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4 Aspects of Managing Your Fight-or-Flight Response

The body’s fight-or-flight reactions are a good guide to our true perceptions of a confrontation’s level of safety or danger. Learning to check and manage our physical reactions is essential to both our effectiveness and professionalism. If we can keep ourselves in neutral, respectful gear — confronting, but not attacking — both the positions we take and the comments we make at the negotiating table will be more compelling.

Most of our nonverbal cues — our body language, gestures, and expressions — happen outside of our full consciousness. Take the opportunity for self-management by tuning in to them and learning about your own responses to a situation as well as other people’s.

Show and “Tells”

Just as in a game of poker, our bodies have certain “tells” that give us away. Our fear, anger, self-consciousness, and nervousness often bleed through our attempts to control these feelings. Be aware of these physical manifestations; take note of what they might signify to you as well as your trusted colleagues and fierce opponents:

Breath and Voice

When we’re on the defensive or running scared, we tend to breathe shallowly and squeeze our voices tighter and into a higher register, so we sound more anxious and less assured.

Face and Body

Anger, fear, surprise, and disdain all trigger physical reactions. These emotions can make you feel hot or cold. You might notice your heart or pulse racing or hear the blood pounding in your head or ears. A sense of tightness in your chest could be anger trying to make its way out; stomach pain or nausea is more likely to be fear or anxiety.

The Eyes Have It

Widening eyes could signify fear or disbelief; rolling eyes or eyes turned up usually indicate impatience or frustration of some kind, although sometimes they indicate disgust or distaste. Squinting, particularly when accompanied by a wrinkled nose can be a combo of disbelief or mistrust with a bit of disdain sprinkled in, almost as if something smells a little off. Are you conscious of your eye movements or noticing them in others?

Movement and Position

If you’re shaking your head, swinging your leg, or tapping your foot, pen, or fingers, you could be experiencing either boredom and frustration or the surges of nervous energy that are often a precursor to flight. On the other hand, crossed arms and legs, hunched shoulders, clenched hands, and pushing away from the table or pulling up very close could all be demonstrations of anger held in check.

A Whole-Body Response

Whether or not you notice and interpret your own physical cues, keep in mind that others may be able to read you — and sometimes faster or more accurately than you can yourself. Once you’re aware of your physical reactions and what they mean, though, you can use your body to release or contain your emotions until you’re ready to deal with them verbally.

If you keep your breathing even and your voice at its normal pitch, or even a bit lower if it’s possible, you’re demonstrating that you’re in charge of yourself — and, potentially the situation. Taking full, conscious breaths also helps ensure that you don’t interrupt your opponent or jump in with a hasty answer before you’ve gotten a smart, well-considered response ready.

If your chest feels constricted and you find it hard to swallow, try to open up your chest by rolling your shoulders back. Breathe deeply to help yourself relax. Lower your shoulders away from your ears and hold your full height, whether you’re standing or sitting. Soften your gaze, if you find yourself staring, and unclench your jaw and forehead.

Nodding thoughtfully — slowly — can give you a few extra moments to decide what you want to say. Pressing your feet gently against the floor and your hands against either the desktop or your thighs can be grounding as well as helpful in maintaining your upright posture.

Once you’re back in control of your body, remember that you can always call for a break if you need more time or space to calm yourself. If you get up, or turn to go, make your movements deliberate. Remind your body — and the rest of the room — who’s in charge of you!

Onward and upward,


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