How to Win Brains & Influence Perceptions
On Tuesday, we posted 3 Times Your Brain Is Dumber Than You Are (if you missed it, you can read it here), an examination of how the experience of threat in interpersonal conflict makes our brains useless to the aim of resolving this conflicts. Today, we want to give you some quick, practical tips for how to trick your brain into being useful again. Here are 3 steps to influence your perceptions and win your brain back.
Know the 3 Kinds of Emotional Language (And How to Spot Them)
"What is the primary emotion I'm feeling right now? - Beneath the anger?"
"If I wasn't angry right now, what might I be feeling instead?"
It's hard enough, sometimes, to separate our feelings from our beliefs, thoughts, and values, that it can be a little overwhelming to think about the fact that we may have to separate our feelings from each other. And yet, this is the first crucial step to tricking the important parts of our brain to come back on and help us out of conflict. To quickly recap, when you're in conflict with another person, your brain perceives this as a threat, and a threat prompts the fight, flight, or freeze response. It does this by flooding your bloodstream with a cocktail of hormones and chemicals that cause your body to get ready to dole out a beating, run from a beating, or survive a beating. To accomplish that, it has to turn your rational brain mostly off, because your rational brain is too slow as it examines things critically and from multiple angles and you just don't have time for that when you're threatened.
Except, when you're just threatened by interpersonal conflict, say with a spouse, a child, a sibling, or a co-worker, you do have time for it. In fact, not only do you have time to examine the situation, but you can't really resolve conflicts without examination. Not with any kind of long-term efficacy, anyway. As we said in Tuesday's post, it's the experience of anger or any of its synonyms/subsidiaries (annoyance, exasperation, fury, impatience, irritation, outrage, etc.) that causes the FFF response that causes your frontal lobe to go dark. Anger and its synonyms are what we call "Secondary Emotions," so named because they're always attached to what we call "Primary Emotions." Primary Emotions are any feelings that aren't anger or any of its synonyms. Examples include, but are not limited to, fear, pity, boredom, sadness, embarrassment, confusion, disgust, jealousy, loneliness, pain, worry, regret, shame, grief, guilt, and pride. Anger is an emotion which has as its sole purpose the provision of the necessary energy to accomplish whichever of the Fs in the FFF Response you lean toward. Beneath that anger, though, is a primary emotion, driving the true heart of the conflict. Am I frustrated because my wife doesn't respond to me sexually, and I'm afraid that perhaps I'm not actually able to please her? Am I worried she might seek satisfaction elsewhere? Am I ashamed of my perceived inadequacy? Am I angry because my father is very ill, and I feel pain because of his suffering? Am I grieving the loss of time I thought we'd have together? Am I feeling guilty about things I wish I had or hadn't done or said in our relationship? Am I impatient because I'm a stay-at-home parent, and I'm lonely for some adult conversation? Am I jealous of my husband, who gets to leave the house to go to work while I'm at home with the kids? Do I regret the decision to give up my career and be a housewife?
Asking any one of these questions instantly kickstarts the frontal lobe of the brain, because it's an internally directed, objective, third-person perspective about your own emotions. It's an examination of how you really feel, and why you feel that way. Now, we said there were 3 kinds of emotional language, and we'll get to the third kind in a few minutes. For now, let's turn to the question, "How do I know which, of all the primary emotions that are out there, I'm feeling? How do I know which of these questions to ask?"
Identify Your Thematic Primary Emotions
"What are the primary emotions I most commonly feel in conflict?"
"Does what I"m feeling right now conform to that pattern?"
The good news is, it's actually a lot easier to figure out what your primary emotions are than you might think. Most people have what we call "Thematic Primary Emotions," or Primary Emotions that commonly recur for them in conflict. For me, it's fear. If I'm acting angry, you can bet there's something I'm deeply worried about that's just eating away at my sense of security inside. When I was in high school, it was probably a combination of shame and embarrassment. I was very uncomfortable in my own skin. I felt awkward and ashamed of my body, my style, my poverty - and I internalized all those feelings and blamed myself for my perceived shortcomings. And it made me kind of a crappy, off-putting person.
Most people have a set of one or two, sometimes, three, thematic primary emotions. Now, your conflict emotions won't always neatly subscribe to these handfuls of feelings. If your Thematic Primary Emotion is jealousy, and then your mom dies, it'll probably be a mixture of pain, grief, and sadness that you're feeling. Maybe some loneliness. But even those emotions become easier to identify when you have something to consistently measure them against, like jealousy.
One final word of advice for Thematic Primary Emotions. Because of the way anger affects your brain, it can be almost impossible to identify your Thematic Primary Emotions for the first time when you're in the midst of conflict. Instead of trying to catch them in the act, so to speak, think back on your conflicts sometime while you're not in the midst of one. When you have a quiet moment in which you're able to reflect, look down the corridor of your past and examine each conflict in turn. It's best when doing this to limit your introspection to your conflicts with a single person. When I was angry with my spouse on this day, what was I really feeling? What about that day? Or after they said this or that? Take note of the feelings that begin to present themselves over and over, and you'll begin to grow a good idea of what your thematic primary emotions are. It's a pattern.
Practice, Practice, Practice
How does what I perceive to be happening actually make me feel emotionally?
Is the language I'm using making my conversation partner defensive, or inviting them to understand me better?
You don't learn to play football in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl against the Patriots with less than two minutes to go and down by five. You learn on the practice field. A little at a time. When the game is not on the line. The skills that we're suggesting are learned the same way: when you're not in the midst of conflict. Even if, in a perfect world, your own brain wasn't trying to screw you over when it comes to conflict resolution, it's still just really hard to put things into application that you haven't practiced before the moment you're called up to do them. Admittedly, some people are different. Somewhere out there, I'm sure, is a conflict resolution Beethoven who just looks at an argument and goes, "Oh, yeah, here's how I diffuse my anger, acknowledge my true emotions, and communicate them clearly." But let's be real - most of us aren't Beethoven. It takes work to learn this stuff, and it takes work to put it to use.
Which brings us to the third type of emotional language, because if we're not practiced at talking about Primary Emotions, we'll get into trouble here. This type of emotional language we call Pseudoemotions. Pseudoemotions are words that sound like a primary emotion, but, in fact, aren't actually about feelings, at all. Instead, they're subtle evaluations of other people's behavior.
The difficult and unfortunate thing about Pseudoemotions is that they're actually the most common type of verbal emotional expression. While anger or one of its synonyms might be common behaviorally, when we have to talk about our feelings, justify those behaviors, we turn straight to pseudoemotions. We say things like, "I feel unappreciated," or "I feel mistrusted." Abused. Unheard. Bullied. Betrayed. Ignored. Dismissed. Forgotten. Attacked. Unloved. And while none of these things is at all an invalid concern, they are not emotions. They are evaluations of someone else's behavior. They're a way of saying, "I think you are abusing/forgetting/ignoring/attacking me when you..." As a result, they actually necessitate the question, "How does that thought make you feel?" The answer to that question is your primary emotion. A good way to test the difference is to gauge your partner's reaction. If your spouse is generally engaged in the process of conflict resolution, and wants to understand how you feel, and he or she seems to become more and more defensive as a result of you attempting to share your emotions, chances are excellent that you're using pseudoemotional language. On the other hand, if your spouse seems concerned for your emotions, drawn to comfort you, and willing to express his understanding - chances are good you're communicating with primary emotions.
Just like you can identify your Thematic Primary Emotions, you can also identify your Thematic Pseudoemotions. Pseudoemotions are casual language, common to the way people talk. We often rely on the same pseudoemotions in our communication. It's important to practice communicating without them. Pseudoemotions sound like accusations to the ears of our partners, and when we are accused, we get defensive, and when we get defensive, it's because we perceive threat - and the cycle starts all over again. By learning to differentiate Primary, Secondary, and Pseudoemotions, identifying our Thematic Primary Emotions, and learning to eliminate our Thematic Pseudoemotions, we can communicate our most authentic selves and invite our partners in to understand us better.