Neuroscience Stress Management

Taming Your Inner Elephant: Calming Heated Conversations with Neuroscience

calmin your inner elephant

If you are like me, and like most of us, you might find yourself in heated conversations from time to time. For me, those rather happen with close ones, and I am trying to find ways to not let myself be triggered by little things. And, I guess you already know that calming your inner elephant is not as easy as we would want it. It takes work and conscious effort to be able to do that “on the spot”.

In the heat of a fervent discussion, emotions can often get the best of us, turning our rational minds into a whirlwind of reactions. This primal response, often referred to as the “elephant” or old brain (as I describe it in more detail in this article: Introduction in the Neuroscience of Stress: The Rider and Elephant Metaphor), is rooted deep within our evolutionary history and can sometimes lead us astray. However, understanding a bit of neuroscience can provide valuable insights into how we can regain control and steer conversations toward a calmer, more constructive direction.

And, just between me and you: it might sound easy, but it’s not. Our elephant is very strong, and it takes a lot of focus, practice and energy to be able to calm it. Out of the ideas I’ll share below, pick one or two that sound “doable” to you, and try implementing them the next time you are part of a heated conversation.

And… take your time, be kind to yourself and just focus on doing a little bit better every time to try.

Here are the ideas I am trying to apply these days:

1. Recognize the Elephant’s Roar: The first step in calming your inner elephant is recognizing its presence. The old brain triggers our “fight or flight” response, causing us to react impulsively rather than thoughtfully. Once you sense your emotions escalating, take a moment to acknowledge that your inner elephant is on the move.

2. Engage the Wise Rider (New Brain): Our evolved, rational brain – often referred to as the wise “rider” – can exert control over the impulsive elephant. When you feel the emotional storm brewing, consciously engage your new brain by taking deep breaths. Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation and counters the fight-or-flight response.

3. Practice Empathy and Active Listening: Empathy and active listening can be powerful tools in calming your inner elephant and taming the heated discussion. By focusing on understanding the other person’s perspective, you divert attention from your emotional elephant to your rational rider. Repeat or rephrase their points to ensure you’re comprehending their viewpoint accurately, which can diffuse tension and promote a more constructive exchange.

4. Utilize “Time Out” Strategies: Taking a brief pause in the midst of a heated discussion allows your emotions to settle, giving your wise rider time to regain control. Count to ten, excuse yourself for a restroom break, or simply take a sip of water. This short break can provide a valuable buffer between the heat of the moment and your response.

5. Harness the Power of Mindfulness: Practicing mindfulness trains your brain to stay present, reducing the chance of your emotional elephant running wild. Bring your attention to your breath or the sensations in your body. By grounding yourself in the present moment, you can better manage your emotional reactions and respond thoughtfully.

6. Choose Your Words Wisely: Our language can either provoke or pacify a heated conversation. Instead of using accusatory or inflammatory language, opt for phrases that express your perspective without arousing defensiveness. For instance, replace “You’re wrong” with “I see it differently because…”

7. Visualization: Picture a serene scene or a place where you feel relaxed and calm. Imagining yourself in this peaceful setting can help counteract the heightened emotions and bring you back to a more composed state of mind.

8. Focus on Body Language: Become aware of your body language and that of the person you’re conversing with. Maintain an open posture, make eye contact, and avoid defensive gestures. Positive body language can help create an atmosphere of respect and receptiveness, contributing to a more harmonious discussion.

9. Use Humor: Humor can be a powerful tool to diffuse tension. Lightening the mood with a well-timed joke or a playful comment can ease the emotional intensity and allow for a more lighthearted exchange.

10. Reframe the Conversation: If the conversation is becoming overly confrontational, try shifting the focus to a common goal or shared interest. This can redirect the energy towards finding solutions or common ground rather than dwelling on differences.

11. Incorporate Positive Affirmations: Silently repeat positive affirmations to yourself, such as “I am in control of my emotions” or “I can handle this situation calmly.” Affirmations can help rewire your brain to respond more calmly to stressful situations.

12. Redirect the Conversation Temporarily: Gently steer the conversation to a neutral topic for a brief moment. This can provide a mental break and a chance for emotions to cool down before circling back to the main issue.

13. Practice Active Self-Reflection: In the midst of a heated conversation, take a moment to reflect on your emotions and triggers. Ask yourself why certain topics or statements provoke strong reactions and how you can address these triggers constructively.

14. Embrace Silence: Don’t be afraid of brief periods of silence. Pausing allows you and the other person to gather your thoughts and reflect on what has been said. It can prevent impulsive responses and encourage more thoughtful communication.

15. Set Boundaries: If the conversation becomes overly intense, it’s okay to set boundaries. Politely express that you’d like to continue the conversation later when emotions are less heightened. This can prevent the situation from escalating further.

In practical terms, imagine a scenario where you’re discussing a contentious topic with a colleague. As emotions start to flare, take a deep breath and remind yourself that your emotional elephant is charging in. Engage your rational rider by listening attentively to your colleague’s viewpoint, using empathetic phrases like “I understand where you’re coming from.” If things escalate, gracefully suggest a quick break to regain composure before continuing the conversation.

Remember that these strategies might work differently for different individuals and situations. Experiment with a few that resonate with you, and adapt them to fit the specific dynamics of the conversation. By incorporating these techniques, you can effectively calm your inner elephant and promote more productive and respectful discussions.

In conclusion, the science of neuroscience can serve as a guide in the art of managing heated conversations. By recognizing the influence of our emotional “elephant” and utilizing techniques like deep breathing, empathy, and mindfulness, we can foster more productive dialogues and build better relationships.

So, the next time you find yourself in the midst of a fiery debate, remember – with a little knowledge of your brain’s workings, you can do better on calming your inner elephant and lead the conversation towards a more constructive path.

Here’s to more peaceful and constructive conversations,


Photo by Katie Hollamby on Pexels

PS: A big reason I write is to meet people so feel free to say Hi! on Linkedin here or follow my Instagram here, as I’d love to learn more about you.

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