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A few weeks ago, when I was in the middle of my own personal crisis, I had a coaching session with a client. During the session, the client checked in with three issues; a problem they were having with a co-worker, an issue in their marriage, and a family health issue. An hour wasn’t going to be enough time to process all three issues.

When in crisis, humans join our animal cousins, and we enter fight or flight mode. When in fight or flight mode, our thought process is significantly altered. The amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure in the brain, is responsible for processing emotions, especially fear. When the amygdala senses danger, it sends a signal to the hypothalamus, which triggers the release of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones cause a number of physiological changes, including:

  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Faster breathing
  • Sweating
  • Muscle tension
  • Tunnel vision
  • Tunnel hearing

These changes are all designed to help the person either fight or flee the perceived danger. However, they also have a significant impact on the person’s thought process.

In fight or flight mode, the brain’s “thinking” part, the prefrontal cortex, is largely shut down. This is because the prefrontal cortex is responsible for complex cognitive tasks, such as planning, decision-making, and problem-solving. When the prefrontal cortex is shut down, these tasks become much more difficult. Instead, the brain’s “survival” part, the amygdala, takes over. The amygdala is responsible for more basic, instinctual responses, such as fight or flight. In this state, the person’s thoughts become more focused on the present moment and on the perceived danger. They may have difficulty thinking clearly or making rational decisions. When in crisis, impaired cognitive decision-making skills will only compound the crisis. As a coach, it’s my job to help a person think clearly, and make logical decisions to dig themselves out of a hole successfully.

Back to my client, when they described their issues, I started asking questions.

  1. I asked the client to take out a sheet of paper and to write the three issues down as rows.
  2. I then asked the client to rate and write down the critical nature of the issue to the right of each issue. I explained I was asking which issue would have the most negative impact on their life if it was not resolved from 1 through 10, 10 being the most critical.
  3. And then asked them to write down to the right of that number the amount of control they had over each issue, 1 through 10, 10 being the most control.

The list looked like this.

Then I asked them to look at the list and tell me where they thought we should concentrate our time. I’m sure you can guess what they decided. The client felt relieved and unburdened. We were able to make a plan.

Two days later, while driving in my car, I took a call from a friend. The friend was distraught. His wife had moved out and was filing for divorce; his father was deathly ill, and he just lost his job. He was thrashing.

Thrashing? For those of you who don’t remember a time when computers had a limited ability to address over 256K of Random Access Memory (RAM) and 10 megabytes of Disk storage cost $5K and was as large as a small file cabinet, you may not know the computer term, referred to as thrashing. With limited RAM, computers would have to move chunks of memory between RAM, and often there would become a time when the system was working too many jobs; it would spend the majority of its time moving memory between disk and ram, leaving no time for processing logic. This was called Thrashing.

Anyway, guess what I asked him to do? You guessed it, create a list and rate the list by criticality and control. When he was done, it looked like this.

After a 15-minute conversation, this friend calmed down, stopped thrashing, and can you guess where he decided to dedicate a large majority of his time?

Here’s what happened and why this worked. Humans make decisions with the same part of our brains that we share with reptiles. This “reptilian brain” has no capacity for abstract thinking and, when in a fight or flight mode, tends to override the cognitive powers of the neocortex, our more evolved part of the brain. The neocortex is six layers thick and is only present in mammals. When humans, and I assume most of you reading this are likely to be humans, are under stress, our ability to focus and make decisions reverts back to our relatives in the animal kingdom. We think less; clearly, we narrow our focus, and we fail to see the obvious around us.

Also, humans have difficulty making decisions based on abstractions. How are you feeling is an abstract question. How are you feeling from 1 to 10, where 1 equals horrible, and 10 equals terrific, is less abstract? That’s why doctors don’t ask you how much does it hurt? They ask how much it hurts on a scale of 1 to 10.

By writing down the issues and ranking them based on certain criteria, the fuzzy abstractions become more concretely clear. Try it. it works, or alternatively, try a complimentary coaching session and get the kind of feedback that benefitted these two humans. You can schedule a call here.

Want to improve your odds of success as a leader? Want to get more than you thought possible out of your team? You can check out my new book, Intentional Leadership, available on Amazon, in Hardcover, Kindle, or Paperback by linking here.