When Your Hair Is On Fire…

According to Stephen Covey, one of the seven habits of highly effective people is that they, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  It sounds so simple. Something you could embroider on a pillow. Or, make into a poster.

Simple does not mean easy. When someone says something that sets your hair on fire, the temptation is to go tit for tat, tooth for tooth, measure for measure. We go round and round, getting nowhere other than into frustration, anger, polarization or separation.

The way to dampen if not put out a fire is by listening to understand. Why do so few of us do this?

Because it’s hard, it takes time, and it takes a big, open-hearted willingness to stay present and suspend judgment, at least for a while.

When our “hair is on fire” it usually means we have less access to the executive functions in the prefrontal cortex, including the ability to manage our primitive impulses. Driven by the more primitive parts of the brain, we are more likely to say something we will regret. Even as the words pour out of ours mouths someplace inside knows we are going to pay for or regret what we are saying.

What sets your hair on fire in meetings? A position that is so anathema that your heart pounds in your ears and you are either shocked into speechlessness or triggered into attack mode? A question or comment that conflicts with your perception of who this person is or their right to say what they have said (how dare you speak to me this way)? A point of view that challenges your values or beliefs about the world?

If you are able to pause before speaking (the hard part), here are some moves you can choose to make to increase the likelihood that you will respond to the apparently incendiary comments in a constructive way.

  1. Ask yourself, what is evoking my anger; what am I afraid of? Being wrong? Losing face? Feeling incompetent? Losing a relationship?
  2. Clarify the purpose of the conversation and your intention. Do I want or need to convince these people or this person of anything or do I simply want to understand their point of view and how they came to it? In other words, in this moment, what is more important? Being right or building/maintaining a relationship?
  3. Restate what you are hearing and check if your understanding is accurate. Ask how they came to see things as they do.
  4. Once they are satisfied you understand their perspective, ask if they are willing to hear yours. (“I’d like you to understand my point of view. Are you willing to listen to me too?”)
  5. Remember that understanding does not equal agreeing.

Any of these actions are likely to make the conversation more productive and are also better for your health. When we are angry, the hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released into the bloodstream. These can trigger an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and sugar metabolism. Thus, we increase our risk for heart attack, strokes, and increased eating. For more on the relationship between anger and your health check “Anger Kills” by Redford Williams and Virginia Williams.

Mary’s book “Talk Matters! Saving the World One Word at a Time” is now available.  Click here to purchase it.

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