, going back to the PCI DSS assessment days, to living in management, to even personal interactions with individuals. Admittedly, my brain to mouth filter has been maturing over the years—so in some respects that may have been to blame. But recently, I started analyzing these responses and situations when they happened. Kind of a, “how did I get here and what should I do now” analysis. Let’s explore what I have learned.
Let’s discuss the concept of Lizard Brain. This is the “Fight or Flight” part of our brain. No matter how calm or collected we try to be at any time in our lives, some situations completely bypass our cognitive abilities and retract to our basic survival instinct—”Don’t die.” It has served us well through the generations, especially when we were sharing land with the Sabre-Toothed Tiger and hunting the same prey. It’s still relevant today, and explains why most people run away from life-threatening situations. But in the instances I am describing, it essentially is fueled by an emotional response to a statement which triggers the fight part of the lizard brain.
When asking what you perceive to be a question devoid of emotion and get a violet emotional response, you can be sure that a couple of things are happening:
- You are not the first person to ask that question or make that comment. If we don’t like a particular question or comment, regardless of its validity, reason can go out the window to be replaced by an emotional explosion. Some people are really good at controlling this, but everyone hits a breaking point somewhere down the road. You might just be the breaking point.
- You are probably right in your comment. That shouldn’t make you feel better, but it at least can help you with the next step. You are probably on the right path, or asking the right question, but the person on the receiving end doesn’t know how or have the authority to address it. The emotional response is fueled by frustration in many cases where this individual can’t do something about it.
So, if you know these things to be probable, what can you do if you find yourself in this situation? First, diffuse the situation. Apologize and recognize you stumbled into an area that you didn’t intend to stumble. Depending on your relationship with the individual, you may be able to call out the response. Sometimes the calmer parts of our brain can slap the lizard brain back into submission if we call out the unexpected response. Next, if you still want to proceed to a solution, see if you can uncover the specific point that caused the reaction and explore it. Sometimes talking through a complex issue like that can bring clarity to both sides of the discussion. You may not find a resolution, but you will find a pathway forward (fix, avoid, or accept).