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How to handle an argument? – Stare at the reptile in the mirror…

Have you ever reflected on a heated argument and wondered why you acted as you did or why the other person said what they said?  Why was I so mean?  Why were they so rude?  Why aren’t we better than that? – We’re not.

We’re reptiles…or at least the base of our brain is.  The reptilian brain handles several functions instinctual functions including the “fight or flight” response.  When confronted with a threat, your heart rate increases, your pupils dilate, your senses are on high-alert.  The sirens are ringing in your brain as you prepare for the situation at hand.  Once that happens, the logical, rational part of your brain takes a nap.  It doesn’t think it’s needed when you’re going to play Superman for a few minutes.

Unfortunately, verbal arguments or physical altercations could use a bit of that human brain.  The next time you see something like this happening with someone else, approach it like a good play by play announcer as you dissect the animal behavior on display.  Now for the hard part, try the same approach when you’re in an argument by analyzing the situation in your head.

This is a tough habit to develop, but can lead to a lot less anxiety, grief, and apologies.  When you find yourself in this situation, take a moment to step outside yourself and your automatic animal reactions.  Take a deep breath.  Then take another…and another.  This will slow down your heart rate, return your focus, and might just trigger your brain to look at the big picture.  Whatever the argument is about probably isn’t that important in the long run.  If it is, it will probably be better solved by two rational people discussing it once you’ve calmed down.

Here’s a little meditation drill I use when I know I’m going to deal with someone difficult.  It may seem a bit hokey, but it will give you a little extra confidence and lead you to value yourself before a situation when someone may try to make you feel less valuable.

  1. Take a breath & be aware of your thoughts.
  2. Sense your body’s vitality. Notice the strength of your breathing, your muscles ability to move in any direction, the animal strength in your body.
  3. Recall a time when you felt really strong. Visualize it as intensely as you can in your arms, legs, and body. Sense that you are strong, clear, and determined. Let strength sink into your being.
  4. Remember a person that supports you. Visualize their support, value, & belief in you. Let it sink in.
  5. If anything else arises, like weakness, acknowledge it and move on back to feeling strong.
  6. Think about a challenging situation. Let it be as you continue to feel strong. Be spacious, relaxed, and easy. Feel the strength in your breathing, awareness, in the clarity of your mind, in your good intentions, and your whole body.
  7. Continue through the day paying attention to feeling strong. Let it sink in and notice how good it feels.

Remember that you don’t have to agree with everyone about everything.  If you’re not making progress during a confrontation, agree to disagree and disengage.  If you have an issue that needs to be resolved, regroup and replan a strategy for achieving a successful outcome.  This approach will be more effective than building up ill will that will be difficult to overcome in future discussions.

Finally, one technique I’m now using to recognize these situations and trigger my brain to notice them is to imagine the other person you’re arguing with has a reptile head.  Yes, a reptile head.  It works.  You begin to associate these situations with the reptile in all of us. It helps you remember that you and the other person are not really being human during these confrontations.  You’re being a reptile and no one wants to work with, love, or hang out with a reptile…except maybe Steve Irwin.

Reptile Head
Reptile Head

For more information on this and other brain topics, check out Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom.  If you like learning about the brain or Buddha, you’ll learn a lot.