End the brain hijack

Disagreement and conflict – an overlooked aspect in Agile Ways of Working | Part II

When you go up the escalation stairs of conflict, somewhere in the amber zone your brain might get hijacked.

What does this hijack looks like? When you notice you disagree with a conversation partner, you start focusing on arguments to be right, thereby decreasing neural activity in social and attention networks in the upper layers of the brain causing your empathy to become severely limited. And from there it is easy to get uncertain of where we stand with our conversation partner.

Protecting ourselves is hardwired

And when we are uncertain, our fear networks might take control of our brain, starting by an automatic fight/flight response from the amygdala. And when that happens you will experience that protecting ourselves when we feel threatened is hardwired in the brain: the primitive brain is activated that steers our body responses. Your heartbeat might go up, your hands might get sweaty, your throat might feel dry, for example.

Internal movies

And if you manage to stay aware of your reaction to the situation (which is really difficult in that biological state) you will also notice the amygdala going into overdrive as it activates the bigger limbic part of the brain, where old memories are stored. Similar situations and threats are remembered and what happens next is that old feelings and experiences are woven into some kind of internal movie about the situation happening here and now, full of assumptions on what the other persons wants or drives. This movie looks very real and meaningful as your brain is creating it. And as your internal movie becomes more and more coherent to you, at the same time it becomes less and less likely that the other person in the situation will recognize this perspective.

Go down the escalation stairs intentionally

And as our brain makes us go up the escalation stairs unintentionally, there is also a possibility to go down the stairs intentionally. And here is your window of opportunity to create trust. It is a hard effort to do because we are wired to protect ourselves. As our fear centers are aroused we get all inside ourselves revealing nothing vulnerable that the other party can ‘use’.  But exactly that is the fastest way to calm the limbic system – say what the situation is doing to you.

Explore your shared reality

By doing so you step out of the internal movie you are creating and share your reality in order to compare it to the reality of the other party. And as the other party accepts, sharing back their reality you get to explore together what your shared reality is made off.

Empathy switched on again

This sharing back and forth is all you need to give your brain a chance to get out of this limbic moviemaker mode with the amygdala feeding all your lower brain levels. By exploring together we put our higher brain levels back in action, the prefrontal cortex and the neocortex where the social and attention neural networks are located. Our empathy towards each other gets switched on again.

Templated action perspectives

As said earlier, getting yourself out of your defensive protective mode into opening up is very difficult to do from scratch. It is helpful to have templated ways to pull out of your pocket to use. There are dozens of tools, I selected a few that are relatively accessible and highly effective. More about those tools in a next blog.

Want to know more about disagreement and conflict in Agile Ways of Working and especially how to prevent brain hijack? Invite me for an introduction to raise awareness on these topics in your team(s). Also relevant international Agile conferences can invite me as a speaker on these topics.

Some feedback from the Eurostar 2021 Conference:

“Gave great insight of the way our brain is working. Very useful. Should have known that years ago.”
“Excellent and relevant talk. Many takeaways for me. Her answers to the questions were great too.”
“Nice! New insights and I want to hear more!”

The talk was rated as Excellent by participants with an 8.5 score on a 10-point scale.