Grab Your Thumb

Road rage rarely occurs in the county where I live. What we see more of is called road “joy.” That’s when you’re just having such a good time driving that you have little or no motivation to pay attention to what you’re doing. You’ve seen road joy in action. The blinker is on for miles after the turn or perhaps for miles in anticipation of the next one, or drivers who decide they want your lane and are more entitled to it than you are. You know what I mean.

While I write this with my tongue firmly implanted in my cheek, road joy is truly no laughing matter. The same can certainly said for road rage. Road rage occurs when seemingly intelligent people “lose it.” Someone cuts you off or they wave to you using less than five fingers. What do you do? Well some decide to run them off the road or worse. Not a very smart thing to do. In fact while in the midst of a road rage people are literally not thinking at all – they are just emoting.

We might call this a situation of temporary insanity. Good luck using that excuse with a judge. It probably won’t get you very far.

For a simplistic explanation of road rage let’s break the brain into just two components – the thinking brain known as the Frontal Lobe and the feeling brain known as the Deep Limbic System. During a road rage incident the Limbic System overrules the Frontal Lobe and feelings outweigh thoughts. I’ve heard this referred to as “emotional hijacking.” This will typically lead to a bad decision followed quickly by an utterance of “oops” or other choice phrases.

Though I’ve never heard the term, I’m sure someone has coined the phrase “relationship rage” to describe what happens when emotions take over and drown out one’s thoughts in a personal situation. We see this in the workplace on a regular basis. Someone gets offended and rather than calmly thinking through the situation they storm off in a huff and quit. Only after they have calmed down do they realize the cost of their impulsive action.

I find it interesting that the number one reason that people quit their jobs is not issues over pay, benefits or perks. The number one reason is said to be having a poor relationship with their immediate supervisor. This seems somewhat absurd to people like me who believe most any relationship can be improved if the parties are willing for it to improve and if they’ll just learn and practice a few relationship- enhancing skills.

Relationships can also improve when we lessen or eliminate the behaviors which are damaging them in the first place. That’s where preventing relationship rage comes in.

I heard an illustration from the oil field called “5X5”. When a worker comes upon a situation which he or she does not fully understand he/she is encouraged to take five steps back and wait five minutes before making a decision. Obviously we’re talking here about non-emergency situations. If something’s on fire you don’t have to think about what to do. Having said that however, it might be advisable to take a brief time to first consider the best and safest way to put out the fire.

When you’re confronted with an issue with a co-worker, supervisor, direct report, etc., it’s often best to consider your response  before  you just react. Dr. Stephen Covey, the author of Seven Habits for Highly Effective People, talks about the difference between reacting which typically involves little or no thought, and responding which is a calculated way to address a situation. Practicing the 5X5 technique will cause us to respond and thereby make much wiser decisions and attain far better results.

George Thompson, author of Verbal Judo said “never use words that rise readily to your lips, or you’ll give the greatest speech you’ll ever live to regret.”  Where was he when we needed him right?

Let me leave you with one more protection against relationship rage. I learned this from Drs. Tom and Beverly Rodgers of the Rodgers Christian Counseling Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. They teach that anger is a secondary emotion. This means is that we are never angry just because we are angry. It is therefore helpful to determine why we are angry and then decide how to address a situation.

The Rodgers teach that when angry you should grab your thumb (note I said your thumb, not someone else’s) look at your fingers and ask yourself “why am I angry?” This forces you to leave your emotional brain and enter your thinking brain. Once there you are in a far better place from which to make a reasoned and productive decision.

The Rodgers tell a wonderful story of a man who told his teenage daughter to start the car but not move it. She of course started then moved the car right into and over a brick mailbox. On hearing the commotion the man raced outside, sized up the situation and began to get angry. The daughter jumped out of the car and yelled “dad, quick, grab your thumb!”

Long story short, he did indeed grab his thumb and was able to confront his daughter in a firm, but loving and respectful manner. She did have to learn consequences of her actions, but he was able to reassure her of his love for her and to let her know that she was far more valuable and important to him than any car or mail box.

I can promise you will have opportunities to grab your thumb when someone treats you wrong. My hope is you’ll be able to respond from your thinking brain, form a reasoned response and retain a healthy relationship.