Category Archives: Brain Science

If you’re a leader is safety or happiness more important to focus on for your people?

If you are a leader, start with making your people feel safe. Address their fears first. Then work your way up to happy. Calming the amygdala in the brain is the first step. Then you can engage the frontal cortex. That’s the order. 

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Safe or happy?

The amygdala part of the brain wants to keep us safe. It’s its primary function. The frontal cortex part of the brain developed after the amygdala. It is more interested in whether you’re happy, fulfilled, have good connections with the people you care about or not. In any given moment one or the other is in charge. Not both. So that means in any given moment – like this one – you’re either focused on feeling safe or being happy. What we say we want and what we act like in daily life are often two different things. Lastly, safe and happy are in two different categories. They don’t happen at the same time. When I say ‘happy’ here I’m not talking ‘yay!’ Happiness in this case is a sense of fulfillment of flourishing of being at your best. You won’t find safety there. This is the Hero’s Journey – the trip into the scary unknown. You leave safety in search of happiness.

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Freeze, Fight or Flight, which comes first?

For us modern humans working in offices, freeze usually comes first.  This is especially true when speech and language are involved. We interact with someone and then we have to process a potential verbal attack. Although the brain ultimately doesn’t differentiate between a literal and a metaphorical threat, it still takes longer to figure out words than it does actions. Our brain prepares us for fight or flight – shunting oxygen from the brain and dumping chemicals in our bloodstream to make us stronger and faster – to MOVE. Meanwhile, we’re frozen. And then when our body screams at us to move, but we’re in an office, in a meeting, on the phone, we also know we can’t. So we stay frozen. And ten to thirty minutes later when the chemical ‘dust’ clears in the brain we think of things we wish we had said – the verbal versions of fight or flight. When does fight ever come first? In traffic when road rage happens, fight usually comes first. Which comes first for you – freeze, fight, or flight? Does that help you in life? How does it hinder your development to becoming your best version of you?

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Freeze, Fight or Flight?

When we get emotionally triggered, it’s common to call that our ‘fight or flight’ response.  There’s a third option that may be the most used, however: freeze. This is the classic posture adopted by small(er) animals. Then they choose flight, or like the possum, may just continue with freeze. At the beginning of a potential threat, an animal (and we’re animals) may be uncertain the location or severity of the threat, even if it really is a threat. So fight or flight doesn’t make sense yet. Freeze happens. When your brain gets hijacked by something that feels threatening, what’s your go-to – freeze, fight, or flight?

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To ask well is to answer

The Jungian analyst Robert Johnson writes, “To ask well is virtually to answer.” He’s writing about our internal process of individuation, navigating our internal landscape in search of wholeness.  Also true? It’s how we best connect with others, how we can calm someone down who is emotionally triggered. A true question – one ‘asked well’ – engages the frontal cortex, the connector part of the brain.  If you want to influence and make a change, ask well. It’s like answering, but better.

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What if my spouse is not happy about my change?

  If your spouse is not happy about your change attempt you get a first-hand look at why most corporate change attempts fail – no buy-in. Put yourself in your partner’s shoes. If change is happening around you whether you like it or not there is going to be resistance. Try these five tactics. Curiosity and empathy If you were your partner, why would you prefer things to stay just the way you are? Why might this change be threatening or at least annoying? Ask. Don’t ask if you don’t really want to know the answer. That’s just a leading tactic and people sniff that out. Real questions trigger the frontal cortex – the smart part of our brain that looks for connection. Faux questions and a lack of curiosity trigger the amygdala – the dividing part of the brain. ‘Us vs. them’ becomes ‘me vs. you’. You also might get curious about what change they might want to make in their own lives so you can support each other. Let yourself be vulnerable Vulnerability is the cornerstone of trust, something essential for a team, and a marriage is a team of two. This means not having such heavily fortified positions facing the enemy also known as the love of your life. Vulnerability might look like: “I am not happy about this part of me and here’s why I want to change it” “This is important to me. I realize I can’t do this alone – I can’t stick with this change without you.” Get clear about why you want to change and how it could help the relationship Your partner’s resistance might force you to get clearer about why you want to change, not just for you but for both of you – and your kids too. Change works best powered by purpose – making a change for something larger than just you alone. You’ll want to be able to answer the other person’s unspoken, “what’s in it for me?” Disconnect to reconnect There is a time in the evening we can safely call, “no good will come from an argument now” time. You’re both worn-out. When we’re tired the amgydala in the brain is ready to call anything a threat. If it’s heading downhill fast, pause. Stop. Then… Schedule your time to talk When is the best possible time in the day for you both to connect? Every couple has a block of time that’s the sweet spot. Midnight after a long hard day at work is usually not it. Tomorrow in your sweet spot time is a better time to have this conversation. It’s worth it to wait.

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When do Americans love to suffer?

A student once asked Tulku Urgyen Rimpoche what was interesting about Americans. He replied, “The people in America love to suffer before the suffering comes.” According to the Institute for Health and Human Potential, 40% of our thoughts are about the future, 12% are thoughts of doubt and 10% are worries about our health. The amygdala in the brain is always scanning for potential threats. It’s just trying to keep us safe. But the unfortunate result is that we anticipate future suffering. We ‘suffer before the suffering’. Are you suffering, really suffering right now? If so, it’s something to welcome in. If you feel bad but nothing bad is actually happening, it may just be anticipatory suffering. That’s not necessary or helpful. It may be more helpful to notice what’s actually happening right now. And wait to experience the inevitable future suffering only once it has actually arrived. (Thanks to Joseph Jastrab for passing along the quote)

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What percent of Florida panthers are black?

Q: What percent of Florida panthers are black? A) 22% B) 100% C) 12% D) 0% Correct Answer: D) 0% In your mind’s eye, when you think of a panther, what color is it? Probably black. Our minds are good at things like that. Minds like to fill in the blanks, to simplify the world, to organize it into right and wrong, good and bad, friend and foe. It’s easier and has historically been safer not to concern yourself with nuances when a saber-tooth tiger is charging at you. The mind says, “that’s foe.” The problem? When the mind fills in the blanks for things that aren’t immediately life-threatening. And that’s pretty much most of our experience. We live in a complex self-induced web of duality. As Antonio Machado said, “In my solitude I have very clearly seen things that were not true.” Growth mindset says we’re not at our best when we’re right – we’re at our best when we’re learning. There’s the story we tell ourselves and the real story. Get curious about learning the real story.

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A New Way to Assemble Mr. Potato Head

“The arm goes on the second hole up on the left side! No, one hole lower. Turn the arm around!” And so it goes in the ‘Assemble Mr. Potato Head’ team building activity. One person is blindfolded, the other team members look at a picture and tell the blindfolded person what piece to pick up and where to put it to replicate what’s on the picture. It’s a fun activity, and great for honing team communication. The attempts and results in many team building activities are often fairly predictable for me. But part of what I love about this work is the innovation that shows up unexpectedly. I worked with Kaiser Permanente recently and they did it differently. In all the years I’ve seen groups assemble the venerable plastic spud, they always verbally tell the blindfolded person where a certain piece is and then where it goes. This time, they let the blindfolded person pick any piece at random, then told them where it went. Every piece was ‘the right one to pick up’. The person without sight is given a 100 on the test. The most vulnerable person is in charge, is ‘right’. This is a simple tweak of genius. If we want to influence someone to do what you want them to do, if we want to change the world, we start where the other person is, not where they should be. We visit them in their “home”, their most comfortable way of doing things. We tolerate discomfort in the service of change. Brain science tells us this is true for the brain as well. If we want to help an emotionally hijacked person out of it, the first step is to meet them, without fear, in the hell they have entered. Then we can show them the way out.

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