How to Avoid Your Reptile Brain


Imagine this scenario: you are in a workshop. The facilitator asks for ideas or suggestions. You bravely put up your hand or speak out to offer something. The facilitator says, “Well, but…” What happens to you?

Or this one: you are in a conversation with your boss, who is a great person. She asks a question. You offer a piece of information or an opinion. She looks at you and says, “Why would you think that?” What happens to you?

komodoJohn Clarke, Cognitive Coach extraordinaire and Adaptive Schools guru, would explain it this way: any hint of judgement shuts us down. Our reptile brain takes over and we retreat to safety. Then any possibility of a deeper conversation and learning can disappear.

I have experienced these kinds of situations in both my personal and professional life. Sometimes a sideways look, an abrupt answer or a pointed question has shut me down too, and my reptile brain as taken over. I have to say it: I don’t want to stay there! It’s easy to shut down or withdraw, but that doesn’t lead to change (my #oneword for 2015) and learning.

Here are three things we can all try to avoid the takeover of the reptile brain, whether we see it in ourselves or others:

1)  Listen actively and openly. Begin conversations with a smile on your face and a light tone. Set aside what you think the right answer is and what to say next. As New York principal Tony Sinanis says in his post, The Three, being “the ears” is a huge part of the educator and principal’s job.

2)  Ask open ended questions that invite thinking.  Try “Say more about why this is important for you,” or “Why is this essential for you?”.  We can also practise asking questions like, “How might we…” or “Can we think of ways to…”

3)  Monitor our responses.  When we know ourselves, we know what pushes our buttons.  I try to be aware of when my reptile brain might be stirring, sometimes with limited success! But instead of jumping to defense, I try to sit back, breathe deeply (you can’t think without oxygen, another wonderful nugget from John Clarke) and regroup.  I had great results with this once when a supervisor was questioning me closely. I could feel myself shutting down! I eventually was able to question myself and my thinking and realize that it could change. That was a good moment.

If this seems like too much work, consider this: of course it’s easier to fire out our questions or continue with our usual style. But developing trust and learning is about the way we talk. As Clarke says, “If we don’t attend to it, we can’t change it.” If we see others’ heads go down, eyes to the floor, then we know what we’re doing isn’t working. I want to bring forward people’s thinking and engage in challenging ideas, and I know I have a lot to learn.

I’m in.

One Word for 2015


flickr-wordsIt’s time again for the annual look forward post. I wasn’t going to do one this year, because reflection isn’t a once a year thing for me, but I was nudged by Glenn Robbins, a principal in New Jersey, who shared his end-of-year post. In it, he was inspired by Jon Gordon come up with one word instead of a list of resolutions. Jon Gordon’s idea is a powerful one and I loved it.

My word is CHANGE.

At first read, it doesn’t seem particularly earth shattering or insightful. We talk about change all the time. Some rejoice in it, some lament it. But this word really fits for me. I like change. I find it exciting and full of possibilities. Of course, change can be so difficult. I’ve been through many changes throughout my life, including schools, homes, relationships, cities, and jobs. The constant is that I have grown stronger and learned so much from each change, large or small, and that has enriched my life immeasurably.

I want to improve every day. I want to listen better, to know more, to be more empathetic, to find out about new ideas. I want to discover new authors to read. I want to understand how people live. I want to bring equity to the forefront for everyone so we can remove barriers for our students. I want to speak Spanish! I want to grow in my faith. I want to be a better partner and friend. I want to remember people’s birthdays more. I want to support and celebrate those I work with while always urging and inspiring them to reflect and be better.

All of these require change. Most of them will happen as I make small, incremental steps towards the person I want to be and the life I want to have. When I look back throughout this coming year and again next December, I want to know that these changes helped me improve.

Now, it’s your turn. What’s your word for 2015? What word can you choose that will provide focus for you?


(Here is my brief new year’s post from last year.)

Greatest Strength, Greatest Weakness


“Sometimes your greatest strength can emerge as a weakness if the context changes.” – Harsha Bhogle

Photo Credit: marysmyth(NOLA 13I) via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: marysmyth(NOLA 13I) via Compfight cc

A very experienced leader in our district once gave me a piece of advice as we were discussing leadership and navigating difficult situations. It started as you might expect.  He shared that it was important to identify my greatest strength and use that in those pressure filled situations. Makes sense, right? Then the advice took an interesting turn.  He also shared that in his experience, most people’s greatest strength becomes their Achilles heel. I nodded wisely at the time, but my head had a big question mark over it.

I really didn’t understand how this could be true. Most of the informal and formal leaders I admired talked about “knowing yourself”,  “leading from your strengths”, or “sharing your passion”. Most never mentioned weaknesses linked to strengths.  I am well aware of my weaknesses. Who isn’t?  We all try to cover up those not so stellar aspects of ourselves, hoping that no one will notice. The idea that my strengths and weaknesses could somehow be linked was puzzling and a little scary.

Over time, I found that advice rising to the forefront as I observed others. I saw leaders who were great at building relationships and getting people to like them. But some couldn’t make hard decisions that might displease people. I watched brilliant thinkers create and innovate and be unable to explain these amazing ideas to those they worked with. I noticed that detail oriented excellent organizers sometimes couldn’t see the big picture. I started to get it.

Without reflection, growth isn’t possible, so my natural next step was to turn the lens on myself. One of my strengths is my ability to plan and work independently and efficiently on projects and tasks for a good result. I’ve come to know that the flip side is that sometimes I’m way too independent and don’t communicate or involve the right people in the planning or problem solving.  Realizing what I need to work on helps me focus, in this case on my collaboration and communication. While I can’t fix everything all at once, it provides a signpost to improvement and I try to choose next best doable steps to get there. For example, I write myself little reminders about who I need to communicate with. And I always appreciate when a colleague points out I forgot to communicate with them!

Leading successfully is about knowing yourself. What are your greatest strengths? Could they become weaknesses too?