Stop When My Feeling Brain Overcame My Thinking Brain by Xavier Amador

Stop When My Feeling Brain Overcame My Thinking Brain by Xavier Amador

All the passages below are taken from Xavier Amador’s book, “I’m Right, You’re Wrong, Now What?” published in 2008.

It wasn’t too long ago that, in the heat of a highly charged moment, I almost failed to practice what I preach. Luckily, I was able to catch myself and save the situation from deteriorating beyond repair.

What happened was this. My mother was in the intensive care unit of a hospital in another state halfway across the country, and I was trying to learn everything I could about her condition and treatment so I could be certain everything she needed was being done. I’d already called the hospital and asked that the entire contents of her chart be faxed to me. Legally, I was entitled to this information because I had my mother’s medical power of attorney, and the fax arrived in due course. When I went through the records, however, I discovered that two days’ worth of crucial progress notes were missing, so I called again to ask that the missing portion be faxed to me.

This time I spoke to a nurse on the ICU. I introduced myself using my “doctor” title, explained the situation, and asked her to fax me the notes. Her immediate response was that the HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) regulations did not allow her to do that, and, what is more, that whoever had sent me the previous fax had no right to have done it. Being a doctor, I should have known better and was wrong to even ask.

My instinctive reaction was to become angry and arrogant. “I sat on the medical review committee at Columbia University. I know all about HIPAA, and you’re wrong. You can fax the information to me because I have my mother’s medical power of attorney.” In that one thoughtless moment I made three mistakes. I told the nurse, in effect, that she was stupid; I told her I was more expert than she; and I allowed my anger to blind me to everything I knew about how I should be handling the situation. My feeling brain had overcome my thinking brain, which had apparently fallen asleep at the wheel, and things started to go downhill fast.

“I’ve just gone through this with another patient,” she said, “and our HIPAA officer told me I never should have done it.” Now she was pulling in her own expert to counter my claim that I was more expert than she. She was defensive, her voice was becoming shrill, and the argument was escalating. “Whoever faxed you those notes was wrong,” she went on. “Who did it?”

At that point we were no longer arguing about my mother’s medical chart, and the nurse was actually asking me to rat on my source. I had made her more defensive than she was originally, and I could see that we’d reached an impasse. I wasn’t getting anything from this woman, certainly not what I needed. It wouldn’t do me any good to curse her out, which is where I was headed, and if I hung up on her, I’d never get those records. In fact, she might make things more difficult for me in the future if she decided to put a note in the chart saying that I’d been abusive to her on the phone.

So I took a deep breath and started again, with an apology. “I’m really sorry,” I said, honestly feeling bad about how quickly the argument had escalated even though I was not yet feeling much empathy for her experience. “So, as I understand it, the problem you have is that your hands are tied. You’ve been told by your HIPPA officer that you can’t do this. You did it once before and you got in trouble for it. That’s your predicament, right?”

“Yes. That’s exactly the problem,” she answered, now sounding more nervous than angry. 

“If I were you, I would be nervous about faxing anything ever again,” I said, taking a stab at empathy and normalizing her reaction making a connection between us.

“Well, I’m far from comfortable,” she admitted.

Once she could hear that I was listening to her, she let slip another feeling that had been hidden by her anger–anxiety. When I realized she was anxious, I actually started to feel a little genuine empathy and said, “Then this must be very frustrating for you.” Even I was amazed by how quickly her tone softened. “Yes,” she said. “It certainly is,”

Well, I’m just trying to help my mother, which is, I’m sure, what you want to do, too.” Since she was a nurse, I had to assume that she really did care about her patients, so we could agree that we had caring for my mother in common.

Then, without waiting for her response, I asked, “What would you do if you were in my shoes? Do you have any suggestions?” By asking her opinion, I was ceding power to her instead of trying to strong-arm her into submission, and I was asking her to find a way to partner with me in our common quest to do what was best for my mother. By listening, empathizing, and staking out an area of agreement I had transformed our interaction from that of two bulls locking horns to that of a cowboy on horseback herding the wayward bull back home.

“What would you do if you were in my shoes? Do you have any suggestions?” By asking her opinion, I was ceding power to her instead of trying to strong-arm her into submission, and I was asking her to find a way to partner with me.

She was silent for a moment, and I could tell that she, too, was stepping back and calming down. Then she said, “You know what, let me look through the chart and see what’s in there for those two days.”

     And at that point, without my asking, she started reading out loud from the chart. She spent the next fifteen minutes reading me word for word exactly what was written for the two missing days. There were, in fact, some surprising and alarming details about what had happened during this time that concerned us both. At the end of the conversation she also gave me the direct-dial number of the HIPPA officer and suggested I call him directly. She volunteered the pager numbers of two doctors I’d been unable to reach by phone, told me what time they’d be doing rounds again, and promised to have a doctor call me as soon as they were finished–a promise she kept. When I hung up the phone I had a smile on my face and warm, positive feelings for this woman. I am sure she sensed that shift in my feelings about her soon after I broke the “I’m right, you’re wrong” cycle and began to use LEAP because she ended the call by saying, “Feel free to call me back if there’s anything I can do.”

Notice that when the argument began what I thought I needed was a fax. And when the nurse told me she couldn’t send it (which, incidentally, is not true–see, I still think I was right and she was wrong!), I got so angry I became fixated on making her send it to me. Not only would I never have been able to do that, but once I took a step back and cooled off I was able to see it wasn’t really the fax I needed at all–it was the information in my mother’s chart. Sure, I wanted the fax, but what I needed was to learn what was written on the missing pages. If I hadn’t been able to get my own anger under control, I’d never have been able to diffuse hers or create the relationship with her that ultimately allowed her to want to find a way to help me get what I needed. I needed information and what I ultimately realized was that it made no difference whether I received it via fax, letter, telephone, telegraph, or smoke signals. In the end, that nurse and I became partners with the common goal of finding a way to help my mother.

This particular exchange took place in a medical context. I’m a doctor, I was talking to a nurse, and we were arguing about my mother’s medical records. But the same kind of exchange might just as easily occur between you and a store clerk or an airline ticket agent. Maybe you want a cash refund for a sweater you received as a gift but you don’t have the receipt, so the clerk can only issue a store credit. Screaming that it’s a gift and the clerk is an idiot will not, I guarantee you, get you your money back. In fact, all you’ll get is elevated blood pressure and an entrenched adversary. But if you acknowledge that the clerk has to follow store policy, you will allow him to be right and open the door to his finding a way to get you what you need–because he will want to. Or maybe you need to convince the ticket agent not to bump you from an overbooked flight for which you are holding a confirmed reservation. Banging on the counter and letting her know about the meeting in Chicago that can’t possibly take place without you isn’t going to cut it. But commiserating with her dilemma and asking her what she would do in your place might just get her to find you a seat in business class.

Take the Temperature of the Argument

     When you’re seeing red, the fire in your eyes blinds you to everything else. In addition, your ears are probably ringing so you can’t even hear what the other person is saying. And the same, I assure you, is true for the person with whom you are arguing. Getting what you need, therefore, depends, first of all, on knowing when you or the other person is getting too angry or defensive.

You may not always be in the position to pick and choose just the right moment to argue. What you need to be aware of, then, is when the argument is getting too overheated so you can take a time-out, even if it’s only a few seconds, and give the person you’re arguing with time to do the same. 

A well-placed apology can give you and the person you’re arguing with time to stop and think about the direction things are going. 

In my conversation with the nurse it really didn’t take very long, once I saw the warning signs. When I caught myself pulling rank and found myself thinking, “What a bitch!” I literally stopped talking and took a deep breath. Then I quickly apologized, even though I wasn’t feeling apologetic about what I wanted. But, like the well-trained waiter who apologizes when a mistake has been made without blaming himself or anyone else, I was sorry that my request had devolved into a toxic argument.

Even if you are not yet feeling remorse for what you have just said, a well-placed apology–an expression of sorrow that an impasse has been reached can give you and the person you’re arguing with time to stop and think about the direction things are going. It is also a wav for you to help the other person save face–which usually eliminates his defensiveness. Sometimes, however, it can take a while longer for the other person to let go of his defenses and be ready to hear you, so part of what you need to be doing at all times is to monitor the temperature of the exchange, which will allow you to know when he’s no longer emotionally deaf, dumb, and blind and will be receptive to what you have to say.

Know When It’s Too Hot Not to Cool Down

     What if you got into your car, turned the key in the ignition, and saw the bright red temperature gauge light up on the dash–would you ignore the warning and drive off anyway? Would you proceed if you also saw steam snaking up from under the hood? What if the engine started to make loud knocking sounds? Would you still drive on?

Cars come equipped with thermostats that constantly monitor engine temperature, because when the motor gets too hot the engine will soon stop working and serious damage will be done. When the engine temperature light comes on–one of my brothers, who is a mechanic, calls it the idiot light because you would have to be an idiot to ignore it–you need to stop driving, turn off the car, and let the engine cool down. You do this for two reasons: to prevent further damage and to fix the problem. Fortunately, the emotional temperature of an argument can also be monitored, and for the same reasons. But there isn’t any idiot light for arguments, so you need to pay attention to the signals that let you know when you and/or the other person are overheating. You will know it’s time to cool off when: 


  • find yourself interrupting the other person;
  • don’t feel listened to or heard by the other;
  • engage in name-calling, either directly or by implication, letting the other person know you think he’s a liar, stubborn, a fool, a jerk, or all of the above:
  • bring up issues that have nothing to do with the argument of the moment (which I call kitchen-sinking it);
  • have the argument in front of other people (in public, in front of children, employees, and so on).

The other person

  • interrupts you;
  • says you’re not listening to him;
  • calls you names (as above). 

If you’re constantly interrupting one another, neither of you is really interested in listening to the other and you’re certainly not hearing what the other person has to say. What are you thinking and feeling when someone interrupts you? If you are like most people, you are still thinking about what you were about to say, not listening, and you’re probably getting irritated. You’re getting heated.

If someone tells you, “You’re not listening!” or “No, that’s not what I said!” he’s right and you’re wrong. Maybe not objectively, but that’s the experience he’s having, and that’s all you have to work withUntil you correct his misconception (if he was in fact wrong and you were listening) or do a better job of listening, he will hold a little grudge against you and not feel any obligation to listen any further to your arguments. How do you feel when you’re arguing with someone who you think is not listening to you?

If you’ve sunk so low that you’re calling the other person names, you’re communicating, whether you mean to or not, that you’re not remotely interested in hearing anything he might have to say (except, of course, that you’re right). And worse still, you have made the other person feel defensive, thereby eclipsing anything you say after the insult. 

If you’ve gotten to the point of reminding him of past petty indiscretions such as, “And last Tuesday you came to the meeting late …”–he will probably become even more defensive because he now feels he has to start defending himself on a whole new battlefront. Therefore, all you’ll have accomplished is to escalate the skirmish into an out-and-out war.

When arguments are public we become more focused on saving face and more sensitive to feeling humiliated. And when that happens we’re unlikely to get what we need.

And if you are having the argument in front of other people, you will both be more defensive than you would be if you were going at it one-on-one. When arguments are public we become more focused on saving face and more sensitive to feeling humiliated. You will also run the risk of being tempted to draw the witnesses into the argument, a tactic that almost never works to break an impasse. As soon as you pull in reinforcements (“Anne, you agree with me, don’t you,” “I sure do,’ Anne answers), your opponent will pull in his (“Oh yeah? Well, Gary, Ben, and Alex all agree with me!”). And arguing in front of children is often one of the most obvious and easily recognized warning signs that the argument has become too hot.

If one or more of these things is happening–if you or the other person is interrupting, feeling unheard, name-calling, kitchen-sinking, or arguing in front of other people–the idiot light is on, steam is escaping from under the hood, the engine is knocking loudly, and if you don’t stop soon the engine will seize up.

Collateral Damage

     When you wage war in a populated area (and, in the case of toxic arguments, that means in front of even one other person), innocent bystanders are likely to get hurt. This is true whether the impasse is between two members of a family, business partners, friends, or even two strangers. And when that happens, it complicates the argument and makes the impasse harder to break.

Among the most obvious examples of this is when parents argue in front of children. Melinda was arguing with Tim about whether he spent enough time at home. She felt he spent more time than he needed to at work and that, as a result, the family was being neglected. They were stuck at an impasse: Melinda argued that Tim didn’t need to work on the weekends, and Tim told her she was wrong and didn’t know what she was talking about. When I spoke with them, they told me their arguments seemed to get nowhere; they just went round and round. Instead of having a sober discussion aimed at identifying and satisfying their shared interests, the arguments became heated and they were stuck. Their last go-around had occurred in front of their six-year-old son, Dylan, who was sitting at the kitchen counter drawing and “not listening.” Suddenly, at the top of his lungs, Dylan yelled, “Da da, da da, ba ba mama, da da, ba ba, pow!

Stopping herself in mid-sentence, Melinda turned to her son and shouted, “Dylan! You’re not a baby. Stop talking baby talk.”

“Da da, da da, mama, pow-pow-pow!”

“All right, D, that’s enough. You heard your mother,” Tim said, trying to be helpful.

Eyebrows raised, Melinda jumped in. “Don’t bother, Tim. I deal with him all week and on weekends, so don’t suddenly try to act like you’re a parent!”

“Fine. I won’t I’ll be at the office,” Tim retorted, storming out.

In this instance Melinda didn’t heed the warning signs that things were getting too hot (kitchen-sinking and name-calling), and neither she nor Tim, in the moment, realized that arguing in front of their son was making matters worse. When I asked them about this later they both said that Dylan’s presence had amplified their reactions. Melinda felt angrier because she saw him playing alone and having to listen to his parents argue when she knew he missed his father and would rather have been playing with him. She blamed Tim for the argument, for being stubborn. Tim felt much more defensive with his son there. He felt he was answering his wife’s challenges while simultaneously trying to defend himself to his son. It felt more humiliating. Ironically, Dylan’s presence made them both feel less like partners than if they had been talking alone.

Ask yourself whether arguing in front of that person made you (or your adversary) feel angrier, defensive, or humiliated.

After him stormed out Melinda tried to talk to Dylan about what had happened, but he refused to listen, saving several times, “I don’t want to talk about it” and “You’re mean.” That night, after reading his son a bedtime story, Tim apologized to Dylan for having argued in front of him. Dylan’s response was to ask, Why do you make Mommy cry? Later, when Tim was getting into bed with his wife, he told her what Dylan had said and Melinda recounted her own failed attempt to talk with him about the argument. At that point they both realized that whenever either of them tried to talk to him, Dylan would take the other’s side. They understood they had put him in the middle, and neither of them wanted to do that–this was something they could agree on.

Think back on the last time you had a toxic overheated argument in front of a third party. Try to replay the argument while standing in the bystander’s shoes. If the bystander is a coworker, what did your argument do to his or her morale? Did this person feel he needed to choose sides? What price was paid? And ask yourself whether arguing in front of that person made you (or your adversary) feel angrier, defensive, or humiliated.

Wake Up Your Thinking Brain

     Despite the way it may sound, I am not asking you to instantly stop being angry or frustrated or to just “get over” whatever other emotion has been driving your behavior. Like Melinda and Tim, you’re human, not a robot, and you probably can’t just stop being angry by throwing a switch. That’s why I’m going to give you some tools for tipping the balance so that your thinking brain can retake control of your emotional brain. But whether or not you are immediately successful at using these strategies, whether or not you calm down, you can still change how you act in response to your emotions so you avoid the very common mistakes that cause people to throw fuel on the fire instead of dousing the flames. And, as you change your behavior by acting as if you were less angry, you’ll discover that your anger will usually diminish all on its own. 

Stop, Look, and Listen: When you’re angry, stop, look at the other person, and listen to see if he is angry, too. What you do next can either throw fuel on the fire and take you further from what you want, or it can lower both your temperatures so you are able to find common ground. 

At this point you might be thinking, “Okay, maybe I can control how I react to my own emotional state, but I have no control over the other person’s reactions.” In fact you do. And, perhaps most interesting of all, you’ll discover that as you act less angry and more interested in the other person’s point of view, her anger will also diminish. The effect is synergistic. So as much as you might want to push that other persons buttons–and you certainly will–what you need to do is bite your tongue, swallow those incendiary words, and get curious about her perspective.

Throw Water on the Fire

     Contrary to what you may be thinking, it’s not really so difficult to diffuse another person’s anger. Law enforcement officers who are specially trained members of Crisis Intervention Teams (CITs) do it all the time when they walk into an unknown situation and a perfect stranger is ranting and raving. In contrast to the majority of police officers, those who are CIT-trained are taught to put out their hands, palms up, and say, “Tell me what’s going on here.” That’s it. No “Calm down, buddy, no “Hands on your head,” just “Tell me what’s going on.” By saving that, what they’re actually conveying is, “I’m here to listen and I want to know your point of view.” That’s really what most people want; they want to know you’re listening to them and considering their point of view. And once they feel that you are, it’s very hard for them to feel angry or defensive.

Notice I didn’t say “agreeing with” their point of view; by considering it, however, you’re showing them respect–you are honoring it. Think about how you feel when you’re not being listened to or when you think your point of view is being insulted. If you’re like me, you get angry and stop listening.

Turn Down the Heat

     When your biological alarm system goes off, your nervous system goes on automatic. But if you can use your thinking brain long enough, you can shut down the feeling brain and regain control. You already have your own strategies for calming yourself down when you’re overheated. We all do. But I’m going to give you three more. Since I am a confessed acronym addict–acronyms help me to memorize things I want to remember–here is another one.

When you get sucked into an impasse and are angry, I want you to take a gamble on doing things differently and BET:

  • Breathe
  • Exit
  • Think

Breathe: When your amygdala takes control of your brain chemistry, your breathing is shallow and fast. As it turns out, however, simply taking deep, slow breaths and exhaling fully (you may have learned this in your birthing classes if you’ve had a baby) will activate the inhibitory circuits that return your neural chemistry to a calmer state, removing the tunnel vision and allowing you to see the bigger picture.

When you feel frustrated and locked into wanting your adversary to wave the white flag or he is accusing you of being wrong, remember to take deep, slow breaths from your abdomen and exhale fully. Take just three and you will find it helps. The other person won’t even know you are doing it because he too will be seeing red. Try it and see if you feel any different. What do you have to lose?

Exit: Next, you need to get out of the situation that has triggered your brain’s alarm system. You need to figuratively, and sometimes literally, walk away from the impasse. But like most things having to do with human relations, how you do this also makes a big difference. When Tim stormed out of the kitchen during his argument with Melinda, he made her angrier, not calmer. And because his exit followed immediately upon Melinda’s accusing him of being a bad parent, he stewed rather than cooled down.

Walking away figuratively rather than literally is usually easier, but you have to have enough presence of mind to pull it off. The example I gave of the waiter who apologized and took a new order is an example of what I am talking about. The potential impasse she avoided had started with her customer’s telling her she’d made a mistake. The server believed she was right, but rather than return the volley with, “No. I got the order right,” she took the nearest exit. She apologized and said, in effect, let’s fix this.

Sometimes, when we are too angry, we can’t think of the words that will lead to that exit, or, even if we do, the other person is not making it easy for us to leave the impasse. What then? Sometimes we simply have to literally walk away or hang up the phone. Of course, if you slam the door on your way out or slam down the receiver, you will only make things worse. What you need to do instead is give fair warning, or, better yet, if you are already breathing more slowly and have the presence of mind, ask permission by saying something like, “Would you mind if we finish this later?” Asking permission to finish the argument later is a powerful tool because you are giving the other person a moment of control. When you say something like, “if it’s okay with you, I would like to stop talking right now and finish this later because I want to calm down,” you are asking for a favor and admitting to being overheated and not at your best. This creates a connection between you and the person you are fighting with. At the very least, the person bestowing the favor will feel “one up”–gain the dignity that comes from being the one who bestows the favor which will reduce his anger and defensiveness. It is yet another way to help someone save face. 

Asking permission to finish the argument later is a powerful tool because you are giving the other person a moment of control.

Although I have found this strategy to be extremely effective, the other person might not yet be willing to do you a favor. If the response you get to your request is, “No, I want to finish this right now!” you might have to go a step further. First of all, don’t take the bait, because, in that moment, you will both be too angry to get anything accomplished. Remember, the whole point of this strategy is to place some distance between you and the trigger that’s firing up your feeling brain so you will be able to calm down and use the tools you are now acquiring to get what you need. What you should do, therefore, is apologize and end the conversation (if only for two minutes, as in, “I will call you right back”}.

If you’re arguing with someone you are close to, you can say, “I’m sorry, I have to calm down, but I promise I’ll finish this later.” By doing that, you are not blaming the other person; rather, you are letting him know you are the one who needs to calm down and you are asking his permission to come back to the issue later. If it is a stranger or business associate, such self-disclosure might be awkward, in which case you can make an excuse. If you’re on the phone you can say, “I am sorry, I have another call I have to take. Can I call you right back? If the impasse is face-to-face, simply say, There’s an important call I have to make. Can I come back in a moment and finish this?” And if that feels too dishonest, let me suggest that you do, indeed, have a very important call to make–you need to call upon your frontal lobes!

Just remember always to follow the excuse with an assurance that you will get right back to the person and finish the argument. 

Think: This is the easiest of the three BET tactics, and you may find that it’s the one you use first. To see how it works, picture yourself following a narrow path through the woods. Right in front of you is a towering brick wall you keep walking into like a mindless windup toy. Each time you take a few steps forward, you slam into the wall, bounce back, march forward, again hit the wall, bounce back, and start forward again. See it in your mind’s eye. What does this image say to you? It’s telling you that you are not making any headway and that, no matter how many times you try, you are powerless to move forward. When you see that simple truth, it will be far easier to breathe and exit the impasse. 

Winning is not about hearing the other person say, “You’re right.” It’s about getting him to agree to act in ways that get you what you really need, even when he doesn’t agree with you.

A final word. Don’t fret if, after reading this chapter, you still fall into the tunnel-vision trap. It’s a natural reflex. You can’t help it any more than I or anyone else. All you can do is get better at knowing when it happens–noticing when the warning light flashes so you can stop, take a short step back, and ask yourself, “What’s the big picture here? What is it I really need?” Do you want your kid to agree that vegetables are good for him or do you want him to eat his vegetables? Do you want the plumber to admit he installed your dishwasher wrong or do you want your dishwasher fixed? Do you want to make the sale or have your customer agree with you that the competition’s product is inferior? Do you want your boss to acknowledge you’re the most talented member of the team–not that this wouldn’t be nice–or do you want a raise and more vacation time? I think you get the point.

What you ought to be doing instead of focusing myopically on your rightness is to stop hitting your head against the brick wall like some mindless windup toy or primitive reptile, step back, and identify your real goal. Winning is not about hearing the other person say, “You’re right.” It’s about getting him to agree to act in ways that get you what you really need, even when he doesn’t agree with you. In those terms, it becomes clear that whether he ever agrees with you is totally immaterial. In fact, getting stuck on hearing “You’re right is one of the surest ways there is to turn an argument into a toxic power struggle that results in a broken relationship and no one’s winning anything.

Remember the Reason You’re Doing This

     I’m not a saint, and I don’t expect you to be one either. I was really angry when I was talking to that nurse, but I was also aware that I needed something from her–something that was important to me. And because I needed something, I needed to create a positive working relationship with her, at least for the length of that phone call. What I did was totally pragmatic. I didn’t think to myself, “Xavier, stop being angry.” What I did was take a couple of deep breaths and think, “Xavier, wait a minute, you need something from this woman and if you keep this up, you’re never going to get it.”

If I hadn’t needed anything, I may have given in to my basest instincts and at least had the momentary satisfaction of cursing her out and hanging up on her–which is more or less exactly what I did when someone stole my parking space a few weeks ago. I’d pulled up to the car in front of the space and was backing in when a guy in a much smaller car snuck up behind me and moved into my space going forward. I got out of my car, motioned for him to roll down his window so we could talk–which he refused to do–and proceeded to shout so he could hear, “Hey, that was my spot! I was here first.” At that point, the other guy made a classic rude gesture, which I returned, along with a few well-chosen insults. In that situation I took the bait and responded in kind. I suppose not much was lost in that interaction because I probably wasn’t going to get my space back no matter what I said. But I do think I missed an opportunity to try, even though the odds were against me. I know for sure I lost the next fifteen minutes or so consumed in anger.

The point here is that LEAP isn’t something you’re going to be engaging in just because you can or because you want to be considered for sainthood. It’s a method you’ll be using because you’ve got your eve on the prize, so to speak, and this is a way for you to get what you need. And what you need may be more than a concession from the person on the other side of the argument. It may also be feeling good about yourself and being able to let go of a disagreement you just had with someone. If you can keep that in mind, it might just help you to BET on your ability to act more like the great persuader and less like the Hulk. [57-73]

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