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Breaking up is hard to do

I recently read an article that a friend posted on Facebook titled, Your Brain on Divorce. The article was written by divorce attorney and mediator Michelle Crosby for The Huffington Post. As I read the article, I couldn’t help but see the parallels between the intended subject, marital divorce, and the dynamics one often sees in business divorces.

The emotions Crosby talks about in the marital context included jealousy and guilt, which are less common in a business divorce than anger, confusion and perhaps the pain of rejection. But the irrational behavior triggered by those emotions is all too common. As Crosby put it, “These feelings can blind us to reality, compelling us to fling painful words or do things we know – rationally – we shouldn’t. It can feel like an out-of-body experience.”

Crosby goes on to explain that the sometimes over-the-top emotional responses are scientifically predictable behavior based on the fight-or-flight hard-wiring in the amygdalae of our brains. According to Crosby, it’s the place where many of our emotions and memories live, a place Crosby calls the “puppy brain.”

“When exposed to scary triggers, especially those with deep emotional ties, the puppy brain doesn’t just react, it freaks out,” Crosby says. “It runs wildly. It stops listening and runs to the corner to hide or begins chewing on furniture out of frustration. Things get messy.” If you’ve gone through or are going through a messy business divorce, I am willing to bet you can relate.

According to Crosby, the best way to deal with a “puppy brain” run amok is to engage the “wise owl brain,” otherwise known as the pre-frontal cortex. This is where, in a perfect world, our friends “Logic” and “Behavior Management” reside. They are much better companions during a potentially messy business divorce than the willful puppy that can make its presence known in 20 milliseconds or less when an emotional trigger is tripped. As Crosby notes, “This is a dangerous time. That puppy can really get us into trouble, knocking over established agreements, lashing out at the slightest hint of a threat, and worse.”

So, how does one keep the puppy brain in check long enough to disentangle oneself from one’s business partners? Here are Crosby’s suggestions:

1) Recognize when your puppy is off its leash. Are you using language you normally wouldn’t? Do you feel your body temperature rising? Are friends you trust telling you to calm down? All of us are different, but if you can learn to understand when your puppy brain is loose, you can learn how to get it back under control.

2) Take the puppy for a walk. It’s amazing how physical movement helps calm our emotional minds. Try it. If you feel your puppy coming on, get outside. Go for a walk or a take a quick trip to the gym. Movement will help you disengage that puppy brain or, in the worst-case scenario, just plain tucker it out.

3) Teach the puppy to sit. If you can’t get moving, do the opposite. Rest. Relax. Meditate. Even just a couple minutes of reflection on positive memories can get the puppy to slow down.

Of course, in any business divorce, it takes at least two to become untangled, and sometimes the puppy brain is sitting across the table from you. If the owner of that puppy brain hasn’t read this article, he may need some help getting his puppy brain enrolled in obedience school. But not from you. Especially not from you. Instead, according to Crosby, your best bet is to “stay calm and listen. Try asking open-ended questions to help guide the puppy back to its wise owl. Be patient; recognize that trying to ‘fix’ puppy brain in the moment, especially when you or the situation you are in is the trigger, probably isn’t going to work. Learning to identify and manage your puppy brain is a learned skill not likely to be taught in the heat of the moment.”

Molly O’Leary represents business and telecommunications clients throughout Idaho, and is a managing member of BizCounselor@Law, PLLC, in Boise. In addition, Ms. O’Leary is the immediate past president of the Idaho State Bar Board of Commissioners, and serves on the statewide advisory council for the Idaho Small Business Development Center. You can follow her on Twitter: @BizCounselor.

About Molly O'Leary