I had a verbal altercation on Christmas Eve. It was a valuable reminder that the “flight or fight” response wired into our brains is toxic.

I was on my usual running route that morning. I had just stepped off the curb into a crosswalk. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a car starting to make a left turn headed straight at me.

I turned my head to look directly at the driver. He was looking at this phone.

I pulled up and shouted “STOP.” He braked just in time. The car came to a rest touching my leg. Six to 12 inches further and my leg would have been shattered.

I thought maybe he was on his phone looking at a map. As I came around the car, I saw he was playing a video game on his phone. I saw red.

“What the hell are you doing playing a video game on your phone? You almost killed me…” 

His response was to boldface lie twice. First, he said that he was not playing a video game.  Then, he said, I did not have the right of way just because I stepped into the crosswalk.

We yelled at each other, then he sped off.

After the shock wore off and I reflected on this unfortunate start to Christmas Eve, I began to see how that fight or flight instinct led us both to respond to conflict poorly.

His mistake was obvious. He let the “flight” response take over his brain.

We have all seen this in the workplace. Someone is caught in an obvious mistake. Rather than learn from that mistake, the response is to deny, distract, and deflect.

My mistake was more subtle. It was to let the “fight” response take over my brain.

Everything about this driver screamed “punk” — his age, his clothes, his hairstyle, and the way he talked. My instinctual brain said put him in his place.

The outcome I really wanted was for this young driver to learn a lesson about distracted driving.  The outcome I achieved by letting my instinctual brain lead was a screaming match.

Had it been a mother with kids in the car or an elderly driver, there is no way I would’ve screamed at them.

I would have paused to gather myself and said something like; “Please don’t drive distracted, you could have killed or permanently maimed me.”

I share this story as a reminder that when we experience conflict, our brains shift into flight or fight mode.   

Be prepared for it. Rather than respond quickly. Take a moment to pause, stop your instinctual response, and move toward the outcome you want in the situation.