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For thirty-five years as a psychologist, business consultant and writer, I have tried to help clients and readers keep the difficult people at work and at home from driving them crazy. To that end, I can offer one inspirational piece of advice: In difficult situations, before you do or say anything, stop and ask yourself, “What do I want to happen?”

The reason this simple advice works magic has to do with the structure of your brain. At times, that same structure also makes this advice surprisingly hard to follow. Here’s why:

Human consciousness is a messy pile of thoughts, feelings, fears and desires. At the bottom of the pile are instincts programmed into your reptile brain. At the top are conscious intentions. In emotionally laden situations, as when we are trying to deal with difficult people, we are more likely to fall back on our reptilian instincts rather than thinking things through. This always makes the situation worse.

The big problem is that in the heat of the moment, it is sometimes very difficult to distinguish between instincts and thought.

Imagine that someone is angry with you. Needless to say, it’s not your fault, but please don’t say that yet.

Your instincts see anger as an attack on your body, and will immediately supply you with the thoughts and chemicals that you need to fight back or run away. If you use either strategy, the situation will escalate in to what is scientifically known as the Godzilla Meets Rodan Effect. There’s a lot of screaming and yelling and buildings fall down, but nothing actually gets solved.

Being civilized people, we do not fight or run physically, instead we use explanations. When we face anger, the urge to explain bubbles up from the lowest depths of our brains. At the time, this may seem perfectly logical, until we realize that virtually all explanations boil down to fighting back – If you listen closely, you will understand that I am RIGHT and you are WRONG – or running away – It’s not my fault! Either approach is guaranteed to make the other person angrier.

If you take my advice: Stop, take a breath and ask yourself what you want to happen, the newer, more rational part of your brain can kick in. You will come to realize that there is a problem to be solved through negotiation, which can’t happen until both of you are using the parts of your brain that think rather than those that merely react.Instead of explaining, you might choose to ask the other person the same question you just asked yourself, “What do you want to happen?”

Until you try this, you will never believe how well it works.

Well, that’s my inspiration. I don’t pretend to know the secrets of joy and spiritual fulfillment, but I can help you to avoid a few difficult and draining situations. I guess that will have to do for today.

Peace, love, and health,

Dr. Al Bernstein

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Dr. Al Bernstein is a psychologist, business consultant and speaker. His international bestsellers Dinosaur Brains and Emotional Vampires have helped people all over the world to deal more effectively with difficult people and situations in their lives. His newest book, Am I the Only Sane One Working Here?, describes 101 solutions to keep your job from driving you crazy.

Dr. Al lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, Luahna. He has two grown children and a brand new granddaughter. When he’s not working, you’ll find him at Yoga class, a Rotary meeting or hiking with his dog and camera.

For more information, please visit

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