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!)

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!

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.