Last Updated Aug 12, 2011 9:09 AM EDT
Well, there is such a technique. And it's one of the easiest to use (that's where the four words come in)--yet, also one of the hardest.
Several years ago, one of my Master of Medical Management students, a doctor, called me to get advice on some tricky politics at work, involving other doctors, nurses, administrators, all doing the equivalent of the Jerry Springer show-yelling at each other. Every leadership and negotiation tactic he tried failed, making the situation more volatile and intractable.
I suggested that he write four words in all caps on a post-it note, then put it somewhere where he will see it and others wouldn't, such as on a computer monitor.
The four words are: "Shut the f-up."
Then, when in doubt, look at the post-it note and do what it says.
Flash forward several months. He and the other members of his class were in a large lecture hall at USC, along with some incoming Master of Medical Management students, and graduates who had come back for an alumni reunion. During a presentation, I asked if anyone had any updates that might be useful to others in the room. This same doctor raised his hand, and proceeded to detail, profanity included, what had happened.
He added: "those four words changed my life."
I don't remember the next couple of seconds, but the doctors there said I turned so red I looked like a hemorrhoid (I'm not known for using profanity in classes). I'm happy to say I don't know what that image looks like, but I can only imagine my head swelled and I became red bordering on purple. But I stand behind those words, profanity included, with apologies to my mother.
The next thing I remember is people all around the room-close to 100-grabbing sheets of paper and copying those words down. Several said it was the most important lesson they learned in any education program. And remember-these were medical doctors pursuing a masters degree.
Why does this work? Because it interrupts something called an "amygdala loop," in which one person loses their cool and goes into flight-or-fight mode. Being linguistic creatures, we don't throw things (hopefully), instead, we lob insults and arguments, stop listening, stop making sense of things, and are thoroughly convinced that we are right and the other is wrong. This behavior triggers the other person's amygdala, and the conflict spirals.
What's happening in Washington? People yelling at each other without listening or critiquing their own point of view. That's amygdala loops.
What's happening when people at work form silos? They convince themselves that they are right, others are wrong, and the amygdala loop sets in. "Leaders" find followers who agree-generally jockeying for position themselves-and we find corporations where mediocrity runs the show.
How do you exit this cycle? You write those four simple words, changing the bad word to "heck" if you like, and follow them precisely.
There are two needle-moving additions to this advice. The first is, learn to spot your "amygdala early warning system." This is a sensation somewhere in your body that your higher reasoning functions are about to shut down, and that whatever is about to come out of your mouth will be dripping in self-righteousness. An economist friend said one of his arms begins to feel hot, and that if doesn't intervene, he's about to end relationships and feed his reputation as a jerk. One of my psychiatrist friends reports a tightness in her chest (not related to anything with her heart). Mine is a spot on my head, about the size of quarter, that feels as though the hairs in that spot are standing straight up. When I feel that, I have about half a second before I become what my colleagues call "evil Dave."
When you feel your version of this sensation, remember the post-it note, and do what it says. Doing so will make you a better leader, negotiator, friend, and all around good person.
The second is to send this blog post to your elected official in Washington. Interrupting the amygdala loop is how we get to Thomas Friedman's grand resolution to stop NationSuck.
Have the guts to try this technique? If so, I hope you'll tell us about what happens in a comment below.
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Photo courtesy Ed Yourdon