Concerns About (and Tips for) Speaking About Neuroscience


Many coaches and trainers are finding that they want to bring neuroscience into their practices, either as a way to enroll individuals or organizations or as a methodology in coaching or organizational work. Here’s some important context and background, as well as a few tips for doing this credibly and well.

  1. Neuroscience is a fairly new and evolving field. The field itself was officially “born” in 1964, with the first freestanding department of neuroscience at the University of California, Irvine (Harvard followed a couple of years later). As technology develops and improves, and as we have more experimental data, things we once thought we “knew” about the brain are becoming more finely tuned and even changing in fundamental ways.
  2. Scientific experiments often have an agenda. Sad to say, because we tend to think of science as the pursuit of pure knowledge and truth. But there are agendas we need to be aware of, and these agendas can create what is known as “the file drawer problem.” That is, research that does not validate what the researchers are looking for ends up in the file drawer. For example, if fifty studies say anti-depressants don’t work any better than placebos, with 10 saying they do, the fifty can end up shelved while the ten get published.
  3. There is a huge “replication issue” in science. The scientific community knows this well, but it is not as well-known by the general population. That is, many new “discoveries” about the brain (and this is true in other areas of science as well) may or may not be able to be replicated by other researchers. And, distressingly, often they simply aren’t. Part of the issue with this is that it is much easier to get funded and published when you are the first to discover something, and harder (and much less sexy) to be the one who says, yeah, she was right or wrong, the brain does/doesn’t work that way. Also see point #2 about the agenda.  
  4. The brain is a system. It’s harder and much more complex to speak about the brain as a system than it is to say this or that area “does” this or that. However, as we learn more and more about how things work, this awareness is becoming more and more core to our understanding. Specific areas of the brain may or may not participate in certain responses, depending on the person and the circumstances.

THEREFORE what do we do?

  1. Use caveats and modifiers in your speech. Practice saying things like:
    • There is some evidence for…..
    • This brain area may participate in…..
    • There are some studies indicating…..
    • This area may be activated when…..
  2. Be suspicious of people who don’t use modifiers when speaking about the brain. Anyone who speaks in absolutes (for example, saying something like “the amygdala is the emotional center of the brain”) may not be up to date on the current research and thinking about the brain. If you have been accustomed to speaking this way, see point #1 above!
  3. If speaking about neuroscience is key in your practice, be sure to stay up to speed on current developments. This means both doing your best to track what is happening in the neuroscience world (this is almost impossible, by the way, because it such an evolving field) and double-checking current research before you speak about or present a key concept.

    Here are some generally accurate and accessible resources you can follow that will help you stay clued in:

Another excellent idea is to use the search engine Google Scholar (https://scholar.google.com) instead of your regular search engine. Google Scholar will pull up the actual research studies rather than popular articles. When exploring these studies, here are a few things to look for:

  • How recent is the study? Generally (but not always) the more contemporary, the better.
  • How many citations? This shows how reputable other researchers find this study. Of course, for newer research, this may be low, so again, this is not an absolute.
  • What are the conclusions—what did the researchers find?
  • If conclusion seems intuitively “off” given other things you know, who were the subjects, how was the research conducted? For example, lots of research is done on undergrads in universities. The brain is still developing at this age, so conclusions may be shaped by this fact without the researchers necessarily acknowledging it. Or the study may be been done on a very small sample or a certain population.

And finally, take everything with a grain of salt. Don’t assume one study or expert’s claim is THE truth in the area. It’s often important for both credibility and true understanding to go layer deeper and search for both validating studies as well as if there is any refutation.


++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Join us for our exciting and practical year-long Neuroscience, Consciousness and Transformational Coaching program. Applied neuroscience linked to a powerful model of human effectiveness. Learning groups start in October 2021 and January 2022.

Advertisement

Sharpening Your Knife

I had an interesting realization about my Task Positive Network (TPN) today. This is the network of the brain that is activated when we are actively paying attention, focusing on the task at hand, using short-term memory, and in the present moment. It’s associated with a form of “flow state” and much of the time, we’re happier when we are using this network. It’s anti-correlated with the Default Mode Network (DMN), which, while it can take us into a spiral of rumination and anxiety, also has its own gifts and benefits. One is, as I will explain in more detail below, the ability to give us a sort of mental reboot when we need it. (For more on the two networks, see The Power of Dreaming, the Power of Action, and Putting the Wizards to Work in this blog.)

I was working away on notes for a class I teach to my most advanced students (this month it is all about gender differences in the brain). Pulling things together from a whole slew of scientific articles, and making some sort of sense out of it all is one of the most interesting and cognitively demanding things I do. I love it. Until I don’t. In pondering why this is and what is happening, I came up with a metaphor. For me, using my TPN is like sculpting with a really well-honed knife. It’s so fun carving here and carving there, watching something cool emerge. But at some point, the knife gets dull and I just can’t shape what I want to shape any longer. It doesn’t matter that I have a deadline, it doesn’t matter that I have the time to do it, it doesn’t even matter that I am enjoying the work. I just “can’t even,” as the youngsters say.

That happened to me today about 3 hours in. I was having a blast, so intrigued by what I was reading, making a table to explain things, pulling out interesting points. It was all making sense and I was flying along. And then–my knife was dull. I wanted to keep carving. I really did. I just couldn’t. Nothing was coming together in a way that made sense and I was having trouble holding things in my short-term memory. My TPN was done.

So I watched a silly YouTube video for a while, took a short nap, got something to drink, and wandered aimlessly around my house annoying the cats. That break with nothing particular to focus on activated my DMN, the network that revs up immediately when we stop focusing in the present moment and on the task at hand. I think of it as the knife sharpener, the time out. Stop trying to carve with a dull knife, I told myself, you know that isn’t how you get sharp again. And indeed, this little break sharpened my knife enough to finish the last few pages and wrap it up.

I love neuroscience. Without this understanding of these two networks, I might have tried to push through with my dull knife of a brain (because again, I was enjoying the work) or I might have thought I wasn’t actually smart enough to pull it all together (thus leading to a not very pleasant internal conversation). Instead, the cats got some extra attention and the project ultimately got completed with a nice freshly sharpened knife. (And hey, the knife was even sharp enough to write this blog!)

Yes, Less IS Indeed More

I recently had a couple of things happen that made me think of the famous Jam Study in consumer marketing. One, I got asked to be part of a 1000 presenter summit. No, I’m not kidding. 1000 presenters. (I declined.) And then I clicked on another summit on a health topic I am interested in and Day One had over 25 presenters and topics. And that was just Day One! Yikes! I really really wanted this information, but just looking at the options made me exhausted. I deleted the email.

As more and more entrepreneurs and organizations jump on the fill-in-the-blank-summit bandwagon, I think they’d do well to consider the Jam Study. If you’re not familiar with the Jam Study, it basically is a strong argument that less is definitely more–at least when it comes to sales. The study, conducted at a Bay-area supermarket in 2000 by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, found that consumers were 10 times more likely to purchase jam on display when the number of jams available was reduced from 24 to 6. Turns out we get overwhelmed by choosing between kiwi-mango and berry-apricot and persimmon-apple etc., no matter how well they may have tested in market research. People just walked away.

There are a few key factors that influence this:

1) If we don’t know what we are comparing. If I have to choose between twenty-five unknown speakers talking on a subject I know little about, it’s like trying to choose between twenty-five new jam flavors. I am honestly stymied. If I know all 25 AND know the subject, it will be easier to make a choice. I’ve tasted the jam.

2) If I want to make an easy, quick choice. Even if I’m familiar with the jam (or speakers, in this case), twenty-five is a lot to sort through (much less 1000!) when I have half an hour to watch a presentation. I kind of want to grab and go and will probably tune out because it’s too darn much work to decide.

3) When I don’t know what I really want. In terms of the health summit, I don’t know enough about the issue to discern if I want the folks that are treating it with neuro-feedback or the ones researching more effective diagnostic testing. Maybe this is on me to educate myself more, but it does point to a barrier for new folks coming into the conversation in any topic area.

4) Guilt. Ok, no big deal if I buy a jar of jam that I end up not eating (and just a reminder, with too many choices, people didn’t). But if I buy a summit with 100-200-1000 speakers and I just don’t get around to watching more than a couple, what a waste. For many people, that’s a stressful and unpleasant feeling. (Some of us actually even feel that way about jam.)

So here’s my advice. If you want to do a summit, more power to you. But curate it. Getting 1000 people to present and market and share with you all their mailing lists may seem like a great way make a lot of money, but is it really the highest quality, does it really serve the consumer, and ultimately, do you sell the most jam? I have also had the absolute privilege of being involved with a number of carefully crafted, well-thought-out, limited summits where the participants aren’t overwhelmed with every choice in the book. Call those the six-jam summits. They are clear, compelling and digestible, and tend to have ongoing growth year over year and loyal, lasting supporters.

If you’d like to know more about the Jam Study itself, you can check out this recent article: https://digitalwellbeing.org/the-jam-study-strikes-back-when-less-choice-does-mean-more-sales/.




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

(and is seriously wearing us out)

shutterstock_251481262

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————————————-

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

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

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

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

 

The Saboteur, the Inner Leader, and the Brain

Gargoyle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are a few examples of things you can do:

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

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

Here are a few examples of things you can do:

STRUCTURE

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

FREEDOM

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

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

Here are a few examples of things you can do:

TO MANAGE STRESS

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

TO CREATE MORE STIMULATION

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

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

Here are a few examples of things you can do:

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

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

The AHA Moment in Coaching

HPIM0164.JPG

As coaches, we are ultimately concerned with what we (perhaps somewhat arrogantly) call transformation. I have seen newer coaches struggling to create that “aha” moment of truth and realization for their clients on every single call (and feeling they have somehow failed if it doesn’t happen). In other words, that perfect question or interaction which produces transformation, after which the client will never be the same. (Okay coach, transform this client: GO.)

Oh if it were only all so easy. But human development is a rich, complex, and—most importantly—in coaching, a co-creative process. And it’s impossible to say how many sessions that will take. Sorry HR, I can’t promise any sort of tangible results ever, much less in the six half-hour sessions you are willing to pay for.

And so I want to tell you two fairly typical stories of coaching.

The Two Million Dollar “Aha” Moment

I once had a client who worked as a commodities trader. For a variety of reasons, he came into coaching feeling disconnected from his job and colleagues. He was a high producer, but something was missing in terms of his engagement. After two or three sessions, he had a true “aha” that he was being somewhat adolescent in his response to being passed over for what he thought was an in-the-bag promotion. And, more importantly, that this was by no means the way to move ahead. So he swallowed his pride, went to his boss and asked what it would take to get the promotion with (in his words) “calm curiosity.” Turns out that this question was the missing piece – he had been perceived as not taking his own development seriously. More importantly, he realized he didn’t want to be a bratty teenager at work, so he dug in, found things to be interested in again, and within a few months got the promotion.

He told me three interesting things on our final call – one, that by the time he got the promotion, it mattered less than he had assumed it would, and two, that he was proud of himself again. Then I asked him about what he thought the return on investment of coaching had been for him. He estimated his increased engagement meant probably half a cent more profit on a bushel of the commodity he was trading. For this company, that added up to at least two million dollars a year.

The Long Slow Process of Becoming

I had another client, much earlier in my coaching career (in fact, I think I was still getting my certification). Honestly, most of the time I felt I was stumbling around in the dark. We had wonderful conversations about purpose and values, and there perhaps were mini “ahas” but not the big life-changing payoff my coaching ego was desperately hoping for. After about 10 sessions, the coaching sort of drifted to a halt. I always thought I had failed.

However, we stayed in touch via friends, the occasional lunch, and later, Facebook, and after a while I saw she had enrolled in law school. She became even more active in her community than she was previously and there was tremendous leadership and wisdom displayed in her Facebook posts about community issues. It was clear she was up to something. A year or two ago, she was elected to City Council in her large city.

I honestly have NO idea whether the coaching played a role or not – she was always someone who was going to make a huge difference in the world. I think I was probably a small part of her process, which needed time to unfold.

The Role of Co-Creation

I’ve been a coach for 17 years now, and I can promise you that most experienced coaches have versions of both stories. Of course we love to tell the first one, and in my case, to be honest, I was a more experienced coach at that time. I am sure there was a boldness to my coaching that was not yet acquired with my earlier client, which definitely had an impact. But even today, I notice some clients fly with very little from me, having big “ahas!” on almost every call, and using these to move into productive action in their lives.

But some clients seem to be on a slower path of self-discovery. For the second group, they may have an “aha!” and then lose it the minute we hang up, going back to old habits. Even though there are ways to use structures and support for this group, it is often a much more gradual process. But generally, what I have seen here is that at some point it clicks. We’ve been around that mulberry bush enough times that something happens—from a brain standpoint, I think it is neuroplasticity. There are now enough neural connections on the new path (from talking about it, trying baby steps, failing, feeling the pain of the old way that is not serving, etc.) that it (finally) becomes a viable choice for the client.

What does this take? It vastly depends. In the first case, my client had been in a process of self-exploration even before coaching. I came in to a field that was tilled and ready for planting. In the second case, my client was just beginning to explore some feelings of wanting to have a bigger impact in the world. I was part of tilling that field, but it needed more before it was ready to plant.

Wherever we meet people on their path, and whatever impact we have as coaches, healers, etc., I hold it all as aspects of transformation, whether it seems so at the time or not. And this is a messy, unpredictable, unquantifiable and ultimately gloriously human process.

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/

Putting the Wizards to Work

img_1963Growing up in Minnesota, I think I got the proverbial Protestant Work Ethic deeply installed in my neural operating system. There is a part of me that feels distinctly uncomfortable unless I am being Productive And Responsible At All Times. Which can, of course, lead to a feeling of being ground into a fine powder as I try to wrestle my ever-burgeoning to-do list into submission.

So when I learned about the Task Positive Network and the Default Mode Network (covered in more depth in the link) of the brain, it was huge relief. These two networks are “anti-correlated,” that is, the degree to which Task is activated, Default is less activated, and vice versa.

Task activates when we are focused, paying attention to external stimuli, planning and actively figuring out how to do something. I think of this network like my team of engineers. They are hugely helpful at solving logical problems, figuring out the steps to take, planning my day productively, and so on.

But sometimes you need magic instead of engineering. And this is where the Default Mode Network can help. Here is where we have meaning, dreams, vision, insight, introspection and other people’s perspectives.

I think of the Default Mode Network as my team of magicians, living deep in a cave and highly sensitive. Whenever I look too directly at them or try to force them to work, they quit. They can only cast their spells when I am not paying attention. And the best thing is to give them an assignment and go do something else that is not task-focused.

My magicians like it when I go for a walk in the woods, drive in the car (the motion soothes them), take a shower or bath, paint, draw, listen to instrumental music, nap. And when I give them an assignment beforehand, such as “please figure out how to teach the Task and Default networks in an experiential way,” they never disappoint. (In this case, I saw an image of a river with bridges, and developed a process called “Crossing the River” to intentionally activate each network during a coaching appointment.)

We all have both of these networks, but in today’s task-driven world, the power of the Default Mode Network is often underrated. My rule is, whenever I get stuck, can’t figure something out, or there doesn’t seem to be a logical answer, take the job away from the engineers, give it to the magicians, and wait.

The Boxes We Grow Up In: identity, development and the prefrontal cortex

shutterstock_135099392

Ask anyone–I was a hot mess in my teens and early twenties. Disorganized, unfocused, and completely unable to finish anything I started. I dropped out of high school because I found the graduation requirements overwhelming, and by the time I finally graduated college at age 30 (remember the age, it’s important) I had credits from five different institutions on my transcript. And a story about myself that I was flaky, undisciplined, and unreliable.

None of that is actually true about me. It’s just that my brain hadn’t grown up yet.

But I carried that identity with me for years, even as much of I was doing was actually the opposite. I finished college with straight As, was a successful sales manager for a large region, managed the publishing division of a national non-profit, co-founded a non-profit, and more.

And yet I carried a story about myself based on who I was as a teen and young adult, which I was blind to (as we often are to the stories we have about ourselves). It was my dear friend and business partner who finally called me on it a couple of years ago when I said something along the lines of “Well, you know me, I have no discipline,” and after she got finished snorting coffee out her nose and laughing hysterically, she said, “Oh stop it! That is ridiculous. You are the most  disciplined person I know.”

I was completely taken aback, but when I looked more objectively at my life, I saw she had a point. Somehow, somewhere along the way, I went from a haphazard fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants adolescent to a focused, capable, organized adult.

Now you could chalk this up to the general process of learning, and you could assume it was just me developing skills and getting feedback and becoming more effective. And part of that is true. But there is something deeper here: the truth is, I have focus, discipline and organization in my nature. It is actually core to who I am, not just a learned adaptation. So why was I such a mess as a young adult? What happened?

I grew up.

These days we’ve all heard that the brain doesn’t fully develop until approximately the mid-twenties. What we’re referring to is the prefrontal cortex, the last part of  the brain to come fully “on line.” Known as the seat of executive function, this part of the brain is in charge of calibrating risk and reward, problem-solving, prioritizing, thinking ahead, long-term planning, emotional regulation, and the ability to stand in someone else’s shoes. (It’s not that these things aren’t possible before maturity, it’s just that it takes a lot more effort and isn’t very reliable.)

And so, for over 25 years I was telling a very old story, based on an immature version of myself, which I had taken on as true, despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary. Evidence I couldn’t see because the story was blinding me to the truth.

So now, I have a new story, that I am disciplined and focused. And the power of being conscious to this is huge. Probably the main thing is that I am able to trust myself more. When I am about to take something on, instead of hearing an internal voice say “Well I don’t know, you know you don’t tend to follow through very well,” I hear “Good for you, you’ll get that done easily.” The old story was like fighting an uphill battle. The new one is more like riding a wave. And I much prefer riding a wave!

I wonder how many of us have taken on a very old and inaccurate story about ourselves, based on who we were as an adolescent or young adult work-in-progress? And how often do we label kids and teens as “this way” or “that way,” when honestly, we don’t know who they will actually turn out to be once their brains are fully developed?

Take a look and see if what you have been saying about yourself is true, or if it simply was true, before your brain grew up and you became who you actually are.