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Performance Conversations: Life Threatening for Some

Performance Conversations: Life Threatening for Some

Although performance conversations are normally not life threatening, they can elicit an ‘Amygdala Hijack’ which simulates a similar physical reaction to when our lives are at risk. Recent neuroscience research explains what is behind this unproductive phenomenon.

The condition is called ‘separation distress’ which is caused by our emotional operating system reacting to threat and fear. There is a relationship between a performance conversation and that ancient part of our brain responsible for self-protection, which triggers an involuntary fight, flight or freeze reaction.  This often accelerates the heart rate, increases breathing, tightens stomach muscles and starves the pre-frontal cortex (the thinking part of our brain), of oxygen.

Giving and receiving performance feedback should be mutually beneficial to manager and employee. Instead, it sometimes ends in tears or results in accusations of verbal bullying. The unpleasant experience causes the manager to avoid future attempts, to the detriment of personal growth and performance of the employee and the employee’s relationship with his or her manager has deteriorated.

Why does this happen?

Human beings greatly value connectedness and affiliation and when we experience feelings of separation from others, the resultant anxiety can feel life threatening – painful even! Our emotional system employs various tactics to avoid this, and/or to reconnect. We use tools like playfulness or caring for others to maintain connection, but when this doesn’t work, separation distress sometimes takes over and we might feel misunderstood, unappreciated or undervalued.

For example, notice what happens when we say things with the very best intentions to a loved one, only to receive a puzzling ‘cold shoulder’ or angry response?

How do we react?

When performance feedback causes feelings of separation, which most of us will recognise as defensiveness, we react in one of three ways:

(a)  Secure reaction – we appreciate the benefits of the feedback and accept it as useful even if it is painful. The pain usually contains elements of separation distress yet it does not overwhelm us, allowing us to stay present and to engage with the discussion to gain clarity and deeper understanding.

(b)  ‘Wall’ reaction – we become remote and ‘sulk’ and avoid contact for a period of time.

(c)  Angry/Anxious reaction – we display anger or anxiety and look for a quick response.

Since human beings have evolved to be connected with others in small social groups, the three responses are different ways to manage the anxiety resulting from the reality or perception of separation. Reconnection is not possible until the anxiety has subsided, and each requires a different management approach. A person who responds with the ‘Wall’ needs to disengage from the conversation and take some time and space to calm before reconnecting. A person who responds with the ‘Angry/Anxious’ reaction needs to stay engaged and will continue to protest until they perceive that they are back in connection. The ‘Secure’ reaction has flexibility to do either, depending upon the situation and the state of the other person.

How should we deal with it?

Just being aware of what’s going on and why, can be sufficient to create a more resourceful state for productive conversations and behaviour change.

Here is a tried and tested 4-step process developed by a colleague, John Sautelle of exceptionalpeople (see, which can be helpful to manage reactivity and maintain control when emotions are threatening to take over.

Emotional Response Tool

  1. Sensation
  2. Breath
  3. Name
  4. Respond.


When our separation distress system engages, there will be a physical sensation associated with it. Awareness of the first indication of this sensation can operate like an early warning signal and provide a window of opportunity for us to interrupt the system engaging to the extent where we have no control over our response.


As soon as we become aware of our early warning physical sensation, the next step is to take some deep breaths. Shifting our attention to the physical sensations in our body, and to our breathing, brings us into the present moment and helps interrupt the escalation of our emotional reaction. In addition, effective breathing will provide oxygen to our pre frontal cortex, the cognitive processing parts of our brain.

Name the emotion

When our limbic system becomes aroused the areas of our brain involved in conscious processing (the pre frontal cortex) starts shutting down. Matthew Lieberman, associate professor at UCLA, and some colleagues discovered that naming (labelling) negative emotions like anger reduces activity in the limbic system and activates the parts of our pre frontal cortex that are involved in regulating emotions.


The next step is to access our observer position – our wise counsellor. From this position we can become curious about what is going on and can access our ability to ask questions like:

  • What is causing me to feel this way?
  • What interpretations have I made? How accurate are they?
  • What else could this mean?
  • Am I experiencing separation, and if so what is causing it?
  • What do I need now?
  • How can we reconnect?


Take the appropriate action to allow the separation distress to be managed. Having regained ability to think effectively we can now choose our response.

More information about the brain and human emotions and the approach described briefly in this article can be found in a book written by Davidson and Begley titled “Emotional Life of Your Brain”.

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About Dr Tony van Rensburg

Dr Tony van Rensburg is a performance advisor and coach and works with two specialist consulting firms: exceptionalpeople, (HR consulting and L&D) and Collins Pitt ( performance and productivity). You can contact Tony at or

View all posts by Dr Tony van Rensburg →

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Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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