You know you didn’t call them stupid. So why do they say you did?

There it was, starting on page three of his 360 Feedback report. A page and a half of comments like these that people had made to me as I interviewed them: 

  • He flogs people with words. He says things like “You’re wrong. You’re an idiot.”
  • At times he’s very condescending. “That’s a bad idea. That’s stupid. Go learn and come back.” Things like that. Which shuts people off.
  • He disparages people and ideas. He says things like “It’s stupid, you’re ignorant, you screwed it up etc.”

At first he was silent as he read through it all.

But then came the intense frustration, deep sense of unfairness and despair. 

“I absolutely do not call people stupid or idiots. I know for a fact I don’t do that. I’ve checked with people who have been in meetings with me, and they will tell you I do not do that. How can people say you said things, when you didn’t actually say them? How can people lie and just make this stuff up?” (He used a less polite term, understandably). “I’m being told to stop saying and doing stuff like this. But if I am not doing it, how am I supposed to stop?”

His question was a valid one. He genuinely believed he had not said such things. He said he had even specifically tasked people in meetings to tell him if he did. And they told him he had not. So why were people complaining that he had?

Have you ever had something like this happen to you?

“You said that…” they say, and then they repeat back something that you know, for a fact, you did not say. It’s like they were at a whole different conversation than the one you remember.

Jumpy Amygdala's: One conversation; two different memories.

And in many ways, they really were at a completely different conversation – due to the way our amygdala – the alarm bell system of our brain – works. 

A breakthrough finding in neuroscience is that our brains perceive and respond to social threats in exactly the same way as they do to threats to our physical existence. When someone is yelling at you, or humiliating you, to your brain, it is exactly as if they are physically attacking you. 

Your amygdala, a tiny, almond shaped structure deep in the middle of your brain, functions as your brain’s “threat detection system”. To speed it in its job, it develops “threat templates” based on previous experience. Any situation that looks similar enough to one of its threat templates will cause it to trip the alarm, activating one of your primal survival and defense responses: fight, flight, freeze, “appease” (also known as “fawn”), or flop

And when it does that, part of your brain essentially goes “offline”. You do not have access to your prefrontal cortex – the home of your executive function, of logic and reason – at that moment. 

Memory also gets disrupted. You remember some things, not others. You probably remember the intense feeling of fear pretty accurately, but maybe not the exact specifics of what caused you such alarm. 

The threat also doesn’t have to be an actual, objective threat. The amygdala just has to perceive it’s “like enough” to something it has coded as “this is threat” for it to trip the alarm. Reason has nothing to do with it. 

It’s safer to assume something IS a threat, than to assume it’s not.

Our amygdala has what is called a “negativity bias”: It’s safer to assume something is a threat (that shadow over there is a deadly snake!) , and find out later that it’s not (oh, whew, it’s just a branch) than to assume something isn’t a threat, and then find out later that it is. Humans who made that mistake didn’t tend to live long enough to pass down their genes, after all.

I had previously explained all of this to this leader. 

So I asked him now, “When they claim you called them stupid, even though you didn’t say that, would you call that a fight, flight, freeze, “appease” or flop stress response?” 

“Fight,” he said. “They’re trying to get into a fight with me.” 

“And what might they be feeling threatened by, that they activated the fight survival response? Remembering that the threat doesn’t have to be real, rational, or logical?” 

He went silent for a long minute, deep in thought. 

When he spoke, his voice was low, filled with wonderment, and hope. 

He described how the settings where this had happened were “high stakes” settings. “I think for some people, before anyone even says a word, it’s just a scary scenario. They arrive at the meeting already wondering if they belong. These meetings  – it’s like being back in grade school PE and realizing you’re not as good at basketball as others. So before I’ve even open my mouth, people are coming into a situation where they are feeling vulnerable. They’re pre-sensitized to being on the defensive. And then I’m just a physically large man, and my voice can get loud when I’m excited, so they might perceive me as threatening just for that. Whereas from my perspective I’m just engaging in robust debate and critiquing ideas to make them better.” 

He sat with that a few moments longer. 

“Now I understand what I’m doing that is causing fear, and why they hear something that I didn’t actually say. It’s just their jumpy amygdala. And I can do something about that. I can make my voice softer, my body quieter. I can keep myself calmer, and they won’t feel as worried, and be able to hear what I am actually saying, not what they think I’m saying.”

What if they’re not “difficult”, but “afraid”?

If you are working with someone who seems to be just stubbornly resisting your suggestions or guidance, what happens if you think of their behaviour as being a defense response to some perceived threat. 

What if they’re not “difficult”, but “afraid”?

And what could they be afraid of? 

Remember, it’s not about logic or reason. Amygdala’s get jumpy because of previous experiences and/or certain contexts or situations that feel more innately threatening than others. 

It’s been a joy to watch this leader integrate this understanding into how he now shows up and engages in “high stakes” settings. Now he gets the feedback that he’s the soothing, calming presence in the room. 

I have found that when leaders understand the neurobiology of threat and stress responses, what was previously baffling to them in other people’s behaviour and responses to them, suddenly become understandable. They’re not lying, trying to be difficult, or out to get you – their brain just genuinely remembers things differently – because of a “jumpy amygdala”. 

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