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.


5 Responses to “How to Avoid Your Reptile Brain”

  1. Thanks Sue for this post and these suggestions! As I was reading your “list of three,” I couldn’t help but think that these ideas would be good for me as I worked on being “uncomfortable” (my #oneword 🙂 ). I have been in these situations often before, and I often find myself retreating. If anything, I use my regrouping time to play out the conversation in my head later and often blog about it. Then I can maybe get to the answers that I couldn’t get to in person. But I need to start getting to more of these answers in person, and not retreating just based on a response by others.

    I struggle more though when the conversation isn’t 1:1, but as part of a group (not part of a large one, where I can assume that somebody else may be feeling the same way that I am but not saying anything, but a smaller group). This is especially true if my thoughts/feelings/ideas may seem to vary from everyone else in that group. What if that look or those comments aren’t just coming from one person but from many? I know in theory the same approach should work, but does it? Is it possible to get a group of people to start to reconsider or at least acknowledge a varying viewpoint? Where do you start?

    Thanks for giving me lots to think about!

    1. Aviva, there is no doubt that being in a large group that all seem to have opinions or viewpoints opposite to you is hard. If there is a skilled facilitator, they can help manage it. Sometimes it’s worth while dipping your toe in, because you may be voicing thoughts of someone who is too afraid to speak, or you may cause someone else to rethink their ideas.

  2. Helen DeWaard Avatar
    Helen DeWaard

    Sue. Thanks for your thought-filled post. Your suggestion to remember not to jump into a defensive posture and to ‘just breathe’ reminds me of what I tell my students – turn to wonder. While listening to another person’s perspective or project, turn your inner mind to ‘wonder’ what they are saying, sharing, showing or questioning? Turning to wonder opens the mind to looking at the other’s thinking. It opens to the mind to new possibilities and viewpoints. Thanks for giving me a chance to ‘turn to wonder’! Helen DW

    1. “Turn to wonder”: I love it! Very like asking, “I wonder why they would say/think that?”

  3. Thanks Sue for this blog. The three suggestions you gave are a timely reminder for me during this time of year with staff seeking advice on classroom issues and report cards. And as you said “Developing trust and learning is about the way we talk”.

    Thanks again.

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