Overcoming Your Lizard Brain When Hanging From Your Fingertips

May 19, 2022

Imagine you’re suspended 60 feet in the air, pure adrenaline pumping as you attempt to finish a lead climb on the side of a mountain. You’re meant to “clean” your gear at the top to be able to lower yourself, but it’s a multi-step process, and you’re racking your brain on the order of the steps you’ve just learned. 

Can you feel it? That adrenaline coursing and anxiety kicking in is a natural response. It indicates when you’re operating from the lizard brain, the region associated with primitive and instinctual thoughts and behavior. So, what does the lizard brain have to do with communication? A lot, actually. 

When the lizard brain grabs hold, it diminishes your ability to perform complicated tasks. Despite the fact that, in the past few years, more and more communicators in the water industry have come to understand how the lizard brain impacts our work and how we must overcome the effect it has on our audiences, there’s still a disconnect. For instance, how often do we as communicators talk about how the lizard brain affects us and our work? The answer is not often enough.

During a recent climbing trip to the Red River Gorge, KY, I received a crash course in the lizard brain’s effects and my own diminished rational capabilities — an experience that reminded me how crucial practice is to performance. 

My best friend was that person suspended at 60 feet. We had been gym climbers for several years and had just made the transition to outdoor climbing, hiring a guide to teach us how to do a more advanced form called lead climbing. After our lesson, my friend ascended without problem, but fumbled at the top when he tried to clean the gear. His adrenaline was high and rational thought was difficult, so he relied on our guide below to talk him through the process.

When it was my turn, my friend had me practice the cleaning steps before even putting a hand on the wall. That brief moment of repetition paid dividends. I’ll readily admit the climb was terrifying, but, because I had practiced moments before, I managed to clean the gear at the top nearly flawlessly, despite my pulse pounding in my ears and my palms sweating.

Trust me. You don’t want to be that person caught suspended mid-air without a plan. So, before you go in front of a crowd or call a resident who made a complaint, think through what you want to say and how to say it. Consider the worst case scenario, so that, even if it does happen, you aren’t fumbling when your lizard brain kicks in. Likewise, help a colleague practice before they metaphorically set foot on the climbing wall. Run through highly emotional conversations with customer service personnel so they know how to respond. 

Consider how you as the communicator need to overcome your own lizard brain reactions before you can make your own ascent or help others with theirs.

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