Your Brain Remotely

I recently had the chance to speak with Emma El-Karout, the founder One Circle, a community of virtual HR consultants, about the challenges to the brain when working remotely and/or leading remote teams. Here are some ideas that came out of that conversation.

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What’s exciting about remote work in terms of the brain?

Aside from the fact that more remote work does seem to be the wave of the future, there are definitely at least a couple of advantages from a brain perspective. One, the vast creativity of being able to draw on a global pool and the varied perspectives and talents that come with that. And two, the reduction of stress from team members being able to have more control over their work environment (and lack of commute). For example, some of us find noisy co-workers distracting and even stressful, and the ability to work in the quiet of our own homes is a blessed relief. Being able to get more sleep and have more time with family because you have gained hours in your day also tends to reduce stress.

What’s challenging about remote work in terms of the brain?

I think there are some general challenges, communication challenges, and productivity/focus challenges. In this blog, I am going to look at the general challenges with some ideas about what to do–in a later blog I’ll address communication and productivity (in the meantime, I’ll share a link to my blog on why video chat is not the same as real life). Here are a few general issues that seem to be particularly challenging:

1) Lack of informal social time — this relates to connection as well as the “meeting after the meeting.” For remote teams, team time tends to be focused on efficiency and productivity. And this makes sense because when we are not being fed in terms of social connections, we tend to want to be done with things and get off the call or video conference.

This of course happens IRL (In Real Life) as well, but in-person, we generally have even a minute or two to say hi, or “sheesh, what a day,” or ask someone how their weekend was, or provide or get a quick clarification on a memo. We walk down the hallway or ride in an elevator together–and often ideas and information are shared as well as what we might think of as the normal “social grease” of how are you and hey what’s up? And IRL, for most people it doesn’t feel like extra time–I think this may be largely in part because we are often doing something else “productive” while we are connecting. We’re getting coffee, moving from one place to another, making copies, even just waiting for everyone to arrive at the meeting and shuffle their papers. Chatting and being human together doesn’t then feel like an extra task.

ADVICE for LEADERS:

  • Take some of the money you’re saving by having folks work remotely and invest in creating and supporting strategies for informal connection (company parenting groups, game tournaments, etc.) This will not only provide avenues for human connection, it also shows that the company understands this is important, even–and perhaps especially–in a virtual environment.
  • Start all meetings with a check-in that is about the human being, not the human doing. For example, what sort of weather are you today? What is one thing you did this weekend that filled your cup? What’s one non-work thing that is on your mind today? It’s important to know that if you are the leader, you don’t have to fix or change anything–it’s enough that people just get a chance to be there as their full selves.

2) Feeling isolated (this is of course stronger if remote is not the norm in company). We are social, tribal beings by nature. According to anthropologist Jared Diamond, for about 95% of human history we moved and worked in small kin groups. Being so separate is relatively new to us as humans, and much of who were are at our core is modulated by our core need to belong. Loneliness is not just an emotional state, it is actually processed more like hunger–as a biological drive. And while working remotely doesn’t necessarily mean we feel lonely, being physically together can provide some natural protection from it.

ADVICE for LEADERS:

  • Stay tuned in to how your team is doing emotionally. Again, as mentioned above, you need to check in with the human being, not just the human doing. If this is not your skillset, have your company bring in training on coaching skills for managers so you can learn how to do this easily (it’s really not so hard).
  • One way to make personal connection easier with individual team members is to suggest (if possible) that you each go for a walk during a regular touch-base. Being in motion (especially outside) relaxes the brain and it can be easier to both ask and be asked the “how are you really doing?” questions.
  • AND/OR–take some of the money you are saving and make sure your team has coaches. There are so many benefits to coaching in terms of creativity, contribution, etc., and it can also help the person recognize and be proactive about their own needs and emotional state.

3) We’re simply less creative and efficient when we are on our own. Our brains want to conserve energy as much as possible (a biological principle called economy of action). Being with others in person makes our brains process more efficiently. We regulate our own emotions better, get more creative ideas, and generally feel calmer when we are with others (unless, of course, the others are the source of your stress).

ADVICE for LEADERS:

  • Do make time/budget for real-life gatherings. One of my colleagues said that when she worked with remote teams at IBM years ago, they found that one IRL meeting gave them 3-6 months of productive remote work.
  • Since brains process less efficiently, understand that people may have less bandwidth, so keep meetings shorter and encourage personal “reset time.” Emma El-Karout shared with me that her team has a norm of working 90 minutes and then taking 20 off to do something non-work related.
  • Be even more intentional about using “out of the box” creative strategies. For example, ask people to use metaphor, to draw a doodle, to close their eyes, breathe, and say the first image that comes to them. What can happen naturally when we are together may need a bit of priming in the virtual space.

Thanks again to Emma at One Circle for inspiring these thoughts. To see our interview, please check back after June 18.

Top Four Reasons Video Chat is NOT the Same as Real Life

(and is seriously wearing us out)

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Here we are, in the spring of 2020, in an unprecedented time of “social isolation.” Many have turned to Zoom, Skype, FaceTime and other video chatting platforms to connect with individuals and groups. After the initial novelty and even excitement wore off for what seemed like it might be an amazing solution, many of us started realizing that a video-based meeting or training was sometimes waaaaay more exhausting than an in-person one, and a video-based “happy hour” gathering just wasn’t making us feel the connection we are longing for. We started wondering why video connection could feel a bit like eating Doritos instead of a nice full meal. So here are a few reasons why this might be:

1) We are sensual beings. We take in information from ALL our senses. On virtual chats, we have two of our senses activated, sight and sound, but not the others, especially smell and touch. We may not realize it, but smell plays a huge role in our emotional connection and processing. Sometimes we are aware of a certain smell (for example, my dad smoked a pipe when I was very small, and I am generally flooded with a sense of warmth and even connection when I encounter the scent of pipe tobacco), but often it may be smells we aren’t even aware of. Just like we all know “dogs smell fear,” humans have been shown to have a physiological response to the chemicals present in anxiety[1] even if there is no discernable odor.

And of course, we are probably more aware that we long to touch each other. Touch is another powerful way we communicate—and again, we are often not even aware that (or how much) we are doing so.[2] We touch to emphasize a point, to offer comfort, to say hello. And in doing so, we pick up and transmit emotional states. In fact, according to the Psychology Today article cited below, “touch may in fact be more versatile than voice, facial expression, and other modalities for expressing emotion.”

So in essence, video chatting cuts us off from two key ways we process our connection and knowledge of each other. That tends to make our brains feel less at ease, as they work harder to help us feel like we get what’s going on, which is of course, also more tiring.

2) The technology used in video platforms creates a somewhat artificial and distorted world. How many of us have struggled with where to look when we are on a call? It feels sort of odd to look at the camera, but that is the only way others feel like you are looking at them. If you DO try to look at the other person, it looks to them like you are looking somewhere else. However we do it, the felt sense of making eye contact is simply impossible. Information from another person’s eyes is dominantly processed in our right hemispheres, which is a part of the brain critical for a felt sense of empathy, creating meaning, and many of the ways we emotionally connect with each other and the world. Because this is so critical for understanding, our brains feel like we should be able to have it and we keep trying to find it. It’s like running a constant error message. Again, exhausting.

According to Why Zoom is Terrible (NYT, April 29, 2020) [3] the other distortions are “the way the video images are digitally encoded and decoded, altered and adjusted, patched and synthesized (which) introduces all kinds of artifacts: blocking, freezing, blurring, jerkiness and out-of-sync audio. These disruptions, some below our conscious awareness, confound perception and scramble subtle social cues. Our brains strain to fill in the gaps and make sense of the disorder, which makes us feel vaguely disturbed, uneasy and tired without quite knowing why.”

3) We are primed to make ourselves the primary focus of attention. Who hasn’t said to themselves or another lately that they aren’t used to looking at themselves so dammed much? And yet, it is hard to pull our eyes away from that image. This is probably NOT that we are all becoming terrible narcissists, but more related to our fundamental “prime directive” of survival. In the hierarchy of attention, we simply tend to think about ourselves first.[4] This is a key way we stay safe and make sure we survive. When faced with images of ourselves it is difficult for our brains to pull away and focus attention somewhere else. There is a twofold impact on our energy to this – one is that it simply takes more energy to put our attention somewhere else when our own moving image is in front of us. The other is that when we do have our attention on ourselves, we are also primed to assess and want to correct, which results in a sort of multi-tasking during a meeting or gathering. (“Why did I wear that shirt? Man, I look tired. What the heck is my hair doing? etc.) Keeping our focus and attention on what is going on and NOT our own assessment of ourselves takes extra energy.

4) It just honestly takes more focus. In a normal meeting or gathering, nobody stares at each other intently for an hour or more. Our minds wander, we look around the room, in social situations we break off for tête-à-têtes or into smaller sub-groups. (For example, I recently did a virtual Easter gathering with my extended family, and there we all were, taking turns talking. This would never happen in real life. We tend to peel off into smaller groups based on interest. The three family computer geeks often put their heads together, speaking their own language, I like to hang out with my nieces talking fashion or getting updated on their lives, the older folks talk politics or current events.) Video platforms keep us more in present focus, especially when we are on camera. This is, in and of itself, not a bad thing, it just gets tiring to keep our focus brain network online without a break. I’m not taking about checking your phone while you’re in a meeting, but for all the reasons mentioned above, we are less relaxed because additional channels for processing information and emotions are not available.

So what do we do? Here are a few of my thoughts on the matter:

  • It’s not the same and that’s ok. I think the overall answer is not to expect that video chatting will be the same as being in person. It’s not. It’s not as fulfilling. Think of it as a snack, not a meal. Nothing wrong with Doritos, you just can’t live on them. So this is a time we need to find all the other ways we can to fill our tanks.
  • Limit the number of people in social video gatherings. In contrast to the large family Easter event, I have a regular weekly chat with four other wonderful women in Los Angeles, even though I live in Santa Fe. (I sometimes call it the New Mexico-California Friendship Exchange.) With five people, we can actually talk and hear from each other. I look forward to these evenings and value that the five of us have gotten even closer in this time.
  • Just use the phone, especially one to one. On the phone, our voices are in each other’s ears, which feels more intimate. Our visual field is not concerned with ourselves, and we can go into more of a soft-focus visual state which is less exhausting.
  • Don’t do back to back video meetings if you can help it, and pay attention to how many you can manage in a day. My exhaustion rate is about 3 hours MAX, and I can’t do that every day. Take video-free days if you can for recovery.
  • Don’t be hard on yourself. It IS more tiring to work and connect this way. You’re not a weenie or a slacker. Your brain is responding as best you can to an extraordinary situation, and in addition to the extra effort and attention video calls demand, there are many other stresses having an impact. Be kind to yourself and others. This is hard.

Oh, and you might want to hide your own image on the video chat!

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[1] See https://www.livescience.com/24578-humans-smell-fear.html for an example of one study. There have been many additional studies (on humans) looking at the smell of fear, disgust, and other emotions.

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201303/the-power-touch

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/29/sunday-review/zoom-video-conference.html?smid=fb-share&fbclid=IwAR36bmNXk-JWHRJadfkPaDGv8hVSL9w4Qy9wC0vkvNRjIrztttSaLRLQa9Y

[4] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/experimentations/201801/why-are-you-always-thinking-about-yourself

 

Top Ten Reasons You (and Your Organization) Need Coaching More Than Ever Right Now

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By Ann Betz and William Arruda

My friend, business genius William Arruda and I sat down recently to talk about why coaching matters so much–even, perhaps MORE–during this Covid-19 crisis. Here are the top ten reasons we came up with:

  1. Many tools and techniques of professional coaching are scientifically proven to reduce stress. When we are stressed, it is much more difficult to have empathy, think creatively, control impulses, and make effective plans. When stress is reduced through coaching, people have more access to creativity, empathy, and resilience, all of which are critical right now.
  2. Coaching helps people process what is going on. This is an unprecedented time—the very fact that we have little to compare it to makes it exceptionally difficult to process and make sense of. Without processing during the time we are in the experience, we run a high probability of either crashing when it is over, or sublimating our worry, fear and stress into health issues, low energy, and other negative impacts. When we notice and allow our true feelings and concerns, we move the energy through and stay steadier and more able to cope both during and after. Many people need the support of coaching in order to do this effectively.
  3. Coaching helps people find their own resilience and capacity, even when we can’t change the external landscape. Any coach worth their salt knows to focus on the client, not the issue. When people are what we might call, “returned to themselves” through coaching, they see more possibility and find more internal resilience. This restores some sense of control in what feels like an uncontrollable world.
  4. The small amount invested in coaching during a crisis will pay off in terms of larger gains. The companies and individuals that will get through this time are those that maintain a fair amount of calm center, limit the toxic impact of stress, are flexible and agile, and truly “think outside the box.” Given the impact of the circumstances we find ourselves in, it is highly unlikely that people will find their way there without the kind of support coaching provides.
  5. Giving managers and leaders coaching provides a noticeable ripple effect. Research shows that leaders have a potent impact on the “weather” of their organization. When they are calm, emotionally regulated, thoughtful, and patient, those around them feel more able to respond more thoughtfully as well. (Same is true for parents and children.)
  6. This will most likely lead to permanent changes for individuals and orgs. We know coaching is one of the most effective ways to help people navigate change. We’re not going back to “business as usual” after this. Coaching helps us know and express our own needs, desires and boundaries as things change so we can be active “co-creators” in what is to come.
  7. It is more critical than ever to retain and develop top talent. We’re going to need extraordinary thinking and performance to help any enterprise—whether it is a business, a school, or even a family—get through this. As things are pointing to different structures in how we do business, all enterprises are going to need to rely more on multiple layers of leadership. Coaching helps develop people’s leadership strengths and confidence, and is also a proven retention strategy.
  8. Coaches help people get unstuck and move out of fixed patterns or mindsets. Surviving and thriving in this time requires an adaptable brain that can respond with flexibility and creativity, while still being thoughtful and applying logic. Coaching helps people identify limiting beliefs and move into more open and responsive mindsets.
  9. People are thinking about purpose and meaning as a result of this crisis. Without support in terms of surfacing and focusing on questions of meaning, life purpose, and important values, all too often the things we learn in crisis are lost. Coaching can help us powerfully reflect on what we are learning about ourselves.
  10. People will be using this opportunity to make major life and work changes and will need a coach to help navigate this change. Our old patterns and habits are well-wired into our brains. Making real change is disruptive to the system, and we need support to make major changes. Coaching is all about the reflection-action-reflection cycle of learning. A coach helps us identify what we want, try some things to put it into action, reflect on what we learned, and then continue this positive cycle as we move into new ways of being and therefore new results in our lives.

 

Ann Betz consults on the science of coaching for the ICF education department, and served as provocateur for the online learning ICF Advance in 2018 and will again in 2020. She is the author of This Is Your Brain on Coaching, the science of the ICF competencies, and has been a professional coach since 2001. She is the co-founder of BEabove Leadership, offering advanced coach training on neuroscience for the experienced and curious coach. She is a sought-after international speaker on the intersection of neuroscience, coaching, and human development, and works with many global brands and coaching organizations.

William Arruda is an entrepreneur, motivational speaker and the world’s leading authority on the topic of personal branding. He’s the bestselling author of the definitive books on the topic: Career Distinction and Ditch. Dare. Do! His latest book, Digital YOU helps readers translate their real-world brands for the virtual world. William is the CEO (Chief Encouragement Officer) of Reach Personal Branding and the co-founder of CareerBlast.TV – a personal and digital branding video learning platform for innovative organizations. His products have been used by over a million people across the globe. William is honored to work with many of the world’s most revered brands, including 20% of the Fortune 100. He regularly shares his thoughts on workplace trends and branding in his Forbes column. In 2015, he was awarded the ICF Chair’s Award for his contributions to the field of coaching.

 

 

Non-Coaching Ways to Help Yourself and Others Manage Stress


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Whether or not you are a professional coach, we all need ways sometimes to manage our own stress, whether it is because we need to feel what I call “regulated” in order to support others, or simply because we can’t focus or move forward due to feeling overwhelmed. Additionally, many of us support other people (friends, family, team members etc.) in roles other than as coaches. And even if we are coaches, there are also times and relationships where we want and need to show up less formally but still be helpful.

Here are some scientifically validated ways to help manage stress in ourselves and others while not wearing an official “coach” hat. In order of effectiveness, we have:

1. Suppression (not effective)

Although tempting, suppressing emotions is not an effective strategy. It has been linked to depression, and most experts agree that suppressed emotions find ways to “leak out” when not acknowledged and addressed in some way. We also tend to think that we can hide our emotions from others, but research shows that sitting next to someone who is upset and suppressing will raise your blood pressure (and the suppressor’s as well).

WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOURSELF

  • Spend some time in reflection—journaling, on a walk, etc. Ask yourself if you are suppressing anything (sometimes a natural response to “getting through the day”).

WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR ANOTHER

  • Notice if they are consistently saying “it’s all good,” and/or deflecting their natural feelings. If you can find a quiet, private time to check in, try one or more of the strategies below.

2. Naming the emotion

Research shows that simply naming an emotion reduces activity in the limbic regions. This is certainly the simplest and easiest way to manage our stress, although some people may need to build this muscle by expanding their emotional vocabulary and practicing either talking about how they really feel or at a minimum writing it down. (NOTE: as you are expressing how you feel, be sure that you don’t “amp it up.” Keep the venting to a minimum and move on to another strategy.)

WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOURSELF

  • Identify and name how you really feel—it often helps to write it down.
  • Find someone to talk to who is nonjudgmental and won’t collude with you.
  • Short venting (1 to 3 minutes) to self or another.

WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR ANOTHER

  • Ask how they really feel, then listen and ask a couple of additional questions, such as:
    • What’s the impact of that?
    • What’s hard right now?
  • Let them really vent (1 to 3 minutes) – make it a game, tell them you are setting a timer and you want them to go for it.
  • Resist the natural human urge to want to offer solutions, even though you may feel uncomfortable with not being able to fix it for them.

3. Controlling the Environment

This is probably the most effective strategy – nothing is better than actually removing the source of stress – however, it ranks low on the list because it is only effective in those cases where it is possible to do so. We can’t control everyone and everything in our lives, and attempting to will only create a net increase in stress. Still, where possible, this works.

WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOURSELF

  • Ask yourself what you can change or control about the situation.
  • If you have a friend or family member who is a good listener, brainstorm with them, and be open to changes you haven’t thought of or think are impossible.

WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR ANOTHER

  • Ask them what they can change or control about the situation.
  • Offer to brainstorm solutions with them (and stay unattached to what they do or don’t do).

4. Values and Life Purpose

Research shows that reflecting on meaningful values and life purpose serves as a buffer to stress. This strategy engages the pre-frontal cortex and gives us a broader context for our lives, a container for decision-making and a map for future direction.

WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOURSELF

  • Reflect on which of your values are being stepped on or need to be honored more fully. What can you do in this situation that honors one or more values?
  • Ask yourself what the bigger purpose is and/or how this might fit into your whole life and goals.

WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR ANOTHER

  • Ask them which of their values are being stepped on or need to be honored more fully. You can also reflect any values you might be hearing (such as if they say “I just feel so disrespected” they may have a value of respect). Ask what they could do in this situation that honors one or more of their values?
  • Ask them what the bigger purpose is and/or how this might fit into their whole life and goals.

5. Reframing

The act of reframing (also known as taking a new perspective or reappraisal) also activates the pre-frontal cortex, calming down our stress responses. Reappraisal has been touted by some neuroscientists as one of the most important skills a human being can develop for their mental health and life success.

WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOURSELF

  • Ask yourself what might be a different perspective on the issue or situation? What is another way of seeing it that feels more empowering?
  • If someone else is involved, try to stand in the other person’s shoes and look at things from there.

WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR ANOTHER

  • Ask them what might be a different perspective on the issue or situation? What is another way of seeing it that feels more empowering? Listen for little hints of what might be a more empowering perspective and reflect them back to the person. “It sounds like there is a bit of a silver lining that you are noticing….”

6. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is often an effective solution to any neuroscience challenge, from stress, to creativity, to improving memory, and even being more emotionally intelligent. Even just an attuned conversation with a close friend or relative (that is, one where you feel listened to and deeply heard) tends to bring people present into the moment and makes them pay attention to what is going on. Being present right now, rather than putting our attention on regrets from the past or worries about the future is a key stress management strategy. Additionally, developing a practice of meditation tends to build the skill and habit of being more present, and thus is a longer-term strategy for day-to-day stress management.

WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOURSELF

  • Notice your internal state without trying to change it.
  • Breathe in to the count of 6 and out to the count of 7. (This tends reset the brain to recovery mode.)
  • Develop a practice of meditation, even if it is only for only 5 minutes a day.

WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR ANOTHER

  • Without being patronizing, encourage them to slow down and just breathe.

The Saboteur, the Inner Leader, and the Brain

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There is a classic tool in coaching that goes by various names: the Saboteur, the Gremlin, the Disempowering Voice, etc. It’s the idea that we have any number of negative voices in our head that can limit us by whispering (or shouting in some cases) that we aren’t good enough or some other other discouraging and habitual message. Many coaches are trained to help the client a) identify and even personify these voices; b) understand this is not “you,” it is a common human experience that is separate from who you really are; and c) limit their impact, either by sending the “saboteur” away or (for more aware and advanced coaches) learn what it is trying to say and work to integrate the wisdom. In addition, one very useful tool is to identify a powerful “inner leader” that is the contrasting voice to the saboteur and can speak from a calmer, wiser place when the saboteur gets activated.

Over the years, many students have asked us where the saboteur and inner leader are in the brain. In the old (but now debunked — see The Orchestra of Your Brain) model of the so-called “triune brain,” we might have said that the lower, less developed, more emotional brain is the source of negative self talk, while the higher, smarter, more evolved prefrontal cortex is the wise inner leader. A nice, easy handy explanation.

But the brain doesn’t actually work like that. There aren’t specific places in the brain that run positive or negative conversations, and the idea that the lower part of our brain takes over and runs roughshod over the higher part is far too simplistic. It’s more about systems and integration–or the lack thereof.

The brain is a whole bunch of systems, and all of the systems play a role in where we are operating from at that moment and what inner monologue is running. For example, the Default Mode Network (DMN) which is active in both dreaming and rumination, can activate in  a helpful mode (Wow, what could my life be?) as well as the “saboteur” mode (Oh my god, what if I can’t make enough money this year? What if I am a fraud? etc.). Basically, it is taking us to the past and the future, versus another network (Task Positive Network or TPN) that operates in the present. The TPN also can have its helpful and unhelpful aspects–sometimes our minds need to wander to access creativity and possibility, and holding absolute focus will not allow that. Helpful mode of the TPN has us getting things done and being present, unhelpful mode reduces all answers to that which can be seen and calculated and causes our creativity and motivation to simply dry up. And these are only two systems of a very complex brain.

At BEabove Leadership, we love the work of Dr. Dan Siegel for many reasons. For this topic, there are two significant ways we want to share. One, his view that integration is key to all aspects of health and effectiveness. Dr. Siegel defines integration as “the linkage of differentiated elements.” So–in my one (limited) example above of the DMN and TPN we a) learn to differentiate the two networks and b) learn to link the one that brings us presence (TPN) and the one that travels to the past and future (DMN). Then we can use both networks in a helpful way. If we venture too far into Default Mode where we start to worry about the future or regret the past, we can activate Task Positive by looking to see what can be done right now and getting right down to it. If we get too far into Task Positive, looking at just what is in front of us right now, thereby losing the heart and meaning of our lives, we can activate our Default Mode and reconnect to our dreams, values, and meaning.

Saboteurs, we believe, don’t live in one area of the brain, but become activated when one aspect of our human system becomes less integrated and is not well linked with its counterpart. This could be a TPN/DMN imbalance as illustrated above, or a skew in the partnership between our right and left hemisphere, a disconnect from messages from our body, as well as many other aspects of our human system.

We believe that what we sometimes call the “inner leader” also doesn’t live in one area of the brain, but is our observer ability to recognize and work with all our systems, creating more balance and integration. The second way we look to Dr. Siegel is his definition of the mind, which is more than the brain. Dr. Siegel defines the mind as “An embodied and relational process regulating the flow of energy and information.” That is, it includes the brain, but can’t be found in (or limited to) any one part of the brain, because it is — and we are — so much more. So–the strong inner leader, which I would call the mind, is regulating our flow, observing where we are, and adjusting as needed for greater effectiveness.

We think that the ideas of saboteurs and inner leaders (or whatever you might call them), can be very helpful for everyone, but would just want to highlight the following:

  • They don’t live in specific areas of the brain, but are the function of systems;
  • Saboteurs are NOT something to be gotten rid of, banished or destroyed, but balanced and integrated. We need to not think of them as wrong, per se, but an overbalancing of some natural human system; and
  • Through awareness and practice, we can strengthen both our connections between systems, as well our ability to recognize and regulate the flow of “energy and information.”

Top Five Neuroscience-Based Things You Can Do to Make Virtual Learning More Better*

laptop-1238649*NOTE: The title was my attempt to bring some lightness to the topic, but has apparently got some folks thinking it is a typo. No, I really did mean “more better,” and if I’m the only one who thinks that’s funny, so be it! It wouldn’t be the first time….. 🙂  

 

There’s actually little here that just deals with only virtual challenges—as we’ve learned through our research at BEabove Leadership, much of it is simply best practice in all teaching and learning. But in the distance learning world, we believe we probably need to lean into these things even more because of the challenges imposed by the structure of being separate from each other. It isn’t really how we are meant to learn. For thousands of years, we’ve learned by watching and practicing, by hearing stories from the elders while huddled around a campfire, by being with and near each other. But right now, we can’t always be together in person, so the question is, how to make it as good as we possibly can?

#1. Create Real Connection. In other words, give everyone a voice in some way that is more than “Who has a question?” This may be the most obvious, but it is also the most critical. Why? There are probably two key reasons:

  • Having people make their own connections rather than just listening in promotes their neuroplasticity—they have to make the neural connections in their own brains. And if they know they are going to be asked to participate, reflect, and respond, their brains stay more alert.
  • As social animals, we need to feel connected and safe in a learning environment.

Here are a few examples (of course, use the chat function for these if there are a ton of people and/or you need to manage time tightly):

  • Use a provocative check-in question as you start the session.
  • Have them rephrase what you just said in their own words.
  • Ask, “Who will be ‘Devil’s Advocate’ about what I just said?”
  • Ask for specific examples from their own lives.
  • Ask who can think of a joke that relates to what we’ve been talking about? Or just ask for a good joke.
  • Create one-to-one engagement time with an individual who has a classic example or challenge.
  • Use “breakout” rooms where people can discuss in smaller groups or pairs.
  • As much as you can, read replies out loud to really bring their voices in. If a very large number of people, have an assistant monitor the responses and pull out a few to highlight.
  • Have some sort of fun GIF or sound or visual when someone makes a really great point or provides the perfect segue to the next topic.

applorange#2. Make the Learning Multi-Sensory. The more neural pathways we have associated with something, the more interesting and memorable it becomes. Even simply using slides will bring in visual associations – and making these compelling, visually interesting and unusual will lock in learning more than providing the visual version of whole bunch o’ lists. (The brilliant scientist Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett uses a GIF of electric towers jumping rope to illustrate one of her points and it is unforgettable.) But more than just nice pics, we can involve all the senses, even in the virtual space.

Here are a few examples of things you can do:

  • Ask them to stand and embody what you are talking about; and/or create a simple exercise involving moving their body in some way.
  • Give them homework to bring to the next class something for each of the five senses which represents what they just learned. In other words, what is a visual image that captures this idea? What is the smell of it? What is the sound of it? What does it feel like? What does it taste like? And/or ask this in class. Believe me, it will really get those neurons firing! They can either show on video or tell in chat.
  • The brain is trained to pay more attention to what it hasn’t seen before, so use odd or unusual pictures, videos or GIFs.
  • Tell illustrative stories with sensory detail. When you are lecturing or trying to make a point, the more senses you bring in, the more people will put themselves in the picture, their brains mapping your story along with you.

#3. Provide Both Structure and Freedom. Broadly speaking, the left hemisphere of the brain is more keyed to the known, the predictable, and the orderly, while the right prefers the new, the open, and the unstructured. In all training, it’s important to think about both—in virtual learning, the right hemisphere often gets a bit neglected as we strive to provide all the necessary information. The truth is, learning is much more impactful when the instructor pays attention to both.

Here are a few examples of things you can do:

STRUCTURE

  • Be very clear about what you’ll do and when.
  • Let participants know how long certain activities or discussions will be, and be reliable (also about class starting and ending times).
  • DO provide clear and simple written (or on slides) data/lists/instructions when important.

FREEDOM

  • As mentioned above, look to provide the unexpected and unusual. The joke or cartoon no one has heard before, the visual image, the video, etc.
  • Dance with the energy of the group, don’t be afraid to go down a few “rabbit trails” that might be slightly off topic if there is energy and enthusiasm there.
  • Do things that make you more human and relatable. Wear something unusual andimg_1963 interesting. Invite your (well-behaved) animals to join you (my cats often come on at the beginning of my classes and then get bored and go away).
  • Co-create – leave room in the curriculum for the participants to shape things—this could be topics they want you to cover, or it could be organizing “teach-backs” from individuals or groups.

#4. Be Stimulating But Not Stressful. Our prefrontal cortex is highly attuned to stress. Keeping things interesting and novel and will be stimulating to this part of the brain (which we definitely need for learning). Overwhelming students with too much information, information that is beyond the scope of where they are, or mind-twisting assignments can overload this part of the brain. On the other hand, a droning voice, slides that are nothing but data and lists, and a pure lecture style with little interaction will have the participants seriously under-stimulated and most likely checked out.

Here are a few examples of things you can do:

TO MANAGE STRESS

  • Calibrate, calibrate, calibrate. Make sure you have a very good sense of where your students are and what is the next place to take them. Many amazing experts sometimes forget that what is obvious to them is NOT to the average person. Assuming significant prior knowledge that is not actually there can create stress, anxiety and even shame. This is another reason to keep your slides simple and clear.
  • Be sensitive and allow a great deal of choice when doing emotional work. If a student is processing trauma, they can be more impacted by what might be for someone else completely innocuous.
  • Provide clear expectations but also look for ways to give students some capacity to exert control over their experience. In other words, be up front about what is negotiable and what isn’t. Giving people a sense of control is one of the key ways to manage stress.

TO CREATE MORE STIMULATION

  • As mentioned above, look to provide the unexpected and unusual. The joke or odd-one-out-1353549-1600x1200cartoon no one has seen before, the unexpected direction. One of the key issues with virtual learning as a participant is that our brains can go into a bit of a groove, thinking we know what to expect (or even planning to catch up on email while we attend a class). When the instructor doesn’t go into the same old groove, the brain says “Oh, wait a minute, what’s this?” and pays much more attention.
  • Be variable and melodic with your voice. Instructors with flat voices that have little “prosody” (that is, they don’t go up and down in tonal range) create less connection with their students and generally don’t provide enough stimulation to the brain. If you’re not sure about yours, have a trusted friend listen and give you feedback. Then practice!
  • Express your own enthusiasm and excitement for the topic. One of my favorite teachers is Robert Sapolsky of Stanford. He lectures about biology and it is inevitably riveting. He illustrates many of the points I have mentioned here, but probably the one thing he does that surpasses them all is that he is madly in love with what he does. That energy and enthusiasm is like adding a big bright highlighter pen to whatever he is talking about. (He also tells stories extremely well, with tons of sensory details.)

#5. Create Personal Relevance. Ok, maybe I lied when I said #1 (create real connection) was the most important because it’s possible that this one actually is. The truth is, our brains have to process so much information we have to have some way of sorting out what gets through and what doesn’t. (This is largely the job of the reticular activating system, BTW.) The bottom line is that most of us tend to pay attention and retain information to the degree to which it is personally relevant to us. This aspect of learning surpasses all others, including learning styles and everything else I have covered in this article. If you really want or need to know something, you’ll read the poorly written instructions-1423097-1599x2132pamphlet that came with your vacuum cleaner. If you don’t (because your brain has tagged it as “not relevant”), tap dancing elephants may not even help. This is an issue in any sort of training, but the distance in distance learning can serve to exacerbate the challenge, which is why I believe it is even more critical to pay attention to in that space.

Here are a few examples of things you can do:

  • Have students connect the learning to something real in their own lives. I have noticed that even when I think it is obvious, sometimes their brain doesn’t make the connection until you ask for it. Again, you can do this through having people type in examples on the chat and pulling some out, having one or two share a story, and/or put them into break rooms to discuss and then come back and share.
  • Simply keep asking “And how is this relevant in your work, life, relationship, etc.” This will also prime them that you are going to ask that question so they may even listen for more relevance.
  • Ask “When would this be important to know/understand?”
  • Use images and examples that reflect a broad community and especially the community you are teaching. One way to NOT make things personally relevant is to use images and examples that don’t reflect people’s reality, ethnicity, etc.
  • Tell real, authentic, raw and vulnerable stories from your own life. Because at some point the human experience has a lot of overlap. Your struggles and pain—if not sugar-coated and told with deep authenticity—may be close enough to someone else’s to activate their connection to personal relevance. But be aware of the point above. If it’s a so called “first world problem” your story may backfire.

Wishing you powerful learning and connection, no matter how you interact with your people. And if you want to dive deeper into this topic, see our recorded webinar on Creating Brain-Friendly training for much more more on how to make any training engaging, exciting and impactful.

What Are You Predicting?

tarot-1191485-1919x1685In which I attempt to describe the complex process of the prediction cycle in the brain, and why the traditional language of emotional response is failing me….. 

Like most of us, as part of both my personal and leadership path of development, I learned early on that we humans need to work on our tendency to react. That many things trigger us into “amygdala hijacks” and activate our lower, emotion-driven mammalian or even reptilian brains. And to be honest, I found this useful information. It’s good to know when I may have been taken over by an unreliable part of my brain, not clearly thinking, and simply acting in a manner dictated by a fight-flight-freeze reaction to something I perceive as a threat.

Except sorry, it’s not really how it works. First of all, we don’t have a so-called “triune brain” that evolved like a layer cake with each new (better) processor stacked on top of the ones that came before. (See my post The Orchestra of Your Brain for a more detailed exploration of this widely-believed fallacy.) In terms of our conversation here, that means that we don’t actually have an older, reactive brain that literally takes over during times of stress.

Rather, we have a highly complex, ever-evolving system. In fact, these days the way I like to describe the brain is as a system of systems, many of which actually involve the entire brain in some way. And most of which are far more complex than we even now have any idea. For example, researcher Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge has identified at least nine areas of the brain involved in the process of empathy. No one area can be said to be the location of empathy–rather, aspects of the system work together to bring us greater or lesser empathy. And, like every system, aspects can be missing, underdeveloped, or not activated under certain circumstances. (For more on this, see his fascinating book The Science of Evil.) At BEabove Leadership, we ourselves have identified at least nine areas of the brain and body involved in intuition–again, it is a system!

But I digress. The systems regulate processes, and the key process we’re going to explore here is what the brilliant researcher Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett calls the Prediction Cycle. (For a deep deep dive, see her book How Emotions are Made.) Here’s the thing that blew my mind–Dr. Barrett makes a very convincing argument that our emotions are not as we have probably been told:

  • Reactions;
  • Classic, true across all cultures (and identifiable to emotionally intelligent people through the eyes); and
  • A result of our “emotional” brain getting triggered.

Rather they are unique, individual, contextual, predictive constructions based on our personal history, language culture, and more.

Wait, what?

Emotions are not a reaction to what just happened. They are a prediction of what we think will happen (based on our context–which includes culture, language, and past experience) so that we’re ready for it when and if it does. This prediction can (and often does) happen so fast that it feels like a reaction. It’s just not.

You see, the prime directive of our brain is to keep us alive. And it has a limited “body budget” it uses to do so. So for our brain, emotional prediction is kind of like planning your bills–what am I going to need, what can I juggle around so that I am not overdrawn? And if there is a big-ticket expenditure, man, we better be ready for it. So we anticipate, the event happens, it lines up with our calculations (or doesn’t), and we readjust. For example, I recently had to take my car in for its 10,000 mile service and had budgeted a couple of hundred dollars because, since it was a new car, I had no idea what to expect. Turns out the car company covers the first 30,000 and my cost was zero (yay!). Now for the 20,000 mile service I won’t budget for it and can plan to use that money elsewhere.

Prediction Cycle

So how does this apply to emotions? In order to understand that, here’s a diagram of how the Prediction Process works in terms of the emotional systems in your brain. We predict, and that prediction has us simulate feelings associated with the prediction and interpret those feelings using emotion concepts (the richness of the emotion concepts will vary depending on language and our own ability to be “granular” with our feelings). Then what we are anticipating happens, and we compare what happened to our prediction. If it was right on, we go forward with more evidence for the accuracy of our predictions, if not we have to resolve any errors. Let me give you a concrete example to illustrate.

1) Predict: Your brain automatically predicts what will happen based on past experiences, and your current goal. This is a very complex process involving various parts of the brain and body, not just what we have been told are the “emotional areas” (therefore the whole brain and body can be thought of as emotional).

I have to talk to my boss about a raise (goal) and (based on a lot of past experience) I know she will be difficult and unreasonable.

2) Simulate: This prediction leads to an internal simulation before anything actually happens. We’re getting our body budget ready for what we think we will need.

I simulate sensations of unease, heart beating faster, and butterflies in my stomach. (I am getting prepared for what I am expecting and the energy I might need.) I interpret these feelings as my emotion concepts of anxiety and dread.

3) Compare: The simulation is compared to what actually occurs.

I meet with her and she tells me she is working on her overly abrupt management style with a coach, listens to me more thoughtfully than usual, is reasonable, and we negotiate a fair raise.

4) Resolve Errors: If simulation is in alignment with what happened, simulation is validated and will be used for further predictions. If it is not, the brain has to resolve the errors.

4) Error message! I internally resolve the dichotomy and use it for further prediction. In this case, I realize that she actually has become somewhat easier to deal with lately and perhaps I have been mis-predicting. I predict more positive outcomes in the future, simulate differently, etc. 

Key points (and this probably isn’t all of them!):

  • Prediction can happen well in advance of something–like a performance review three months away–or so quickly it doesn’t even feel like a prediction (like getting cut off in traffic);
  • The Prediction Process is neutral in nature, as are all components within it. You could just as easily predict your boss is going to reasonable based on past experience, simulate a calm nervous system, interpret that as confidence, and have her be awful. Then you have to figure out how to resolve that error;
  • Coaching can occur (and by the way, already does) at any point of the cycle. As my friend master coach Rick Tamlyn likes to say “It’s All Made Up!” Asking a client what they are making up about a situation is a way of asking what they are predicting. Asking how they feel about something is a way of asking what they are simulating and interpreting. Asking “what happened and is it what you expected?” is a way of opening the conversation for comparison. Asking “what do you make of that?” is helping them to resolve any errors. In other words, if you’re a coach, you’re already doing aspects of this cycle.

So why does this matter? I think the thing that struck me the most as a coach, is that if it is about prediction, there is a place for intervention. I can poke into whether or not my client’s prediction is fair and reasonable, and if there is current evidence for this prediction. And many times there is not–they are predicting based on old stories and saboteurs. We can look to see what competing evidence and context they have a prediction that is more life-affirming.

If my client is simply “triggered” or “reacting,” it’s too late and the best they can hope for is to do better next time. But an understanding of this prediction cycle and the fact that we are predicting can lead to more personal responsibility — our whole brains are constructing our emotional experience, we have not been taken over by some lower, animalistic part that needs to be controlled, suppressed or punished.

And so I have been stymied by language at times. Everyone knows what I mean when I say “sorry, I reacted,” or “oops, I got triggered.” But when you look someone in the eye and say “I seem to be having a negative prediction” they tend to think you’re a bit odd. (Wait, maybe I need a new prediction around that!)

Consciousness and the Integrated Brain (and Human System)

I was sitting in a corporate meeting recently, and as one of the participants was speaking, suddenly I could see and understand the soul pouring into her. It wasn’t like a movie – I didn’t see light beams streaming — it was more like a knowing. As I watched while she spoke, I knew on a deep intuitive (and yet very real) level that her soul was flowing into her body in an ongoing process.

And this soul was pure energy. By pure I mean both “nothing but energy,” as well as pure in the sense of clean, clear, and uncontaminated. It was her body that could only hold a certain level of vibration. In other words. the energy coming in was shaped in the world by what her human body was capable of.

In that moment I was shown that this was about established patterns and capacities of the mind as well as biochemistry, heart rate variability, the strength of the vagus nerve, and to some degree the general health of the body as well. All of these things were taking the pure light of consciousness and altering the vibration so that this particular body (and when I say body I include the physical brain) could hold it.

I watched this with every person in that meeting. I watched the energy come in and I watched it being held by their bodies in different ways. One person was sick, and I saw her body struggling more, but I could tell this was temporary, a way vibration was working with her weakened body.

It’s like pouring pure, clean water into a cup. Consciousness is pure and perfect. The cup, the body, distorts it depending what residue it holds. The cleaner the cup, the more it can hold and reflect that water’s pure crystalline structure.

acupuncture-body-1564417 (1)

This is how the body works with consciousness. And it tells me it’s not our role to do anything about consciousness. Instead, our role is to help the body hold more light. To clean the cup so it can reflect more accurately what is there.

This involves every single aspect of the human system. For example (but not limited to):

All of this (and more) allows the human to hold a higher frequency. The being can shine more light. And this is why our whole human system is critical to consciousness. We are vessels for light, and those vessels reflect light to the degree they are able.

 

Entering Softly

arms-wide-open-1457804The Right Hemisphere and Coaching

Ah, the two hemispheres of the brain, something we are endlessly fascinated with here at Your Coaching Brain. While it is true that, on a day to day basis, we use both hemispheres for most of what we do (yes, even music, math, art and logic), it is equally true that each hemisphere pays attention to the world in a very different way. The right focuses on the big picture, the relationship between things, and meaning. The left gives us the ability to understand and attend to pieces and parts. It is concerned with both the details and process.

The right hemisphere is also attuned to that which is novel, unique and heretofore unexplored, and as such, all new information comes to us through our right hemisphere. Conversely, the left deals with what it already knows, the representations (re-presentations) of things already noticed and brought into awareness by the right hemisphere. The left hemisphere’s role is as an interpreter of reality, not an experiencer. They each have their uses—and their limitations.

One limitation we need to think about has huge implications for coaching. In order for the client to shift to somewhere truly new, to have an experience of transformation, we must get them into their right hemisphere. All learning starts here—with what we don’t know, haven’t noticed, and are yet to experience. However, we also want to be sure the session is practical and useful for the client, and is, of course, what they want, all of which are more left hemisphere concerns.

And thus a conundrum. On the one hand, traditionally as the session begins we ask the client what they want from today’s work and how they will know they have gotten that. We may ask them to think about the measures and markers that they have, indeed, had a useful session, thus activating their practical left hemisphere and asking it to sort through what it already knows.

On the other hand, current understanding of the brain shows us that often what needs to occur is in the realm of what the client “doesn’t know what they don’t know.” The right hemisphere is where we will find that amazing “aha” that can turn the coaching in a whole new—often much more powerful—direction. This is the part of brain that pays attention to the “still small voice” of what is unknown and undiscovered.

And so, I have come to enter coaching sessions softly. I do ask, what do you want to focus on today, but I generally refrain from getting too “granular” with specific outcomes,* because (usually) I intentionally want to activate the open, learning part of the client’s brain. I want them to enter into today’s coaching from a place they do not know, instead of moving around the pieces and parts they have looked at before. Once we have looked and explored in a wide, open way, there is a time to narrow things down, make plans and look to measures. This focusing in is also an important part of coaching–it’s just not always the best place to begin.

Perhaps it feels a bit more in control if you have a clear, specific, measurable goal for every coaching session, which makes the left hemisphere happy (and yes, as noted in my footnote, there are times when this makes sense). The right hemisphere, however, doesn’t care that things be linear, predictable and measurable, because its focus is a greater integration of the whole. And ultimately, I would argue, this is what really matters in coaching.

*a notable exception is if the client has already, perhaps in other sessions, done enough exploration and they really at this point just need to make a plan.

 

Thank you to Iain McGilchrist for his amazing book The Master and His Emissary, and the new documentary, The Divided Brain. McGilchrist spent over 20 years synthesizing wisdom from philosophy, history, art and neuroscience to help us understand the real difference – and challenge – of the two hemispheres of the brain.