How to Turn ‘Fight or Flight’ into a Reasoned Response

What do you do when you feel your hackles rising?

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You know how it feels when your fight or flight response is ramping up. Your heart rate increases. You get that pit in your stomach. When you think about it later, everything seems like it’s in slow motion. Maybe you get a tingly feeling somewhere in the space between your heart and your head. That’s the feeling of your hackles rising. 

Let’s say you’re in a meeting at work and someone is arguing or disagreeing with you. You feel attacked. Maybe your ‘attacker’ is a colleague, maybe it’s your boss, maybe it’s someone new to your team. All those factors might influence your choice of fight or flight. 

If you go the ‘fight’ route, you respond with defensiveness. You want to prove, “I’m right and you’re wrong.” You get aggressive. 

If you go the ‘flight’ route, you concede, withdraw from the conversation, disengage. 

Either way, when you replay this episode in your head, you’re going to be disappointed with your response. It wasn’t productive. It didn’t help you achieve your goals. Maybe it even created new problems for you.

What can you do instead?

Decide ahead of time (maybe right now) that you will respond differently in these situations. That “hackles-rising” feeling is a stimulus, and you can decide how to respond to it. Use it as a signal that you should initiate this sequence of responses

Breathe – Seriously…inhale, exhale all the way and inhale again before any words come out of your mouth (without audibly sighing). While you’re breathing do these things to reframe your thinking:

          Depersonalize – Don’t perceive this interaction as a personal attack. It may only            be a personal attack in your own mind

         Empathize – Try to put yourself behind the other person’s eyes before you                     respond. Consider how that person is feeling and how their feelings (especially             feelings of fear) might be fueling whatever is coming at you from them.

Ask – Let the first thing that comes out of your mouth be a question. Use questions as a way to help everyone shift gears. Carefully monitor your tone of voice and inflection. Ideally, aim your questions at understanding the other person’s perspective. Questions that start with the word “why” are often the best kinds for rooting out underlying issues, but in the wrong tone they have the potential to put the other person on the defensive. That said, asking a question — even if it’s just, “Tell me more,” or, “Help me understand,” — instead of defending your own position right out of the gate is a great first step.

Listen – Really listen to what comes next. Don’t use the time to think of your next question or to compose your defense. Listen. See what you hear. See if it doesn’t help you feel more in control, more in a learning mode, and less in a fight or flight mode.

What do you do when you experience that “fight or flight” feeling? How has it worked for you in the past? Do you think these suggestions could help?

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