Ever notice when your reaction seems out of proportion to a situation?

Maybe your board of directors canned your good idea before you had the chance to finish presenting it. Or a peer turns down what you believe is a reasonable request. Or your team promises to get something to you by a deadline and blows past it.

Here’s the truth. Your brain is a pattern-seeking organ. As a species, our brain’s primary job is to keep us alive. So it 1) searches for patterns that precede negative results and 2) tries to help us avoid these.

Yes: that leads to our brains to have a negative bent. You don’t just see the current outcome you didn’t want — you see this as the latest in a series of them. Then you try to attach a cause or meaning to this stuff in an effort to prevent it from happening again.

As a byproduct of this, we often look for someone we can blame so we can soothe ourselves. That one director who always pokes holes in your idea just to make himself look smart. That colleague who expects you to lend a hand but never comes to your aid. That team full of slackers. What a bunch of jerks — it’s all their fault!

How can we stop this cycle? By answering two simple questions.

Choose Responsiveness

In this instance, our brains have two modes: reactivity or responsiveness. You already see the pitfalls of the first. We have a knee-jerk and likely outsized reaction to something. Without a clear picture of what’s happening, our brains rush in to fill the gaps with ideas that probably aren’t true (not everyone is a jerk!). You can start changing that by answering “what’s the data?”

This leads to something better: responsiveness. That happens when we take the time to truly understand this situation: by answering “what am I making the data mean?” We take the time to separate what’s going on from my interpretation — which often is negative and triggers a need to defend myself or punish someone else.

Still feeling emotionally charged? Then give yourself — or ask for — more time. If it’s safe, you can always say, “I’m feeling [name your emotion] right now and don’t have an answer. But I will get back to you shortly.” People are happy to wait for a considered and useful response versus having us do a show up and throw up.

Be aware when you feel an overreaction coming on. Take the time to get clarity before you open your mouth or act. It’s what emotionally intelligent leaders do — not just for their people but for themselves.