How to prepare your brain for disrespectful behavior?

Marianne Slotboom
Dec 16, 2021

Imagine having a retrospective with your team lead and colleagues. You are explaining an important point for improvement and suddenly – for the second time - your team lead interrupts you, ignores your idea and takes over the conversation. Chances are that you are irritated, to say the least; your heart is pounding; your face turns red and you experience deep annoyance. You actually want to do something physical, such as beating the table or beating your team lead!
This is a natural primary reaction because the primitive part of your brain – the amygdala - is activated. It’s the brain region that sends a strong ‘alert signal’ to the rest of your brain, which prepares you for survival. If at that moment we don’t have access to more constructive reactions, the primitive brain will take over and drive us into conflict or at least ineffective collaboration.

Fortunately, we have higher cognitive functions we can use instead. We can train our brains to get easier access to these functions to respond in a constructive way, even if we experience disrespectful behavior. The use of higher cognitive functions enables us to have positive conversations under all kinds of circumstances; we can enter passionate dialogues and at the same time stay in connection with the other person. Ego’s are put apart, aggressive words will be waved away, and the shared goals will be our compass. It will make teams more innovative and create happier workplaces.

What certainly does not work.
Perhaps, in order to avoid a conflict, you might try to suppress your angry feelings, rationalize them, make them less important and let the event slip away from you. In essence, you try to 'think' in a certain way to change the feeling of not being respected. Most probably that won’t work. Why? Because the feelings that are developed have little to do with rational, cognitive thinking that takes place in the neocortex. From a neuroscientific perspective, you are "hijacked". It will take some time to let those hormones pass through your system before you can think wisely and clearly. To suppress these feelings of angriness is not the right way to overcome them. You must allow yourself time to recover from the perceived “attack”.

What does work.
Davidson (2012) found that people differ in the way they recover from adverse events. Some people take a long time before they can react constructively, while other people are able to recover very, very quickly. Based on his studies he found that people with more left-side activation recover more quickly. As the prefrontal cortex exhibits strong connectivity with the amygdala, his conclusion is that increased levels of prefrontal activation likely are modulating the activity in the amygdala and facilitating turning off the amygdala once it's turned on.

How to train your brain?
Knowing that the brain exhibits plasticity, Davidson notes that the fastness of resilience can be changed through the concept of neurally inspired behavioral interventions. He declares that the most effective interventions come from meditative traditions.
One of them is mindfulness meditation. Furthermore, an important part of mindfulness meditation is that of nonjudgmental observation and paying attention to purpose.

The nonjudgmental piece is very important as your judgments lead to rumination and perseveration of the emotion way beyond the point where the elicitor is present.

In the situation with your team lead, the best thing to do is to switch to a higher activity in your prefrontal cortex.
•         First, breathe deeply for one or two minutes and focus your attention on the purpose of the meeting.
•         Become calm and don’t react. This is not the time to confront your team lead; you are too emotional for that.
•         Promise yourself you will address the behavior of your team lead at a more adequate moment when you have settled down and have thought about what you are going to say.
•         Behave respectfully during the rest of the meeting.
•         After the meeting, ask your team lead for a 1-on-1 for the next day.

Unnecessary to say that practicing mindfulness or other kinds of meditation on a regular basis will give you easier access to this cognitive part of your brain.

The Science of Meditation: How to Change your brain, mind, and body. Daniel Goleman & Richard Davidson (2017).

Marianne Slotboom
The author
Marianne Slotboom

Marianne is a strategic partner and practical developer of human behavior that helps leaders, teams and organizations become more focused and effective, elevating their value to customers. In 2015, Marianne founded Yellow Training to answer the call for more inspirational and creative leadership in the modern workplace.

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