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Empowerment Systems

"........When Change is the Challenge."

Conscious Evolution

Empowerment Systems Newsletter, #9

"Brain Hijacking"

Laurie Weiss, Ph.D.


Brain-hijacking almost cost Evelyn her job.

After several employees resigned because of her behavior, Evelyn's manager had insisted that she either get coaching or find another job. Evelyn, an extremely competent technical expert, believed that the other employees had been over-sensitive, and that she was an exemplary worker.

I had trouble understanding exactly why her manager was unhappy with her behavior until we had a misunderstanding about when one of her coaching assignments would be completed. In a steely, cold and crisp VOICE, she told me about six or seven lapses and inconsistencies in my association with her. I instantly felt like a second-grader being scolded by the principal. Wow!

Fortunately, I have learned to recognize when my own brain is hijacked, and I have a reaction that is way out of proportion to an event I experience. When I was spoken to in that kind of voice when I was a child, I knew that I was in BIG TROUBLE. Whenever my primitive brain hears that VOICE, I have an instant reaction. I want to dig a hole and hide in it. It is a physiological reaction, and I am not in control of it, it just happens!

This brain-hijacking reaction was useful when we needed to instantly react to dangerous tigers in the jungle, but less useful now that we are "civilized." It is a "knee-jerk" reaction that takes place fractions of a second before our thinking brain engages. I know that if I can make myself wait a moment, instead of reacting instantly the way I want to, I will be able to think about the situation rationally.

I took a deep breath (my pause time) and asked her why she had suddenly scolded me. She told me that she was just defending herself from my unfair accusations! Another brain-hijacking??? She was having a disproportionate reaction to our conversation.

We eventually discovered that whenever anyone implied that Evelyn had made a mistake, she got furiously angry and defended herself by verbally pointing out her "accuser's" shortcomings-just as she had done with me. Evelyn learned to recognize her own anger as a sign of a hijacking, and to think before she lashed out at her (usually innocent) accuser. She kept her job.


Coaching Tip: We are not in control of our instant emotional reactions. We can learn to wait (count to ten) before expressing those reactions.

Daniel Goleman discusses brain-hijacking in depth in Chapter One of his best-selling book, Emotional Intelligence. 


 Copyright 2001, Empowerment Systems. May be transmitted or reproduced in its entirety only, including this copyright line.

Jonathan B. Weiss, Ph.D. and Laurie Weiss, Ph.D. have helped thousands of people make significant changes in their lives. Working together at Empowerment Systems for 29 of their 40 years of marriage, they maintain a coaching, consulting, and psychotherapy practice in Littleton, Colorado, USA.


506 West Davies Way
Littleton · Colorado · 80120
303.794.5408 · Fax
303.794.5379 · Phone
800.594.4594 · Toll-Free
weiss@empowermentsystems.com · E-Mail


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to create satisfying and fulfilling lives."