Some relationships are more doomed than others when our lizard brain (or survive brain) dwarfs our thrive brain (or “thinking brain”). If you’re like most people, chances are you’ve interacted with friends and loved ones through one or more harmful “lizard brain” reactions without realizing it. And these reactions can nibble away at the foundation of your relationships like a thousand little cuts. But for every negative survive brain reaction, there is a positive thrive brain U-turn.

1. Jumping to Conclusions. We convince ourselves we know what others are thinking or feeling and make up stories about situations without evidence. We project our own thoughts and feelings based on our beliefs, not facts. We might say something like, “You obviously don’t like my work on this project because you haven’t said a word.” Or we might say to a manager, “I can tell you’re angry with me because I’m late.” Takeaway: You can sidestep this lizard brain reaction by reminding yourself that your assumptions are not the truth. You can check out the facts before making conclusions to save a lot of unnecessary friction with team members. “Is there anything more I can change or contribute to make the project the best it can be?” Or ask what your manager is feeling: “Are you angry with me because I’m late?”

2. Catastrophic Forecasting. You forecast the worst possible outcome of a situation without evidence. Even when facts contradict your negative belief, you continue to predict things will turn out badly. “There’s no use in putting in more time on this project. The higher-ups will never approve it.” Takeaway: When you catch yourself worrying over something that hasn’t happened, identify your negative prediction. Then ask yourself, “Where’s the evidence for this conclusion?” And instead of making a negative conclusion, ask your team mates, “I have my doubts, but do you think management will approve this project?” Perhaps your coworkers have a more positive outlook that they can add. Recommended For You

3. All-or-Nothing Criticisms. You categorize work into the extremes of black and white and blind yourself to the shades of gray, where truth usually lies. You criticize coworker behaviors or habits with extremes: “You always talk over me in meetings.” Or “You never listen to me when I try to communicate with you.” Takeaway: Listen for times when you use words like always, all, everybody, either-or, nobody, never, or none. To reverse this lizard brain reaction, try using, “When you … I feel …” to communicate how a certain action makes you feel: “When you talk over me in meetings, I feel like my ideas don’t matter.”

4. Labeling. Labels are for cans or jars, but we often label colleagues with negative attributes: “You’re mean and selfish.” When they make a mistake, you speak as if they are the mistake: “Susan is such a loser.” You smack on a negative label because of one incident instead of looking at the entire picture. Takeaway: To dodge this reaction, look at the big picture and try to be more forgiving. We all have slip-ups, forget or have accidents. Step back and speak of yourself, using “I-messages” instead of “You-messages”: “I’m uncomfortable with how things are going; I’d like to take a time out and come back when we’re calmer.” When you refer to your own feelings (I-messages) instead of pointing your finger (You-messages), it reduces defensiveness and tension and promotes open dialogue.

5. Blaming. You blame your a coworker for a negative scenario, overlooking your part in an outcome: “It’s your fault our team didn’t meet its goal; If you had been more on it, we could have made it” or “I took your advice and spoke to the boss about his negative attitude, and he was furious with me. It’s all your fault.” Takeaway: Ask yourself if you’re blaming someone for something you’re partly responsible for. Then think about how much of the situation you’re truly responsible for. Be willing to take ownership for your part, but avoid becoming overly responsible for situations outside your control: “We both had the same idea to talk to the boss about his attitude. He’s furious with me, but I took on the task of bringing it to his attention.”

6. Pessimism. You unconsciously filter out or discount the positive aspects of collegial relationships, allowing only negative aspects to enter. You downplay their positive qualities and dwell on the negatives. You attribute your team’s success to luck or accident and believe it’s only a matter of time until failure is imminent: “We won top sales team of the year, but that was a fluke.” This bad habit of selecting the negative over the positive eventually leads you and your coworkers to feel as if everything is negative and eventually cripples your professional relationships. Takeaway: Pay attention when negatives outweigh positives and give the positives equal weight. Learn to be the voice of optimism, see the upside of a downside situation or find opportunity in the problem. Be a cheerleader for your team, speak about “cans” instead of “cannots” and give positive reinforcement and “atta-girls” or “atta-boys” abundantly.

7. Bossing. You tell your coworkers what to do when it’s not your role and sometimes how you expect them to do their jobs—even when unsolicited. You make other commands and demands that cross the line in a parental way: “Keep your voice down when you’re on your phone. It’s annoying.” Takeaway: To avoid this trespass, state your concern, or ask a question: “Unfortunately, the noise level from the cubicles can get sketchy sometimes. Are you okay with letting each other know if we get too loud?”

8. Perfectionism. Things have to be perfect for you to be happy on the job, and you hold coworkers to unrealistic standards. Your colleagues constantly feel like a failure because you focus on and magnify their shortcomings and ignore their “tallcomings.” “We have to meet the deadline or we’re dead meet.” Or, on the flip side, you downplay your contributions to a stressful situation, “Oh sure, I totally forget about the important meeting, but we can reschedule it.” Takeaway: Try to be aware when your outlook about a situation is at one extreme or the other. Take the point of view of an outside observer or even your partner. Try to see the situation through a wider lens, and put it in perspective: “We will do our dead-level best to meet the deadline. If we don’t we know we did everything we could.”

9. “Musterbation.” Overuse of oppressive words (like should, ought, must, and have to) can cause colleagues to feel shamed: “You must wash your hands when you come out of the restroom. And you must wear your mask at all times.” “Musterbation” was coined by the late psychologist Albert Ellis to reminded us when we bow to the oppressive pressures in our heads or put those pressures on others: “You must be a better colleague,” or “You must spend more time on the project.” Takeaway: Ask yourself if your words oppose or support your relationships. Replacing mandatory statements with empowering words enhances the quality of your relationships. You become more aware of what you require of coworkers and can choose more supportive, compassionate words: “I would like for us to spend more time on this project,” or “Although it isn’t always easy to get in the habit, lets be supportive by reminding one another to wash our hands and wear our masks when we’re inside.”

10. Emotional Reasoning: You make judgments about your collegial relationships from how you feel instead of from reasoning: “I feel hopeless about pleasing our manager, so it’s useless to try.” Or, “If you really cared about the team, you would work longer on weekends to meet our goal. Obviously you don’t care.” Takeaway: Acknowledge your feelings first. Then see if you can separate them from the facts to determine if your conclusion is indeed true: “Yes, I’m feeling hopeless about the boss changing, but that doesn’t mean it is hopeless. There are steps we can take to make it better,” or “Although you haven’t worked on weekends, you show your concern for the team by working later into the evenings.”

A Final Word

It’s possible to reduce lizard brain reactions by maintaining respectful boundaries, having empathy and being mindful of how you give and receive information. Studies show that consideration, kindness, and generosity are the best medicines for strong and healthy professional relationships. Active listening engages you in what your peers are saying and feeling without falling into the trap of who’s right and who’s wrong. It softens tension and sets the stage for mutual cooperation, collaboration and professional connection and excellent performance.


  • Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.

    Journalist, psychotherapist, and Author of 40 books.

    Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.

    Bryan Robinson, Ph.D. is a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, psychotherapist in private practice, and award-winning author of two novels and 40 nonfiction books that have been translated into 15 languages. His latest books are CHAINED TO THE DESK IN A HYBRID WORLD: A GUIDE TO WORK-LIFE BALANCE (New York University Press, 2023)#CHILL: TURN OFF YOUR JOB AND TURN ON YOUR LIFE (William Morrow, 2019), DAILY WRITING RESILIENCE: 365 MEDITATIONS & INSPIRATIONS FOR WRITERS (Llewellyn Worldwide, 2018). He is a regular contributor to, Psychology Today, and Thrive Global. He has appeared on 20/20, Good Morning America, The CBS Early Show, ABC's World News Tonight, NPR’s Marketplace, NBC Nightly News and he hosted the PBS documentary "Overdoing It: How To Slow Down And Take Care Of Yourself." website: