What Olympians Bradley Wiggins and Victoria Pendleton can teach us about staying cool under pressure

People often start mediation feeling angry and upset making it harder to communicate and feel understood. In part 1 of this blog, we explain how to copy Olympians and remain calm in the face of conflict.

Are you ruled by your head or your heart? The question usually means do you make decisions based on your emotions and ‘gut instinct’, or do you make decisions based on logic and facts? Modern neuroscientists explain that the brain is made up of several different parts that all have a different function. For the purposes of preparing for a mediation meeting, two parts of the brain are likely to be most important – the ‘emotional’ brain and the ‘rational’ brain.

The emotional part of our brain is responsible for feelings like joy and happiness to anger and sadness. People use it when they talk about their gut instinct. It is also the part of our brain that reacts to danger and switches on our flight or fight reflex, acting very quickly and impulsively.

While our gut instinct can help in decision making and alerting us to danger, its solutions are not always thought through. It is the emotional brain that makes us uncontrollably angry when our ex has brought the kids back late again, or made false accusations, or posted that mean comment on Facebook.

By contrast, the rational part of our brain is the one that tends to come into action after the emotional part of the brain has responded. It is calmer and makes decisions based on facts and logic. It looks for solutions and options to move forwards, learning from past mistakes and failures. So this is the part of the brain that stops you from sending that aggressive text as a knee jerk response or yelling at your ex in front of the children.

The problem is that these two parts of the brain don’t work well together. If the emotional part of the brain is in high alert, the rational brain often won’t be heard. We all know what it’s like when things go wrong, and our emotions run away with us – before we know it we’ve made a mountain out of a molehill! That’s because, at that time, all we can hear is the emotional part of our brain reacting, there is no room for reasoning or logic. In addition, when the emotional part of the brain is working, it can cause us to make mistakes or interpret situations in a fixed way. We jump to conclusions, we focus on the negatives, we see the situation in extremes, we get stuck in old patterns of behaviour and we gather evidence to prove to ourselves that our thinking is right. None of this is helpful to reaching resolution and moving forwards.

This is why mediation is often hard. People come into the room with the emotional part of their brain on overdrive. They are upset, hurt, angry and frustrated – and understandably so. However, if they can’t find a way of calming the emotional part of their brains, then mediation stands little chance of success because they will be unable to engage the rational part of their brains.

Even worse, when someone is responding with the emotional part of their brain, be it by shouting or swearing or sobbing uncontrollably, it almost always leads to the other person responding with the emotional part of their brains. When that happens neither have much chance of hearing or understanding or finding a solution.

Dr. Steve Peters writes about this in his fabulous book, The Chimp Paradox. Steve Peters is a psychiatrist who specialises in optimising the functioning of the mind and worked with the British cycling team during the London Olympics. 

Dr Peters refers to our emotional brain as “the chimp”, and our rational brain as “the human”. He also describes a third part of the brain as “the computer” - this is where our chimp and human store their experiences and it provides the hard-wiring or patterns created in our brain.

Dr. Peters explains how the chimp is an unreliable part of the brain and needs to be managed in order to provide the human with space to think and react.

He suggests three ways of managing your chimp:

  1. EXERCISE IT: First you must exercise the chimp, in a safe place, with a trusted friend. By that he means let the chimp rant and rage, but choose a friend carefully. It needs to be someone who will listen but not fuel the chimp’s anger.                                                                                      
  2. BOX IT: Next you must box – or reason with the chimp. So once s/he is a bit calmer, you can begin your plan of action. Look at the situation from other points of view gather evidence and be creative in looking for solutions.                                                                                                              
  3. FEED BANANAS: Another way to manage your chimp is to metaphorically give it bananas! This either means rewarding it if it behaves, i.e. tell yourself you won’t raise your voice next time you see your ex, then reward yourself with a tasty brownie or new book. Or it can mean distracting the chimp. So if you find your mindset is on the same old loop about how terrible and unreasonable your ex is, instead of entertaining this thought, do something different. Meet a friend for a drink or go for a run or go and see a film. You will probably feel better afterwards.

How you decide to manage your chimp is up to you, but if you come into mediation with the chimp in charge, you are unlikely to be heard, be understood or for anything to move forwards.

Heed the words of Aristotle: “Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.”

To read more about by The Chimp Paradox Dr. Steve Peters, click here.

And here is a fascinating video that summarises the content.


Stay tuned for part 2 of this blog next week!



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