What to Do With the I Don’t Know

shutterstock_1072714010In one of my coaching classes we started the weekend by exploring the “thing we can’t be with.” In terms of coaching, I have to say, it’s probably that client who just keeps saying “I don’t know,”  or otherwise goes flat or blank, even with the best, most provocative powerful question. Argh!! What the heck I am I supposed to do with THAT? I’m not the magic reveal your life purpose fairy, nor am I the sherpa who will carry you up the hill.

But I am the curious brain examiner, so maybe it will help if we go there. Let’s start by looking at a few reasons why a client might get stuck in the I don’t knows, and what you could try if you think that’s what’s happening.

1. They are over-activated in the left hemisphere of their brain. This is often my working hypothesis when the “I don’t know” feels energetically more flat or rigid (the left hemisphere when very over-calibrated takes us to rigidity), and when it is in response to questions like “What do you want?” “What values are important to you?” “What if anything was possible?” etc. And here’s why–those questions are a bit more right hemisphere friendly (for more on the two hemispheres of the brain see Come On Over to The Right Side and Right Brain – Left Brain–Is It All A Myth?), and if the client is currently (or habitually) stuck in their left hemisphere, they simply may not have any access in this moment. 

What to do: You have a couple of options here. One is to ask some questions that are more left-hemisphere friendly, and luckily this actually isn’t hard. The left hemisphere LOVES to judge and evaluate and criticize. So ask the client to do this. Questions like “what are some of the things that don’t work in your current situation?” or even, “what drives you crazy?” can easily be flipped to mine for the client’s values. For example, if the client says “I can’t stand the way my boss micro-manages me, it’s so insulting!” you can probe to see if the value is autonomy, respect, trust, etc. Ok, now we know at least one thing the client may want to shift or change. (Even before I knew about the brain, it was always so interesting to me, and I am sure to most of you as well, how often it was quicker and easier for a client to answer “what don’t you want?” than “what do you want?”)

The second option is to bring them into the right hemisphere, and the best way to do this is NOT through verbal language (which may actually keep them more stuck in the left). Instead, use images, metaphors, and connection to the body as your doorway in. It may help to say to a reluctant client something along the lines of: “In order to help you discover more of who you are and what you really want, we need to activate a part of your brain that is less strategic and linear. Don’t worry, we’ll come back to strategy and steps for implementation. But first we need to get you connected to something deeper, and this is the best way I know.”

2. They are over-activated in the right hemisphere of the brain. While the left hemisphere over-calibrated becomes rigid, the right becomes chaotic. So if I have a client who is all over the place in their not-knowing, and/or feels like any direction they take will cut off some other wonderful idea or possibility, this is my hypothesis. It can feel a lot like a car starting and stopping or a tornado swirling, and I find it exhausting to coach. The client will start down a path that feels resonant, only to turn and double back again. Ack!

What to do: Again, there are a couple of options. Take them into it, or take them out of it. In the first, I often go with the swirl, first making it even a bit bigger (“Yes! and you could also do this, and this and this!”) and then having the client view what their life is like down the road if they stay in this confusion and continue to keep all their options open. What does life look like? Is that what they really want? 

In the second, I like to lean into the left hemisphere a bit by having the client get very linear about each option. Get it out of their head and onto paper. Bullet point it. Make a spreadsheet or matrix. I actually love to help them with this (and sometimes I really need to if they are massively all over the place). You might say something like “Let’s look at each thing, what it would take and how you would feel about it. And don’t worry, you don’t have to commit right now to any of it. Let’s just get it all out of your head and onto the table where you can really look at it.” And of course, as we as coaches already know, once the client can actually look at all of it, they often start seeing patterns and realizing where the energy is. 

3. They are overwhelmed or underwhelmed by stress. When we have either too much or too little stimulation going on in our lives, it can make it hard to think and focus. (See The Goldilocks of the Brain for more on this.) Our prefrontal cortex is needed for this function, and it likes to be in balance. I like to say stimulated, but not stressed is my happy, most productive place. If you have a client who is very bored, not being well-used in their work or life, or a client who is barely managing to keep all the plates spinning, you may run into the “I don’t knows.” Their brain is simply not in the right biochemical state to know!

What do do: this may be obvious, but the first thing is to help get their lovely brains back to the state where focus and direction and some aspect of clarity is possible. If they are under-stimulated (this can happen when they are re-entering the workforce, too long in the same job, under-utilized at work, disconnected from their purpose and passions, etc.), they simply need to get stimulated. Adding some challenge and stress and interesting pursuits will spike the chemical balance in a positive direction.

And if (as many clients are) they are overwhelmed, over-scheduled and over-worked, take a look at this list for some research-based ideas for diminishing the chemical overload. (And as a bonus, here is a short video of me using this idea as a coaching tool.)

There may, of course, be other brain-related reasons a person gives you the “I don’t knows,” but honestly, mostly what I have encountered as a coach is some combination of the above.  I hope this helps!

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You Don’t NEED Neuroscience

In which I explain whatever possessed me (an artist and poet) to take myself off to neuroscience school….. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I got my training as a coach almost 17 years ago, I was working as a consultant in the non-profit world. My background was theater, poetry, art, and philosophy and I think I’d perhaps taken one or two science classes in my life. I came into coaching full-on and full-hearted; its power and magic blew me away in my very first class.

I certainly didn’t need neuroscience to prove that coaching is effective. I could see it. The evidence from stories and examples was overwhelming—who needed numbers and graphs? In my coach training, I was completely fine with the instructors saying “trust us, it works,” then trying it myself, failing, refining, and eventually WHOA, a moment of true transformation for my client. WOW. Who cares HOW this works? It DOES!

But when I first became a coach I was married to a lawyer with a science background. He had a tendency in those days to dismiss and diminish coaching as fluffy, ungrounded, woo-woo and self-indulgent. Little did I know at the time what a blessing this would be, adding machinepainful as it was. Again and again, I found myself completely tongue-tied and inarticulate when he would cross-examine me about how coaching works. And falling back on my defense of “trust me, it does!” was not particularly satisfying to either one of us. While I hated being cross-examined, I did long to know what the heck was going on. Why did coaching work so well when people just gave it a shot? How could I explain this magical, amazing world of personal growth and transformation in a more compelling way? Was there a bridge to be built between the trusting mystics and the doubting linear thinkers?

Fast forward a few years. I’m divorced (I could only take so much cross-examination, after all), teaching a model of consciousness with my dear business partner Ursula, and a newly-minted faculty member for the Coaches Training Institute (CTI). Three things happen: one, I am watching our students challenged by the same confidence and communication issues I had as a new coach; two, we were struggling to get people involved in our work on consciousness; and three, I kept seeing little tastes of neuroscience in the news. This was eight years ago, and while it was NOTHING like today, with thousands of articles and books, and a new finding about the brain almost daily, there were some intriguing bread crumbs in terms of both coaching and consciousness.

Do you ever get that question that won’t leave you alone? The one that wakes you up and pokes you? The one you think, “now THAT’S a good question?” Well, proving what we were really up to in the business of human development/transformation, that was my question. How does this all work? Is it simply mystical and unknowable, or are there portions we can know? And so, to the amusement of my family (Neuroscience? I didn’t think you had any interest in science) and the bafflement of my partner Ursula (You go ahead, dear, I will NOT be joining you in neuroscience school!) off I went.

The impact was almost immediate. I was amazed. While at the time there wasn’t any direct neuroscience research on coaching (or consciousness, for that matter, but that’s another blog post), almost everything we studied was correlative, applicable, and ultimately expansive. For example, when we went through the research on how to manage stress, it mapped elegantly with the three core principles I was teaching at CTI. Learning about the right and left hemispheres of the brain helped me understand the different ways we tune our listening: to level two (more left hemisphere) or level three (more right hemisphere). And so much more. After every class I’d call Ursula and say “Guess what I learned?!” and we’d debrief and look to see how we could take this learning to a new level. And six years ago this May, our flagship program, Neuroscience, Consciousness, and Transformational Coaching, was born. This stuff was just way too cool not to share!

As we developed and trained this amazing information, Ursula, a prosperity guide, Akashic Records reader, and author of a book on blessings, became a huge neuroscience fan and expert as well. She likes to say “If I can learn this, anyone can!”

And for both of us, it hasn’t killed the mystery at all. It’s created innumerable new mysteries that have us exploring the edges of quantum physics, the heart’s resonant field, hyper-communication, the power of vibration, and much more. We have come to see that consciousness is ultimately about integration of the highly complex system of being human, and coaching is one of the best things we can do to create lasting integration. Therefor, we argue, coaching literally raises consciousness. That’s all. Just that. No big deal.

Recently I saw a post on Facebook from some blogger calling life coaching a fraud, and I was thrust back to the dinner table of 15 years past. remembering spluttering and stammering as I tried to defend a profession I hold very much in my heart. Except this time, I calmly and serenely thought, “Oh, you have NO idea what we are really doing to people’s brains and world. No idea at all.”

For a comprehensive overview of the neuroscience of the ICF competencies, see This is Your Brain on Coaching. For more brain states at different levels of consciousness, see the Seven Levels of Effectiveness ebook. 

 

Four Ways to Parent Above the Line

In honor of the start of the 2017-2018 school year, yourcoachingbrain is taking a break from coaching to focus on the challenges of parenting. 

teenagers1Maybe it’s the start of another school year or the fact that my son at age 21 is now “officially” an adult, but I have been thinking a lot about parenting lately. Particularly in terms of how we both survived – and even thrived – during his teenage years.

And we didn’t have the easiest time at first, to be honest. At age 13 he went through an international move and his parent’s divorce. One day we’re living on 50 acres overlooking the Pacific ocean in Costa Rica and he’s going to a six-student supervised home school, and the next we’re back in Minnesota and he’s starting eighth grade at a huge junior high and splitting his time between two suburban houses with parents trying to figure out the next chapter of their own lives. Whew.

It wasn’t, shall we say, smooth sailing. My son and I bickered and yelled at each other, we hurt each other’s feelings, and we all too often missed the point of what the other really needed and was asking for. Understandable in a young teen, but I wanted to do better as an adult. And yet, it seemed no one could trigger me quite like he could, and I would lose my cool again and again. I was NOT being the mom I wanted to be and I wasn’t proud of myself. Nor did I find I was enjoying parenting—my son and I had always been incredibly close, and now I couldn’t figure out how to connect. A likable, easy-going kid had turned unpredictable and often volatile. Luckily, about this time, I started studying neuroscience, understanding the brain, and slowly (very slowly, to be honest) seeing a way forward. Here are few things I learned.

1) Don’t Expect Teenagers to Be Rational. Except When They Are. During the teenage and young adult years the highest brain, the prefrontal cortex, is finishing its development. Neural connections are being strengthened, and pathways deemed less important or unnecessary are pruned so that signal strength is stronger in others. (Hormonal surges play a role in this, not only in the development of secondary sex characteristics.)

I think of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) as the executive director of the brain. It doesn’t run everything, but it manages and/or connects to many of our most critical functions. For example, a fully “online” PFC is capable of thinking things through, delaying gratification, remembering things, holding abstractions, and understanding how others think and feel.

For a teenager and young adult with a developing PFC, two things happen. One, some of these things may not yet be really operational, and in my own experience (note, this is anecdotal, I haven’t researched it), it goes in rough categories. On the one hand, some kids tend to get the empathy side of things while the logical planning and thinking things through eludes them longer. This was my own experience. I had difficulty making and following plans or focusing on long-term goals until my mid to late 20s. But I could understand others from a much younger age and was the go-to “counselor” with family and friends even before I hit my teen years. On the other hand, some have real focus and ability to work towards long term goals early on, while connection to feelings (their own and others) may be less developed. This was my son, who decided in eighth grade he would be valedictorian and never wavered from that academic path (and so he was, by the way). But when I asked him at 14 how he felt about moving from Costa Rica, he literally responded, “What are these feelings of which you speak?” However, later in his teen years he began have a deeper understanding of his friends, and now we regularly talk about how he feels.

The second thing that happens is that the process of developing these aspects is erratic. One day they may exhibit great concern for and interest in you, the next be totally and completely self-focused. One day they may rationally and logically plan for their future and the next do a completely stupid and self-destructive thing.

And so one of the things that really helped me as a parent is not to expect my son to be at a different place developmentally than where he was – and to have a great deal of patience with the up and down nature of this. In other words, frame my expectations for who he was being in the moment, with the understanding that it was like a spring weather system in Minnesota, highly changeable. So take an umbrella just in case.

Visit here for more on the prefrontal cortex. 

2) If You Honor Their Brilliance it’s Easier to Share Your Wisdom. The paradoxical thing about our wonderful prefrontal cortices is that at the same time they in the late stages of development, they are also at their best. The neural connections are fresh and there are more of them. Thinking in new ways is natural, because the pathways we establish with repetition and reward are not as well-worn as they are in later years. And so, it is natural that powerfully creative and innovative thinking comes from young people. This deserves to be nurtured, celebrated, expected and rewarded.

I think of the countless deep conversations I had with my son during his high school years. One of the parenting blessings of being trained as a coach was the ability to listen with curiosity and ask questions that helped him understand his own thinking, rather than jumping in with my solution. There were times I could almost literally see the neurons firing and connecting in his brain as he pondered some important issue out loud and I managed to restrain myself and really listen. As I realized more and more his capacity for subtle thinking, I even brought him challenges I was encountering in my neuroscience studies and was astounded by his ability to help me make sense of things. His neurons were often simply quicker and more creative than mine!

At the same time, there is an important role for the wisdom we accumulate through experience. We learn, for example, that much of life isn’t black and white, that emotions tend to rule logic, and that humans are endlessly complex. I found that the more I honored and respected my son’s brilliance, the more open he was to my wisdom. One of the ways I know we got through the teenage years ok is that he now calls me from college to get my perspective and advice. Yay!

Visit here for more on neuroplasticity.

3) Design Your Relationship (When You Are Both Calm). My son and I had a really bad dynamic when he was about 14 and 15. He’d get upset and angry about something and I would react. We’d both go to a state that Dan Goleman (of emotional intelligence fame) dubs an “amygdala hijack.” In other words, both of our PFCs would be very much offline, and all that was available to either of us was fight, flight, or freeze. It didn’t matter at that point whether his upset was rational, we were just two reactions bumping against each other. My son tends to be a fighter by nature, while I am more of a fleer. This sometimes meant him following me around the house trying his best to engage me in an argument while I just wanted to get the heck away. It was, to be honest, awful.

Because of my neuroscience studies, at some point I realized what was actually happening and that I could do nothing productive in the middle of the hijack. So one day when we were at dinner and all was calm and connected, I said, “You know, hon, sometimes it seems like we get into a bad dynamic and I get triggered and reactive. When this happens, my natural response is to want to get away, and I sense this is frustrating for you because you want to talk to me about something. But if you can give me ten minutes or so to calm down, I think I can talk about whatever it is you want to discuss. Could we try this?” (My idea was, of course, that in the time I was on my own calming down, he would be as well, but this framing of the issue as mine would be easier for him to take than me pointing a finger at his reactive state.)

This changed everything for us. Not right away, and not perfectly, because we would still both get triggered, but it gave us a tiny handhold on the mountain to pull ourselves up to a higher state. I’d remind him of our agreement as calmly as I could (not at all calmly in the beginning) and he’d persist a bit, but over time he started to let go more and more quickly. It sometimes helped when I reiterated that I WOULD discuss whatever he was upset about, I just needed a few minutes.

Funny thing is, I actually don’t remember ever actually talking about the issue, because I guess by the time we both got our PFCs back online, there really wasn’t one.

Visit here for more on having an amygdala hijack. 

4) Be the Person You Want Face in the Mirror. Your young person’s brain is wiring in patterns for life, and part of creating this wiring is how the people around them respond. If you can work (and work and work) at remaining reasonably calm in the midst of stress and their age-appropriate irrationality, lack of preparation, self-focus and poor decisions, you help their brains wire for emotional intelligence.

To me, this is a thoughtful balance of speaking up, letting go, and trust. When my son was unkind I did my best to say “it’s not ok to talk to me like that,” or some version thereof, and then let it go, trusting that this was part of his development. Same with other developmental areas, such as thinking ahead. When he got stuck his sophomore year without a summer job, I did my best to first help him find some sort of solution, then worked with him around what would have been a better strategy so that he had more conscious awareness for the next year, let it go and helped him financially that summer, and trusted he would develop this skill. The next year I just checked in a couple of times and when it was clear he had really learned from the past year, told him I was proud of him and let it go.

The speaking up honors my own values and keeps me active in the game. It also serves as a reminder of where we want the neural patterning to develop. The letting go honors where the young person is and what they are capable of right now, and the trust honors that what is happening is a developmental process.

One caveat to all of this parenting is that not all brains are what we would call “neurotypical.” Humans come with a wide array of challenges and gifts, and parenting some kids is honestly harder than others. But they all have things to help us discover in our own development as well. I often would refer to my son as my Zen master, especially during those early high school years. People would think I meant he was very calm and wise. “No,” I’d say, “he’s more like one of those Zen masters who hit you over the head with a 2×4 and see how you respond. He is master of teaching me patience, perspective and love.”

He’s also one of my most favorite human beings in the world, and I am ever grateful for what I’ve learned with, from and because of him.

 

BEabove Leadership offers a two-day communication workshop, the Seven Levels Human Relationships Program, focused on increasing connection and decreasing stress in all relationships. We offer practical tools for all relationships (business, romantic and family and friends) based on neuroscience and the Seven Levels of Effectiveness. Join us in the San Francisco December 9 and 10, 2017, and Ottowa Canada spring 2018. http://www.beaboveleadership.com/seven-levels-human-relationships-program/

10 rules for keeping my brain at the just right amount of stress and stimulation

At BEabove Leadership, we have learned that the prefrontal cortex (PFC) needs just the right amount of stress/stimulation to function optimally. Too little excitement, challenge,balance-2-reloaded-1564717-1279x1918 purpose, etc., and the chemical balance skews, too much stress, pressure, or demands, and the same result. (For more on the mechanics of this phenomenon, see here.)

For me, this understanding had a huge impact on my life, and I have begun to see that managing my PFC needs to be part of a basic human maintenance plan, just like keeping gas and oil in my car and not overheating the engine. This isn’t particularly easy for anyone in today’s world, and I personally struggle with a demanding international travel schedule and the challenges of co-owning an-ever developing business. But I realized one day recently that I have some rules which seem to work for me that I thought might be helpful to share.

I want to note that everyone’s balance curve is different though—what might be stressful to me could be stimulating for you, and vice versa. Ultimately, we each have to figure out our own “just right.”

Ann’s stress decrease rules:

  1. No work on the airplane. I find travel stimulating enough, thank you. It’s a lot of sensory information coming at me, and add to that any uncertainty inherent to a new location, especially a new country, and I am full, if not overloaded. So my personal rule is that I don’t generally work when I travel. I read, cocoon myself in headphones, nap. I have told my inner entrepreneur gremlin that my travel days are work, thank you very much, and I don’t really want to do more that just be. I don’t want to log onto email and make decisions in addition to the ones I have to make to just get to my destination.
  2. I get a day off. The day after training and travel is ALWAYS an off day. This is re-entry for me, and it is a hard line to keep, but I have gotten better and better at it. It’s hard because I travel a lot and have clients and meetings always looking for a place to slot in. But I have begun to see that time has a way of flowing into whatever boundaries I make, and the more I honor myself and my needs, the more I have to give.
  3. Whenever possible, nothing work-related with humans before 9 am or after 4 pm. I’m just not good early in the am, and by 4 pm or so, I’m usually feeling done talking to people. Now that I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is two hours behind the East Coast, this can also be a challenging line to hold. I do make an exception for one beloved client in China and also to teach an occasional evening teleclass (also to make things work time-wise for our students in China). But again, the more I honor my own needs, the more I am finding that somehow it works out despite the occasional urgency of others.
  4. Stay home in the evening after an intense day. I rarely go out in the evening when I am training. This is a hard-learned lesson, because I have both introverted and extraverted tendencies, and my inner extravert always thinks that doing something in the evening after a training day Will Be Just Fine. But too often, I’ve regretted the extra stimulation, even if it is fun at the time, so I have learned to keep a low profile when I’m in the middle of multiple day training session. There are exceptions to this (nothing is black and white), for example, see rule #10 below.
  5. Stop, Drop and Roll. I give myself permission to recalibrate. If I get home from traveling (or have simply been juggling a lot of balls) and start feeling like wow, there is a lot to do (there is ALWAYS a lot to do when you own your own business) but I can’t really focus effectively, I know my job is to simply stop, drop and roll. Stop the thoughts that I should be productive, Drop my complicated plans and pressures, and Roll with what I want in each moment, even if that is staring numbly at the TV for an evening while I pet the cat. I often ask myself, will the thing I have planned or feel I need to do right now add to the stress in my life? And if so, what is my current capacity for that?
  6. Manage my health. I pay very close attention to food, sleep, and exercise. I bring healthy food with me when I travel and stay in places where I can cook rather than eat out. I also bring my lunch to the training room so that break time is less frantic and I can recalibrate a bit during the day. I also know that getting a good night’s sleep is critical to managing stress and stimulation during the day, so we generally start our trainings at 9:30 a.m, stay as close to the venue as possible, and go to bed early. Exercise is the one that often escapes me, even though I know it is one of the best ways to manage stress, but I try to get myself out in the evening for a bit of a walk, even if I don’t make it to an optimal 10,000 steps for the day.

Ann’s stimulation increase rules:

  1. Do what’s fun, joyful, meaningful and related to my life purpose. I try my best to continually evaluate my joy and resonance when I get a new opportunity, asking, will this be fun? Will it be interesting? Will it grow me? Or is it just a money-making or strategic thing (and sometimes I do take those—I still have a kid in college), but my preference is that sweet intersection where the project is rewarding on all levels, including financially.
  2. Keep it interesting and novel. More and more, I try not to do things that aren’t interesting. This gets harder the more experienced I become in my craft of teaching and speaking, because what once was challenging can become life as usual. Luckily my beloved business partner gets bored easily as well, and is always up for trying out a new program, webinar, or radio show. And the more we don’t know about a subject, the more interested we are in finding out – and then sharing with others.
  3. Challenge myself to do things I am not good at. This is very much related to rule #8, in that these are often new things. For example, I am studying painting and often I kind of suck. I took a class recently where we were painting on large panels and I challenged myself to keep destroying what I had made unless I truly loved it. My piece got worse and worse and worse. By the end, it was simply horrible. My teacher I think felt bad that I didn’t have something to take home that I liked. But I loved the whole mess of it. The frustration, the failure, watching something not work and staying with it, and feeling that my vision far exceeded my capacity. It was a wonderful irritating blast.
  4. Stay connected to the humans I love. Sometimes this means breaking rule #4 (stay home in the evening after training) when I am traveling and there is an opportunity to see an old friend, but this is about balance and managing both stress and resonance. I try to pay close attention to whether going out will be life-giving or draining, and spend time with those people who add to my joy and delight while limiting exposure to those who drain and sap my energy.

So these are my rules, and they seem to work pretty well. I’d love to hear yours in the comments below!

Coaching, Stress and the Pre-Frontal Cortex (VIDEO)

Here I am explaining and then demoing how to work with stress and the pre-frontal cortex as part of Boom Boom Go‘s great video library of coaching tools. Click HERE  to watch (and HERE to read the article this tool is based on).

Note: this coaching tool is just one of many we teach at BEabove Leadership  in our Neuroscience, Consciousness and Transformational Coaching program!

PFC Curve JPG

A Neuroplasticity Holiday–making new pathways in the snow

footsteps in deep snow“Neuroplasticity is a six-syllable word for hope.”

~Dr. Linda Page, Co-Author, Coaching with the Brain in Mind

Ah yes, neuroplasticity — the brain’s capacity to grow and change throughout our lives. It’s one of the most helpful and positive findings in neuroscience research in the past fifty years. We can, with focus and attention, change our very wiring. We’re not stuck with what we learned as children, took on as adaptive strategies, or even inherited.

My belief is that as coaches, creating and reinforcing new neural pathways may very well be what we do best with our clients, and why we are able to help people on their journeys of lasting change, creating empowerment, not dependency.

But today I just want to reflect human to human, on the particular challenges of the holiday season and how the concept neuroplasticity may be able to help. Like many of you, I am planning to spend a great deal of time with my family over the holidays. I love them to bits but have become more and more aware (sometimes painfully) of the habitual patterns I tend to fall into when we’re all together. Deeply ingrained pathways that go back years–fear (as the youngest) of being left out, concern that if I really share what I am doing in the world no one will care, certainty that this person will be dull to talk to or that another one doesn’t like me as much as I think she should.

And here’s the thing: none of it is planned or intentional in the slightest. It’s just habit, like a smooth, well plowed path in the snow that’s easy to walk down without effort or thought. Many (dare I say most?) of our patterns with family were laid down early in our lives, which means, from a brain wiring standpoint, that we get a double whammy in terms of potency. One, we’ve had many years to practice, and the more you use a neural pathway the stronger it becomes. Two, pathways that were created in childhood (and up through adolescence) may become myelinated–that is, coated with an electrically insulating fatty material that forms a layer around the axon of the neurons in that pathway, making it quicker and stronger.

So there we are, back with the people we grew up with, finding ourselves playing out the same habits, thought patterns and behaviors we had hoped we’d transcended. What to do? It’s time to intentionally create some new neural pathways.

It may help to think of creating these new neural pathways like making trails in deep snow. The first time you walk, it’s hard, slow and tiring. Even the next time and the next can be difficult. But at some point, it gets easier. The snow gets packed down. You make progress. The trick is to keep at it, trying your best to ignore the superhighway of habitual patterns that is beckoning. Yes, it’s the easier road, but it’s not the road to fulfillment.

Without awareness and intention, our brains (which like to conserve energy) take us down the easiest path. But with a commitment to change, we can re-wire even the deep neural structures from our childhoods. This holiday season, let’s all take one habit that is no longer serving us in our families and walk through the deep snow to more love, authenticity, and connection.

 

Feedback or Unpack?

i-love-feedback“Hey, can I give you some feedback on that meeting?”

“Come in my office, I want to give you some feedback.”

“Do you have a minute? I have some feedback that you need to hear.”

Ok, how many of you have already gone into amygdala overdrive just reading that? Feedback is one of those areas of leadership and management that frankly, very few people have really figured out. Except for those highly self-regulated, amazingly emotional intelligent people for whom the idea of feedback is nothing more than a wonderful opportunity to improve (or, conversely, those who just don’t care), it’s mostly, well, tough. Tough to give and tough to take. And while I am by no means arguing that we don’t need it at all, I think it merits pulling apart and reconfiguring.

My first stop is, of course, the neuroscience perspective. Here there are a few things to take into account, the first being the pain of social rejection. We evolved to live co-operatively, in small groups. Our need to belong is as real and pervasive – and as important to our survival – as hunger or thirst. In fact, brain studies have shown that being rejected activates many of the same regions of the brain that are involved in physical pain.

Our limbic system, responsible for scanning for threats (and therefore keeping us alive) is finely tuned to whether we are safely part of the group, whether we are deemed acceptable or deficient, whether we belong. Feedback, even well intentioned, can often trigger a fight or flight response. We think we should be responding rationally, but deeply entrenched safety-driven neural pathways are screaming ‘‘threat!’’ On a basic level, even if it is not true in today’s society, being left out of the group makes us fear for our survival. This puts us in a mode where our higher brain shuts down, making it hard to take in what the other person is saying.

That having been said, it’s also important to note that in terms of any sort of pain, we’re not one-size-fits-all. In terms of physical pain, research shows that people will describe the same stimulus as anywhere from “not at all painful” to “highly painful,” with brain activity corresponding. It’s reasonable to conclude that the pain of social rejection is the same. What feels like harsh criticism to one person may even be too mild to take notice of for another.

BEST ADVICE: Get very very connected when you want (or need) to give someone feedback.When the person you are giving feedback to really knows that he or she is safe, you have a lot more room to say things and have them heard.

This perhaps brings us to the issue of the self-referential nature of our own brains. We understand the world by running it through our own experience, making our own mental map of what is going on. Our feedback to someone often reveals more about ourselves than it does about the other person. For example, when we are asked to rate someone’s behavior, such as in a 360-degree review, we tend to rate it in reference to ourselves. As Marcus Buckingham said in a 2011 article on 360-degree reviews: ‘‘If you rate me high on setting a clear vision for our team, all we learn is that I am clearer on that vision than you are; if you rate me low, we learn that you are clearer than I am’’ (Buckingham, 2011). Buckingham calls this ‘‘bad data,’’ and says that even if you have 20 people’s answers in a 360-degree review, 20 inputs of bad data do not make a reliable report. Bad + bad does not equal good.

In addition, we tend to think that there is a right and wrong way to do things. Each culture, including the culture within an organization, has its own ideals. For example, if the ideal/assumption in your organization is that challenging people and ‘‘calling them on their BS’’ creates the most growth, and you personally believe more in nurturing and focusing on strengths, you will be given ‘‘feedback’’ that you are not measuring up. And you will not be, but only relative to the ideal, which ultimately may or may not be effective.

BEST ADVICE: Provide feedback in terms of the impact you experienced. Marcus Buckingham adds: ‘‘Although you are not a reliable rater of my behavior, you are an extremely reliable rater of your own feelings and emotions.’’ Thus, while you cannot necessarily trust your own judgment of my performance or behavior, you can trust the impact it had on you.

Thus, as we’ve probably all experienced, feedback is tricky business. To be most effective, we have to be highly aware of the other person’s emotional state and manage our own emotions as well. We also need to be cognizant of our biases and beliefs, and focus primarily on the impact of the actions. Even so, the feedback may or may not work to motivate different behavior.

And so, in the BEabove team, we’ve started working with a model we call unpacking. As much as possible, we work together to “unpack” things Unpackingcollaboratively, rather than one person giving feedback to another. Using our model of the Seven Levels of Effectiveness, we look  both “above the line” and “below the line” to see what was present in the situation. To manage our own biases and completely avoid amygdala hijacks, we each own what we did to contribute (positive and negative), and commit to at least one thing we can see for ourselves that we need to do to improve in the future.

This non-blaming dialogue creates a powerful, open space for innovation and emotional intelligence. While we don’t require this in the model, we often end up asking each other about our blind spots and what we might be missing, from a true space of curiosity and desire to improve.

When we decide for ourselves where and how we want to improve, we activate areas of the brain that are not activated when we are told what to do. We stay connected to each other, and curious about what we can do to be more effective members of the team. And we’re motivated to make changes and to grow because we want to, not because someone else — with their own biases, opinions, and emotional reactions — wants us to.

Reference: Buckingham, M. (2011), ‘‘The fatal flaw with 360 surveys’’, Harvard Business Review, October.

What Does it Take to Change the Brain?

changesI’ve written about neuroplasticity here before a few times, but since it is a fascinating, complex topic (like everything about the brain, right?) I thought I’d share a few more thoughts about some of what we are learning helps or hinders our ability to change.

Neuroplasticity—Keys and Enhancers

Neuroplasticity is, simply put, the capacity of the brain to change throughout life. It can occur on a variety of levels, ranging from changes due to learning or growth, to large-scale changes in response to injury (see Norman Doidge’s entertaining The Brain that Changes Itself for more on the latter). While for most of the 20th century, general consensus among neuroscientists was that brain structure is relatively unchanging after early childhood, current understanding is that many aspects of the brain remain plastic—that is, changeable—even into adulthood.

And so,  we can (and do) change. But what does it take? And why do some people succeed at developing new habits where others fail miserably? Well, extensive research points to certain keys to neuroplasticity, without which it is more difficult (and sometimes impossible) for the brain to make neuroplastic changes. In addition to these keys, there are additional aspects which also assist with or enhance the process. In both cases, the more keys/aspects, the better.

Five Keys to Neuroplasticity*

The following five keys are necessary to the process of making new neural connections. The more one of more of these keys is compromised, the harder it will be for the brain to stay flexible, healthy and cognitively sharp, especially through aging and stress.

1. Exercise

Exercise improves blood flow and increases oxygen levels, which increase neuron growth. (The brain is only 2% of our body mass but it consumes 20% of our oxygen and nutrients.) Exercise also increases the volume of white and grey matter in the brain, by increasing brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which is necessary to neuronal growth. A minimum of 30 minutes three times a week is generally recommended, although shorter workouts of more intensity and longer with less are helpful as well.

2. Sleep

A healthy adults needs between 7-9 hours of sleep (Teens need 8.5 – 9.25 hours). During sleep our brain has the chance to integrate learning and also combs through information and decides what is needed and what is not. Neural impulses are literally reversed from our waking state, which serves to both clean out unneeded information and prime the cells for learning and memory in the future.

3. Food

The brain needs Omega-3s and vitamins from foods to create new neural pathways. It’s also critically important to stay away from foods and substances that inhibit neural growth and/or create inflammation. According to new research, aspartame and other artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, alcohol, vegetable oils and many grains may all contribute to non-optimal brain states. Promising research finds coconut oil, berries, B vitamins (and much more) helping to build neural connections in the brain.

4. Novelty

New experiences stimulate neuronal connections. If we don’t know how to do something, the cognitive patterns for it don’t exist in our brains, thus new connections must be made. In order to maintain the benefits, however, these experiences have to increase in challenge in order to create new growth. Additionally, we simply don’t pay attention to things that are boring!

5. Focus and Attention

The close paying of attention (as in study, meditation and focused attention) increases neurotransmitters (such as BDNF, mentioned above in the Exercise section) responsible for creating new neural connections. In addition, many studies have linked meditation practice to differences in cortical thickness or density of gray matter.

Four Enhancers to Neuroplasticity

The following four enhancers are extremely helpful to the process of making new neural connections. The more we have of each, in combination with the five keys, the easier it is to learn, remember, and change.

 1. Relationships

We learn and change best in safe, supportive relationships. Feeling socially connected diminishes stress and can even reduce inflammation, while feeling judged or “less than” others creates fight or flight responses in the brain which inhibit learning. When we feel we are being heard and understood, it increases the connective neural fibers in our brains—fibers that are crucial for bringing together disparate areas for increased cognitive function.

2. Mistakes

A critical part of the learning process is the ability to try, fail, recalibrate and try again. This is literally how the new neural connections we make get either strengthened or pruned. According to Daniel Coyle in The Talent Code, training “at the edge of our abilities” produces results up to 10 times faster than regular practice. That is, making mistakes leads to better skill acquisition. Directly linked to the key of novelty, making mistakes is inherent to increasing the difficulty of the task. As long as we are making mistakes, the task is probably challenging enough.

3. Humor/Play

Humor relaxes and bonds us, and is a wonderful ally in helping to overcome the brain’s strong negativity bias. Laughter has been shown to release oxytocin, which not only makes us feel more bonded and connected and trusting, it’s also a great anti-inflammatory agent. Good humor also often plays upon the unexpected, causing us to think in new ways (novelty). Similarly, being playful puts the brain in an open state for learning. All baby animals and humans learn through play, which allows mistakes to be made and learned from in a safe environment.

4. Multi-Sensory Input

The more multi-sensory neural connections we have associated with a behavior or skill, the stronger the “pathway” becomes by engaging more aspects of the brain. For example, when we remember a vacation to the beach, we may access sounds, smells, sights, even the feeling of sand on our toes. This anchors in the experience more strongly than simply seeing a photo of sand and waves. When we are intentionally working to create positive new neural pathways, bolstering this process by bringing in as many of our senses as possible is a fabulous strategy.

 

*A huge thank-you to Dr. Daniel Siegel for first sharing the Five Keys to Neuroplasticity with me.

Coming soon: a complete bibliography of studies supporting these keys and enhancers. Stay tuned!

 


Some Thoughts About Consciousness and the Brain

brain-manmoon

Hello everyone! I am musing today about consciousness and the  brain. It’s a messy, imperfect attempt to get my head around something, and I’d love to hear your thoughts!

I posted on our sister site, BEabove Leadership, so just click this link and head on over:

http://www.beaboveleadership.com/2013/09/25/some-thoughts-about-consciousness-and-the-brain/