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The Secret Ingredient of a Great Designer (Part 3 of 4)

This year I was privileged to attend An Event Apart, Washington DC Edition. In this four-part series, I'll share insights from my trip, and talk about how empathy transforms a good designer into a great one.

If you haven't already, read part 1 and 2 of this series!

A Great Designer Cares for Their Co-Workers



Transforming Into The Hulk

We’ve all been here, right? Whether it’s a response to an email or a comment in a meeting, we can go from a perfectly normal, rational human being to an angry, defensive, and cruel beast in a split second. Why is that?

Lara Hogan’s talk, “Navigating Team Friction,” began with some science-y goodness.

Our brain has many parts with unique functions. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is logical and reasonable. That part is in control, most of the time. Then there’s the amygdala. The amygdala is continuously on the lookout for threats. Whenever a threat is perceived, it shuts down the prefrontal cortex and takes over, sending the rest of the body into fight-or-flight mode.


Anatomy of the Brain
Image by Dr Joseph LeDoux, New York University


Historically, our amygdala saved us from being eaten by lions and bears and stuff. Now? Well, in a work environment it means we occasionally “hulk out.” We’re not going to be eaten by a bear, but our amygdala doesn't know that. Lara Hogan refers to this as “amygdala hijacking.”

So, what can we do we do when we’re dealing with someone at work who has been hijacked? First, we need to look at common amygdala triggers.

The brain has six core needs (BICEPS):

  • Belonging: People fear being left out, not chosen, or being socially isolated. When this happens, the same parts of the brain light up that do when we are in severe physical pain.
  • Improvement: We strive to make progress toward a purpose. We are mission-driven.
  • Choice: We want the power to make decisions. We want flexibility and autonomy.
  • Equality: People want equal access to succeed and to be treated fairly.
  • Predictability: Resources, time, direction and future challenges we can count on.
  • Significance: We want status, visibility, and recognition.


When any of these core needs are threatened, the amygdala is triggered. So when our co-worker “hulks out” in a meeting, we need to figure out which core need is being threatened.

We can do this by paying attention to moments of resistance. Resistance can manifest as:

  • Doubt: Asking questions, testing knowledge, playing devil’s advocate
  • Avoidance: Stops interacting, checks out during meetings or conversations, makes excuses, not putting full effort into their work
  • Fighting: Creating arguments that go nowhere, silent defiance
  • Bonding: Running to friends and co-workers to talk about it with others, verbally processing their feelings
  • Taking an escape-route: Changing roles, looking for other jobs, quitting


Getting frustrated with someone who has been amygdala hijacked is unproductive. Instead:

  • Diffuse the situation by asking open questions.
  • Listen with compassion, kindness, and awareness, not judgement or accusation.
  • Reflect on the dynamics of the room to determine if it is an appropriate time or place to ask these questions, and if the person will be comfortable answering you honestly at that time.
  • Use the answers to these questions to identify the core needs (BICEPS) that are being threatened.
  • Then find ways to address those core needs with actions or feedback.

“Meet transparency with responsibility. Poorly constructed feedback … does not help anyone. Honesty is not productive if it’s cruel.” - Lara Hogan


Kevin Hoffman’s talk titled “I Just Had The Worst Best Meeting Ever” echoed similar sentiments. Something interesting he brought up was the concept of blame-free retrospectives. For some reason, retrospectives bring out the inner hulk in many of us. It may have to do with the fear of being singled out for failures or mistakes, fear of being isolated from future projects, or even fear of being fired. This environment can be toxic and doesn’t always produce honest, productive conversation.

Etsy has implemented something called “blame-free retrospectives,” where each person is asked the same series of questions:

  • What actions did you take?
  • What outcomes happened because of those actions?
  • What results did you expect?
  • What assumptions did you make?
  • What is the difference between the outcomes you were hoping for and the results?


The way these questions are asked removes the fear and restores feelings of belonging, improvement, equality, and significance. And these concepts can be applied to any time of meeting, not just retrospectives. Happy BICEPS = Happy meetings!


We are human, and when we work in teams, friction is going to happen. Our relationship with our co-workers can be the difference between project success or failure. Choosing to interact with empathy can be the most mature, respectful decision you can make!


Further Reading:
Understanding the Stress Response by Harvard Health Publishing
Paloma Medina’s BICEPS model
Etsy’s Charter of Mindful Communication
Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development

Erin Fike
Graphic Designer
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