(This guest post is provided by Cheri Torres, co-author of Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and MeaningfulEngagement.)
We’ve all been there. Someone comes at us full of anger, looking for someone to blame, and spewing ultimatums. If we’re not aware, before we know it we’re in an argument, defending, counter-attacking, and escalating the situation.
In these situations, our nervous systems see saber tooth tigers. The brain leaps to protect us, sending oxygen and nutrients to help us fight, flee, or freeze. The higher-order thinking needed in these situations doesn’t stand a chance.
When our brain is hijacked like this, it takes us to a place of distrust, and any hope of a conversation worth having is severely diminished. Problems can best be solved with the help of critical thinking and creativity. This means moving out of fear and distrust and into a place of trust and cooperation. Anyone can do that. Whoever does it first in a conversation can readily change the dynamic, de-escalate the situation, and bring others into a place of cooperation and creative problem-solving.
Here are 4 steps you can use any time you recognize you’re being hijacked by negativity, fear, and defensiveness:
1. Breathe. Breathe into your heart and slow things down. There is no saber tooth tiger.
2. Adopt a positive frame. Focus on a shared, desired outcome.
3. Assume positive intent. Speak to the other expecting positive intent and cooperation. Don’t be a saber tooth tiger. They’ve been hijacked just the way you were about to be hijacked. Empathize.
4. Get curious. Ask questions that help everyone question assumptions and explore possibilities, surface new information, and insights.
Will you always be able to disarm the tiger? Nope. With practice, however, you will get better and better at it. In addition, you’ll help others learn to engage with problems in a different way. And just maybe, over time, the saber tooth tigers will disappear.