As humans, we’ve spent years (millennia really) developing language and culture, even going so far as creating very specific words to cover very specific nuances that occur in our day to day lives. For example, in areas where snow is a large part of their lives, the local people have developed many words to describe all the different types of snow that they encounter: the Inuit apparently have 50; the Sami people in the northern areas of the Scandinavian countries and Russia have at least 180, and the Scots claim 421.
With all these verbal resources at our disposal, you would think that communication would be easy. And much of the time it seems to be easy. But sometimes, our communication can go horribly, terribly wrong seemingly for no reason and without warning. This is especially true when instinct ambushes our communication.
You might be thinking: Instinct what???
Programmed deep within all of us, on a DNA level, is instinct. Its sole function is to keep us safe and make sure we survive. It is controlled and activated by the amygdala, a part of our brain also known as monkey brain, lizard brain, or instinct brain.
Long ago, in the days where our ancestors lived in caves and spent their day-to-day lives fighting for physical survival, literally against lions, and tigers, and bears – oh my – the instinct brain had very clear physical threats to our survival that it needed to warn us about.
Fast forward to present day, and most of us no longer have such imminent, physical threats to deal with in our lives. But did our lizard brain go on vacation, take a nap, or relax in any way?
Instead, instinct brain responds to perceived threats in our current lives. This translates into anything that the amygdala can link back to risk to our lives or physical safety, usually connected to the ability to feed ourselves, put clothes on our backs, or shelter over our heads, although belonging and community also play a role, as humans are generally very ill-equipped for survival if they are all alone.
Now that we know why instinct might ambush our communication, what does it look like?
The three most basic instincts are Fight, Flight, and Freeze. You’ve probably heard of them at some point and might have an idea of what they look like, but let’s define them anyway.
Flight is the urge to run away from danger to keep ourselves safe. If we think there’s a good chance that we are far enough from a potential threat to successfully escape, flight is a good option. In the animal kingdom we call that distance the ‘flight distance’ – the invisible line where the animal seems to ignore you coming closer until you cross the invisible line and then they bolt.
Fight is the instinct that shows up when there’s no chance to run away because the threat is too close. In this situation all ‘weapons’ (teeth, nails, punches, kicks, and tools) are brought into play for protection, often with the hope of creating an opening to run away.
Freeze is a bit more subtle. In the animal world, predators often key in on movement, so lack of movement and blending colors (camouflage) can be protection. The other function of Freeze is it turns off input from our receptors. This means if we can’t escape, at least we feel less pain. However, in humans, it also means we lose access to words and taking in sound signals as well. We ‘tune out.’
When instinct ambushes you, you will feel your body respond. Anxiety, tension, shallow rapid breathing, and increased heart rate are all instinct responses drawing attention to danger and preparing you to take appropriate action based on the threat.
Learning to recognize these signals quickly will give you choice in how you respond.
If you don’t recognize them and instinct successfully ambushes you, you will have one of three responses:
- Fight – you get argumentative, hostile, aggressive, sometimes snarky and condescending, and often very loud
- Flight – you try and put as much distance as you can between you and whatever feels threatening
- Freeze – you become immobile and non-responsive, completely tuned-out of the situation. Often you lose access to words and the ability to speak.
And in all cases, logic and reason are beyond reach. No productive conversation can occur.
If you do recognize the signs instinct is trying to ambush you, then you can take steps to counteract the responses.
- Take a couple of deep breaths
- Relax your muscles
- See if you can figure out what triggered the response
- See if you can find steps to diffuse the situation; sometimes it will mean stepping away with an agreement to come back later.
- Then try again to have a calm, rational conversation
The trick is to always Watch the Response.
Then regroup and try again.