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Four Aspects of Managing Your Fight-or-Flight Response

Your body’s fight-or-flight reactions serve as a good guide to your true perceptions of a confrontation’s level of safety or danger. Learning to check and manage your physical reactions is essential to both your effectiveness and your professionalism. If you can keep yourself in neutral, respectful gear — confronting, but not attacking — both the positions you take and the comments you make at the negotiating table will be more compelling.

Most of our nonverbal cues — our body language, gestures, and expressions — happen outside of our full consciousness. You create a new opportunity for self-management by tuning in to them and learning about your own responses to a situation as well as other people’s.

Show and “Tells”

Just as in a game of poker, we all have certain “tells” in which our bodies give us away. Our fear, anger, self-consciousness, and nervousness often bleed through our attempts to control these feelings. Here is a list of physical manifestations to be aware of; take note of what they might signify to you as well as your trusted colleagues and fierce opponents:

Breath and Voice

When we’re on the defensive or running scared, we tend to breathe shallowly and squeeze our voices tighter and into a higher register, sounding more anxious and less assured.

Face and Body

Anger, fear, surprise, and disdain all trigger physical reactions. These emotions can make you feel hot or cold. You might notice your heart or pulse racing or hear the blood pounding in your head or ears. A sense of tightness in your chest could be anger trying to make its way out; stomach pain or nausea is more likely to be fear or anxiety.

The Eyes Have It

Widening eyes could signify fear or disbelief; rolling eyes or eyes turned up usually indicate impatience or frustration of some kind, although sometimes they demonstrate a kind of outright disgust. Squinting, particularly when accompanied by a wrinkled nose can be a combo of disbelief or mistrust with a bit of disdain sprinkled in, almost as if something smells a little off. Are you conscious of your eye movements or noticing them in others?

Movement and Position

If you’re shaking your head, swinging your leg, or tapping your foot, pen, or fingers, you could be experiencing either boredom and frustration or the surges of nervous energy that are often a precursor to flight. On the other hand, crossed arms and legs, hunched shoulders, clenched hands, or either pushing away from the table or pulling up very close could all be demonstrations of anger held in check.

A Whole-Body Response

Whatever you’re feeling, and whether or not you can interpret your own physical cues, keep in mind that others may be able to read you — and sometimes faster or more accurately than you can. Once you’re aware of your physical reactions and what they mean, you can use your body to release or contain your emotions until you’re ready to deal with them verbally.

Try to keep your breathing even and your voice at its normal pitch, or even a bit lower if it’s possible, as a way of demonstrating that you’re in charge of yourself — and, therefore, the situation. Focusing on taking full breaths also helps ensure that you don’t interrupt your opponent or jump in with a hasty answer before you’re really ready with a smart, well-considered response.

If your chest feels constricted and you find it hard to swallow, try to open up your chest by rolling your shoulders back, and breathe deeply to help yourself relax. Lower your shoulders away from your ears and hold your full height, whether you’re standing or sitting. Soften your gaze, if you find yourself staring, and unclench your jaw and forehead.

If you can, be sure you’re breathing in through your nose. Nodding thoughtfully — slowly — can give you a few extra moments to decide what you want to say. Pressing your feet against the floor and your hands against either the desktop or your thighs can be grounding as well as helpful in maintaining your upright posture.

Once you’re back in control of your body, remember that you can always call for a break if you need more time or space to calm yourself. If you get up, or turn to go, make your movements deliberate. Remind your body — and the rest of the room — who’s in charge of you!

Onward and upward,

LK

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