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With respect to evolution, instincts developed in our reptilian brain, the part of the brain that existed before emotions. The anxiety we feel partly stems from the instinctive brain. It sends signals of fear, and it cannot tell the difference between fear of public speaking and fear of an approaching snow leopard. We struggle to manage our impulses—to distinguish between true dangers and those that are exacerbated by our instinctive brain. We control the impulses we can and respond to those we can’t. This is the source of courage—to feel the impulse of fear, assess it, and take rational action despite it. Our instincts are part of who we are—part of the human condition. We need to approach our fear and anger patiently, controlling them and not allowing them to control us. There may be times when it is appropriate to express our fear and anger freely, but that should be a conscious decision, not a mindless reaction.

Table 3-1 Four Phases of the Brain

Instinctive Phase

Intellectual Phase

Brain Area: Reptilian

Instincts are a necessary part of who we are.

Mindfully manage fear and anger.

Be aware of fear and desire to keep them in balance; acknowledge feelings of guilt.

Mindfully live in the gap between impulse and response.

Brain Area: Neocortex

Intellectual thought is blended with emotion and instinct.

Intellect develops rational responses to fears and desires.

Intellectual responses should be ethical.

Emotional Phase

Intuitive Phase

Brain Area: Limbic

Letting feelings come and go helps us understand ourselves and the world.

Understanding our own emotions enables us to respond mindfully rather than to react mindlessly.

Brain Area: Neocortex

You can trust your intuition and “feel” your way through life.

Snap judgments are accurate and are faster than reasoning.

Reasoning is used to justify intuition.

Data derived from Chopra, D. and Tanzi, R. (2012). Super Brain. New York: Random House Publishing.

When faced with situations that challenge our sense of self, our understanding of the world and our place in it, we feel psychologically threatened. At an unconscious level, our cognitive unconscious (subconscious) lets us know in subtle ways that danger is present, regardless of whether it is physical danger or psychological danger. The instinctual signals, in the form of “gut feelings” and stress indicators, impact our decisions in the cognitive unconscious mind, before our conscious mind contemplates the decision. It is constantly analyzing patterns and comparing what it perceives with patterns stored in memory (Kehoe, 2011).

As long as situations are positive, the processes work well. But if the situation quickly changes from positive to negative, the cognitive unconscious can give off signals that are not in line with the actual situation. We put our words (which are minor representations of ourselves) out there, and if someone disagrees with us and it comes as a surprise, or if it comes in a way that seems to diminish our sense of who we are, the cognitive unconscious reads this as a threat. A threat is a threat to your cognitive unconscious, whether it is a psychological threat to self-esteem or a physical threat to your body. This takes place very, very quickly, before your conscious mind even knows what is going on. Changes in the facial expressions and mannerisms of our critics signal our cognitive unconscious and cause reactions in our bodies before their words reach our ears. Our heart beats faster, increasing the sweat on our palms, raising the hair on our forearms, tightening our neck and throat muscles, forcing blood from our gut to our limbs, all in an effort to signal us that the threat is about to manifest. It is an “amygdala hijack” that invokes a fight-or-flight response—a sudden emotion that comes very quickly and that leads to irrational or inappropriate actions or talk. This system, which is intended to protect us from threats, actually makes the situation worse by matching patterns erroneously and causing us to respond from the place where we learned our judgments instead of from the present moment. At the same time, the person we are talking to is reading our automatic reactions and is invoking a cognitive unconscious response to them. This cycle feeds itself, and communications spiral out of control (Kehoe, 2011).

As leaders we must train our conscious minds to recognize when this process is playing out and allow our conscious selves to slow down the process and be mindful of the current situation, to react to the here and now and not to the situation that provoked the emotional response when the “threat” was detected. We have to live in the gap between the stimulus and the response. Not only must we control our own reactions, but we must help those with whom we are communicating—our communication partners—do the same.

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