Do some tense circumstances bring out the worst in you?

If a colleague irritates you with a harsh e-mail message, do you shoot back with a fiery message that you later regret?

When confronted with a command to deliver a speech at short notice, do you cringe with fear and try everything to get out of it?

Responses can ruin relationships

These are typical responses that happen to many of us daily. Our reactions often determine the health of future relationships, our reputation and the results we achieve.

By snapping back at someone without “engaging your brain”, a healthy relationship can be destroyed and with it, future co-operation.

Avoiding the limelight when asked to showcase your public speaking skills will impede your growth and prospects for advancement.

So how can you suppress your emotions during times of tension?

How can you accept requests to speak in public, with confidence, especially at short notice?

The answer lies in the depths of your brain.

Brain anatomy influences reactions

Let’s take a look at how your brain anatomy influences stress-related reactions. Understanding this can help improve your self-control when placed on the spot.

The outer segment of your brain, the neo-cortex, performs logical functions such as planning and decision-making.

However, exposure to situations like conflict or fear can short-circuit the neo-cortex.

This happens when a small gland located deep in the inner limbic system (the emotional component of the brain) hijacks and overrides the neo-cortex.

Known as the amygdala, this small almond-shaped gland triggers sudden fight (aggression), flight (fear) or freeze (panic) reactions.

If not controlled, these negative reactions can induce damaging responses that harm relationships with others.

Clearly, an ability to communicate positively and professionally during times of duress is a valuable skill.

But very often, your amygdala prevents you from getting there.

What if you could delay or limit the impact of your amygdala so that your neo-cortex can function in its usual fashion?

There are two routes:

* Take time to think before you respond, especially in the heat of the moment. Take a step back and formulate your response calmly. If replying by e-mail, avoid hitting the keyboard with a “machine gun” answer. Try sleeping on your response overnight.

* Neutralise your amygdala by removing the fear source. Take public speaking: It’s ideal fodder for your amygdala. It’s the lack of knowledge and uncertainty that induces fear. Once you gain more speaking confidence through knowledge and competency, your fear will diminish.

Developing speaking ability takes time and effort

While there are many theories on effective public speaking, brain anatomy provides a simple solution.

The left side of your brain provides analytical and structured thinking, and the right side creativity.

When faced with a sudden demand to speak in public, the brain hemispheres no longer work in tandem, thanks to amygdala interference.

The result is that, as the brain’s owner, you are left blank.

By restoring its logical function, proper brain co-ordination can resume.

Deriving a structured framework on which to base a speech is one such technique.

This satisfies the needs of the left brain, and liberates the right side to release creative ideas, which can be incorporated into the selected speech “frame”.

A common structure often used by experienced speakers is “The Rule of Three”, in which a particular frame theme is applied comprising three elements.

For example, it can be time (past, present or future) or place (three geographic areas or locations).

When suddenly asked to pay tribute to someone at a function, instead of panicking, you could use the time approach, sharing his past and present achievements. Then round off with some ideas as to where he might be in the future.

Alternatively, consider the person's time spent in different parts of the world or in different jobs.

Proficiency in professional communication takes time

If you want to become proficient and more creative in communication, you will need the 3Cs: commitment, courage and creativity.

Accept opportunities to speak whenever possible. Attend public speaking workshops and join a speaking association such as your local toastmasters club.

This offers the ideal forum to learn in a friendly supportive environment and so gain the confidence needed to circumvent the amygdala hijack.