Is Your Brain Undermining You?

by  Mary C. Schaefer  |  Self Leadership

Get Ahold of Yourself When Interactions go Awry.

“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element… I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Yesterday I had a confounding discussion with a customer service rep about my car insurance.  He clearly did not think what I asked for was in his job description.  He didn’t hide his dismay.  It seemed like from that point he chose to be deliberately uncooperative.  I did not respond well to his “attitude.”   Let’s just say we ended up being tools of each other’s torture, to use Goethe’s words.

I was left feeling befuddled and embarrassed at my own behavior. The rep couldn’t have felt very good either.

The secret our brains are keeping

So, what’s going on if someone is showing some attitude unexpectedly?  The neuroscientist David Rock talks about social interactions and why they do or don’t go well.  Rock says that in social interactions our human brains automatically move to determine “threat” or “reward.”  Our brains are assessing whether our sense of status, autonomy, certainty, relatedness or fairness is being threatened.  (You can find a really good summary of Rock’s work here, from Ed Batista.)

When people respond to us in a way that confounds us and we keep the threat/reward concept in mind, we can potentially thwart the escalation.  We can slow down and cultivate some compassion with our conversation partnerand ourselves.  In the situation with the customer service rep, I’m still working on how I could have been an “instrument of inspiration” instead of spinning out with him.

Rise above it

This is clearly not easy.  When we are triggered it’s hard to slow the rising momentum.  When at least one of us strives to treat people as they ought to be (Goethe again), we can indeed help them demonstrate their best selves.  We help ourselves do this too, in addition to creating much more rewarding and effective interactions.

How do you work with yourself to consistently “treat people as they ought to be?”

Image: Microsoft Clipart

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About The Author

Articles By mary-schaefer
Speaker, coach and trainer Mary Schaefer’s expertise is in creating work cultures where organizations and human beings can both thrive. She is a former HR manager. Find out more about how Mary helps managers empower themselves to make the most of their human resources with this special collection of articles selected for LCG readers: http://www.reimaginework.com/LCG/  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Susan Mazza  |  17 Jan 2013  |  Reply

What a great concept to help us make better choices in the moment. I have found customer service in large organizations to be particularly poor these days. I think they get crap from all sides though (and are often frustrated themselves with their own organization’s bureaucracy and systems flaws) and I try to remember that when I pick up the phone. Sometimes we get the leftover angst from the last threatening interaction they had. Yet in an instant we can choose to create a friend or foe. It is amazing how fast you can actually change the dynamic.

Mary C Schaefer  |  17 Jan 2013  |  Reply

Susan, I’m glad you like the concept. It certainly helps me understand better my own reactions, and those of others.

Suzanna Stinnett  |  17 Jan 2013  |  Reply

Wonderful post. I just had an epiphany about a recent exchange that was oddly incomplete. It felt that information was being deliberately withheld and I couldn’t imagine why. Then I realized that the other person had so much more to lose than did I, and I was the one in control of this particular situation. I relaxed and felt great empathy for the other. Suddenly I knew there was so much more space for everything to work out favorably for everyone.

A more hidden aspect of this was that the other person had not long ago been sorely disappointed by the outcome of many months of faithful effort. When I thought about how that must have felt, I was even more motivated to allow the most appropriate and magnanimous outcome for our situation. It is still unfolding but I am completely confident we will both be enriched.

Thank you for airing this issue and sharing your story. We can’t always soften people who are frustrated in their work but we can usually summon some kind of breeze of kindness in the room.

Mary C Schaefer  |  20 Jan 2013  |  Reply

Hi Suzanna. Thanks so much for sharing the impact of this post for you. It is more than I could have hoped for!

And thanks for coming over to Lead Change Group and visiting!

Lori Polachek  |  20 Jan 2013  |  Reply


This is such a thoughtful post- thanks for sharing.

Perhaps in your interaction with the customer service rep- anxiety was unwittingly provoked in him- about his own capacity to perform his job- perhaps he did not know how to solve your issue, and perhaps he was too ashamed to acknowledge that…. these are all conjectures, to be sure… but they also might provide options for a greater range of reaction and empathy on the part of the client.

Thanks for stimulating my own thinking, and inviting me to expand my own capacities for empathy, when I find myself in situations like the one you described. As we all invariably do!


Mary C Schaefer  |  26 Jan 2013  |  Reply

Thanks Lori. I’m glad you found the post valuable.

Jesse Lanclos - Cajun Copy  |  20 Jan 2013  |  Reply

Hi Mary,

You always “bring it.” I love hearing what you had to say, especially about being an “instrument of inspiration” in every conversation. I’m going to ponder that for a while. Thanks for the food for thought.

Mary C Schaefer  |  21 Jan 2013  |  Reply

Wow Jesse. I don’t think I’ve ever been told that I “bring it.” :-)

I’m glad you found the language Goethe uses thought-provoking. I’ve even considered running a workshop based on this quotation.

Thanks for stopping in.

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