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Fight, Flight, or Freeze: Are Those the Only Options?

For our own protection, we are hardwired to fight, flee, or freeze when we perceive danger. The brain’s amygdala triggers a release of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.

Your heart rate jumps, breathing becomes shallow and rapid to take in more oxygen, your throat tightens, your face gets flush, your palms get sweaty. While the fear response has been very helpful historically and in the physical world, it is a useful indicator in our personal or business relationships, our careers, our finances, or even our freedom. The fear response serves as an early warning of potential threats and let us know when “something just doesn’t feel right.” However, it can seriously interfere with our engagement with the world if it disengages rational thought processes. In the midst of a fear response, complex decision-making and memory are inhibited. You lose the ability to view a situation from multiple perspectives, so you tend to see complex issues in black and white.

When I am in a heated moment of a transaction or negotiation I find that I need to actively slow myself down and “take a beat” in order to engage thoughtfully and rationally. Early in my career it seemed as though I would take the emotional bait of fear and anxiety in a situation and find myself being reactive to challenges or emergencies in a transaction. Through experience and self-introspection, I have found that if these impulses can be moderated, better decisions and advice are more likely to occur.

As you might expect, the fear response can lead to conflict and prevent people from making well-informed, rational decisions. It can cause people to act out of character and to engage in unproductive behaviors. Fear can also lead to indecision when decisive action is most necessary.

The good news is that you have a choice. You have options other than fight, flight, or freeze, options that can calm your brain and help you think more clearly to find the best path forward.

Breathe deeply and slowly

When you feel fear, your natural inclination is to breathe rapidly and shallowly. Resist the urge by breathing deeply and slowly. Closing your eyes can help you focus on your breathing and take your mind off of the source of your fear. Many experts recommend mindfulness as a way to calm the brain. This action sounds so simple that it is almost silly. I thought that for quite some time, but have come to be a convert to this simple technique. I will find myself taking a deep breath or two even before a phone call that may be confrontational or when entering a room to start negotiations. The best part about this technique is it works without thinking, meaning that if you can physically force yourself to take some deep breaths, your mind will calm even if you do not believe in the technique.

Think

Fear drives impulsivity in thought and action. You may feel the need to make a decision or fire off a response sooner than is necessary. Instead, spend some time analyzing the situation and thinking about the wisdom of the actions you are about to take or the words you are about to say or type. Try writing down what you are thinking at this moment, which will slow down your thinking and restrain your impulses. Of course, you then need to resist the urge to share what you just wrote. Give yourself time to rethink when your mind is in a calmer state.

I have used this practice to make email responses more useful and focused. Given the massive increase in email communication it is imperative to work at effectively writing an email. Blasting out what you initially want to say can free it from your mind and let it be captured in a draft email. This way the thoughts are out, you do not have to worry about remembering them, and those impulsive thoughts can now step aside and allow reflective, thoughtful ideas to flow forward.

Give yourself more time

Feeling bound by time to make a decision or take action can increase anxiety and impulsiveness, but deadlines are sometimes contrived or self-imposed, and they can almost always be pushed a bit or manipulated without risk to the clients or the flow of a deal. You may have noticed that high-pressure sales pitches frequently give people very little time to decide. That is by design. The salespeople are working to create a fear of losing out on a great deal. This fear works to inhibit your brain’s ability to think rationally.

I have often found that taking some extra time (a day when possible or five minutes if that is all that is available) when engaged in a negotiation gives all parties the confidence to move forward and feel better about the deal when they look back at it. I have found it to be a value add to transactions, especially in crunch time at closing, if there is an acknowledgement to the parties that I, or my client, need five-10 minutes to consider a point. I have even stated that we want to take the time to pause and make sure we understand our position and the dynamic so that we can engage with the other side more productively. It may seem like a loss of flow or weakness, but more often than not these sorts of pauses actually add to overall efficiency and positive deal dynamics because it forces both sides to pause and think, not just my side.

Challenge your beliefs

Fear is often triggered by false beliefs, bias, or misunderstandings that often are corrected by facts and clarification. Whenever you feel fear, frustration, or anger over something, ask yourself the following questions to determine whether you are reacting to a fact or a belief:

  • Is what I fear based on fact or assumption?
  • What is the source of the information or the creator of the pressure? Is it possible that this source is biased or has ulterior motives?
  • What objective evidence and personal experience supports what I am thinking or have been led to believe?
  • Am I assuming or do I know for sure?
  • Is what I am thinking always true or only sometimes true?
  • Am I making this better or worse in my mind than it really is? What are the actual consequences of the situation?

You may also want to ask yourself what would be required to change your mind or make you more confident to decide or take action.

Gather information

A great way to challenge your beliefs is to gather more information. Unless you are an unmitigated expert, if you have a concern about what you believe someone is thinking or has said, ask the person for clarification. If you have a concern about the possible ramifications of a clause in an agreement, work to understand the clause fully. Do your research to plug the gaps between certainty and uncertainty. By seeking out information in a pressure situation you will force yourself to slow down, reflect on the situation (as you try and figure out the question to ask), and often create a more useful dynamic because the person with more information is likely your adversary, so when you learn more you will understand the other person more and they will learn more about you.

Whatever you do, work to not allow fear to govern your choices in business or in your workplace. Fear tends to lead to conflict, distrust, poor decisions, and aberrant behaviors that impede productivity and undermine successful deals.

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Disclaimer: The information in this blog post is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. No information contained in this post should be construed as legal advice from Stephen Dietrich, nor is it intended to be a substitute for legal counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this Post without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a lawyer licensed in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.
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About the Author: Stephen Dietrich is an attorney and author who has a passionate interest in the human side of business. His distinctive combination of legal and business knowledge, human insight, and dedication to clients makes him uniquely qualified to help corporate leaders and other C-level executives navigate high-value mergers and acquisitions, restructure transactions, and manage day-to-day operations. Through this blog, Stephen shares his extensive experience and unique personal and professional insights in the hope of stirring thought and dialogue that leads to ever deepening insights and understanding. For more information, please visit www.StephenDietrich.com.

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