top of page

Anxious Brain, Curious Brain

Yesterday, I visited 30 undergraduate students at Northern Colorado University and we talked about conflict frames in dialogue and negotiation. This is the idea that who we are, how we understand and value the world around us, and how we view others (among other things) can create conflict.

How I handle conflict, and the associated stories I have about difficult conversations, was one of the early challenges I worked on with my first coach. When I'm in the middle of intense conflict (as a player and participant, not a facilitator), my cognitive conscious mind is literally hijacked by a literal wave of anxiety and fear. I am unable to participate effectively, and the only options available to me in that moment are to freeze or to run away.

Our brains have two settings: anxious brain and curious brain. When your anxious brain is in charge, all you can do is figure out whether that person (or thing) in front of you is going to eat you. This threat assessment happens in a nanosecond, and is almost always totally invisible to us in the moment.

To engage in challenging conversations and have effective and hard conversations, your curious brain needs to be in charge. This transition is really challenging. It requires some deep self-reflection, practice, and courage.

How did I begin to be more effective in conflict (and believe me, this is a journey to mastery and I am still but an experienced beginner!)? The underlying issue was somatic: my response to conflict was hardwired in my body based on past experience, and I needed to develop new habits so that I could show up differently. My coach helped me find a body posture and breath that I could turn to before I got hijacked by my lizard brain. I started practicing when the stakes were low, and it made a significant difference in my effectiveness when the stakes were high. I had to tell the lizard sitting on my shoulder telling me to run away to save it for when something really wanted to eat me.

This is the power of understanding who were are and how we show up as fully functioning humans. We are our minds, our bodies, and our emotions, and they cannot be separated. Ontological coaching offers us the opportunity to expand who we are and the frames through which we view the world.

If you are interested in exploring these ideas more, I hope you'll join me for an upcoming virtual conversation about leadership and coaching in our personal and professional lives. The kickoff will be Tuesday, February 26 from 1:00 - 2:00 pm MT. Click here for more information.

You can also schedule a one-on-one introductory session with me anytime (it's free!). Send me an email (deb<at> or schedule a session directly. Not sure you're ready for coaching? Take this brief questionnaire and see what you think.

(The anxious brain / curious brain concept is one I got from a great book, Facilitating Learning with the Adult Brain in Mind by Kathleen Taylor and Catherine Marienau (2016).)

209 views0 comments


bottom of page