Are you Getting Hijacked during Conflict in your Family Business?

Wendy Sage-Hayward
Wendy Sage-Hayward

Have you ever been in an argument with your father (or any other family member) regarding something related to the family business where you both behaved badly, said nasty things, and essentially blew your tops? Neuroscientists call this a “limbic hijacking”.

During a conflict situation it takes our brain only a millisecond to recognize a threat and move into high gear for a fight, flight or freeze reaction. Our brain calls for the release of adrenaline and reduces the production of dopamine (our feel good chemical).  Our heart rate and blood pressure increases. Our breathing becomes shallow. We start to sweat.  Blood flows out of our organs into our major muscle groups. Our pupils dilate and we develop tunnel vision. We sometimes get shaky or turn bright red.  Essentially our brain is saying “Pay Attention Right Now!” and sets us up to react without having to think.  Literally we do not have to “think” about what we are going to do because the automatic processing parts of our brain take over.

Research into the neurosciences is helping us understand this rapid and intense reaction at a deeper and more profound level. Neuroscientists suggest that the part of our brain responsible for our higher level thinking (pre-frontal cortex) has an inverse relationship to the part of our brain responsible for emotions (limbic system) and our automatic response to a threat as described above. In other words, when we react in a conflict situation we are not thinking, listening or responding with our rationale brain resources. In fact, our brain gets hijacked by our emotions.  We can virtually stop “thinking”.

Conflict is inevitable and completely normal; and therefore, conflict in family business is somewhat standard fare. So how can we learn to better handle our “limbic moments” in a family business? The good news is that our brain has plasticity which means it can learn. A simple three-step process can help mitigate a limbic hijacking:

  1. Take three deep breaths to introduce endorphins in your system which will calm you down.
  2. Stop and “think” – shift your attention away from your emotions to thinking. Think about what happened. How did you react? Why did you react to way you did? Why did the other person react the way they did? Or think about something entirely different. Ask yourself a question to start your thinking processes.
  3. Consider your triggers. “Think” about what triggered such a strong reaction in yourself and/or your family member.  Determine how you want to react the next time the trigger appears. Identifying triggers can help us recognize them more easily in future interactions.

It will be difficult to resolve a conflict in your family business if someone is experiencing a limbic hijacking. Training your brain by using mindfulness techniques (see previous blog this week) and the process above will help to strengthen your ability to manage the automatic brain responses that kick-in during stressful situations in your family business.

If you are interested in reading more about how your brain functions, please see “Your Brain at Work” by David Rock. It offers a useful overview.

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