The limbic system is the seat of our emotions. Since the days when we lived in caves, the speed and power of our emotions has kept the human race alive. We are exquisitely sensitive to anything our brain perceives as danger. Anything that makes us fearful or angry will take precedence over more rational, pre-frontal cortex thinking.
So, if we are working and start to worry about meeting a deadline, that worry can escalate into imagining a worst-case scenario, like being told off by the boss or fired. This kind of worry interferes with our ability to concentrate on a complex task.
We have three choices when our emotions interfere with our ability to concentrate on our work. We can express our fear or anger, which usually is not appropriate in the workplace. We can suppress it, which often doesn’t work or takes so much of our attention that it interferes with our work anyway. Or we can reconsider and change our thinking.
Let’s look at these choices within a typical workplace situation. Suppose we are discussing how we want to do something, and another person disagrees with us and tries to persuade us to consider a different approach. We believe our way is the better approach and we keep pushing for its adoption. The other person pushes back and suddenly we find ourselves getting very angry.
We could choose to express our anger by raising our voice and even saying something like, “I’m getting very angry about this. You’re not listening to me.” Or we might say, “You’re making me so angry because you’re not listening to me,” which is worse because we are not only expressing our anger but we are also blaming the other person for it. Any expression of anger like this is likely to trigger equal or greater anger in the other person, who now feels threatened and unfairly treated.
Or we could try to suppress our anger, but that is very difficult to do. Suppressing an emotion takes a lot of energy. It can cause us to feel the emotion more intensely, and the other person may begin to feel uncomfortable and under threat.
Learn to Reconsider
Instead, we could choose to reconsider, to change our thinking. This takes more skill and knowledge but, with practice, becomes easier. We can change our thinking in milliseconds. Instead of thinking, “I know my way is best; she should listen to me and understand,” we could tell ourselves, “I don’t want to get angry. It feels unpleasant and usually doesn’t work out well.” We could also think, “Where is it written that other people should do what I think they should do? I would prefer that she adopts my way, but maybe I should listen to what she is proposing. She probably has a good reason for believing her way is better, so I should at least understand what that is. Once I have listened carefully and demonstrated I understand her point of view, she will probably listen better to me. I am sure we can work this out.”
Although reconsidering only takes a few seconds, it can calm your emotions and return control to your pre-frontal cortex. By reconsidering, you’re reducing the sense of threat and unfairness that stimulates your anger. While you demonstrate that you’re prepared to listen carefully to the other person, she will feel she is being treated fairly and also feel less threatened.