Shhhhhhh! We can’t talk about that!

JoAnne Norton
JoAnne Norton

“Shhhhhhh! We can’t talk about that! “You-know-who” will throw a hissy fit! We simply cannot bring that up—ever! For any reason!”

Have you heard this line of thinking in your family?

Unfortunately, the fear of an adult throwing a temper tantrum can keep family members from discussing important issues, and it can take a toll on relationships in the family and the business. The fear of what a histrionic family member might do can hold the rest of the family hostage, especially when it’s time to make difficult decisions.

Where does this fear come from? In the deep recesses at the back of the bottom of the skull, the oldest part of the human brain resides. For over 100 million years, the brainstem, or “lizard brain,” has kept human beings alive. This part of the brain is far from where our complex thinking takes place; it’s where the “fight or flight” impulse comes from. Though this part of the brain can save our lives by helping us sense real danger, it might cause us to panic unnecessarily. For example, when we know that a tough decision must be made, it’s the “lizard brain” that can make us fear that someone throwing a fit will lead to a “for sale” sign in front of the family business.

When we feel ourselves being hijacked by our “lizard brains,” we need to calm down and use the neocortex, the newer part of our brain, and ask ourselves the following questions:

  • What are the facts?
  • How do I know these are the facts?
  • What am I feeling?
  • Could my emotions be clouding my thinking?
  • How would I handle it if someone really does act out?
  • Would providing my family members with more facts help them deal with the situation with less emotion and more clear thinking?

If a highly charged emotional subject needs to be discussed, consider bringing in a professional who could facilitate the meeting with objectivity and neutrality. To calm yourself down, try focusing on the facts. Then take three deep breaths by inhaling while sticking your stomach out and then slowly exhaling all the air out of your lungs. Controlling your breathing can help you control your emotions and that old lizard brain. Focusing on the facts gives your new brain the chance to go to work because unrealistic fears can sabotage both the family and the business.


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