The Emotionally Intelligent Brain, Part 2

training the brain

Four Pathways to Retraining Your Brain

This is the follow-up to my December 1st post, which was based on an article by UCLA researcher Daniel Siegel. His article describes a healthy brain-mind using the acronym: FACES:

Flexible … the ability to bend without breaking
Adaptive … ability to adjust to different conditions
Coherent … clear, logical, and forming a whole
Energized … having vitality and enthusiasm
Stable …  firmly established, not easily upset, not likely to give-way

At the end of Part I in this series, I wrote:

Can we retrain the brain?  Fortunately the answer is YES, however it is a qualified yes. It is not easy, and not everyone is willing or capable of retraining his or her brain. Siegel and other neurobiologists agree that the brain is “elastic.”  What they mean is that—although difficult—we can recondition the brain: build new and better brain-mind integration. . . . And one key way to effect and eventually develop this part of the brain-mind is through awareness.

As promised, Part 2 of this article will discuss how to raise awareness in leaders so that we change their middle prefrontal cortex and thus generate real learning, growth and effectiveness.  Following are four ways to raise awareness as leaders in the business world in order to retrain the brain. The principles apply likewise to our roles as spouse, parent and friend but in different forms, which I will mention briefly at the end.

1. Experiential Training: I start with the most common, but least effective way to retrain the brain. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in training. One of my favorite things that I do as a consultant is to facilitate training sessions among business and executive teams. But even when I do the training myself, I almost always try to make it experiential and STRONGLY encourage follow-up—the more personal and experiential the follow-up, the better. We retrain the brain primarily through experience, not through taking notes or watching colorful slides. The more we repeat the experience, the more new neural pathways we form.

2. Targeted Personal Assessments: This can take many forms. The most common form of this is the routine annual or bi-annual review. Human beings thrive on accurate, digestible feedback.  When the feedback is about us, we generally listen with a higher level of attention. It is particularly helpful if the feedback comes with clearly stated and doable actions. Changed behavior is changed experience, which equals new and better neural pathways.

As a business psychologist I often give assessments to key employees and leaders in a company.  These assessments can take on many forms. There are the typical self-report assessments, which are valuable but easily skewed. I particularly like using what is call a 360-rater feedback where any number of people (up-line, down-line, peers, etc.) can take the test about you and you can see how others perceive you.

3. Business Coaching:  Probably the most powerful way a leader can raise awareness and retrain the brain is through coaching. Business coaching (executive coaching, corporate coaching or leadership coaching) is based on a one-on-one relationship with a trusted advisor (usually from the “outside”) who provides a discovery process, in-time feedback, support and advice to improve an individual’s effectiveness in their organization.  It is the individualized, ongoing process that makes it the most salient brain-changer. If a basketball player benefits from a coach, any and every business leader would likewise be the better for the process of interaction and feedback.

4. An Aware Organization: This last suggestion is the hardest to come by but is the most comprehensive. It goes beyond helping individuals become more aware (the goal of the first three points above) by making awareness part of the corporate culture itself. The organization creates a  culture that not only models and encourages awareness from all its members, but is interestingly aware of itself as well. It is an organic living SWOT analysis. In other words, it is an organization that is aware of its

  • Strengths to exploit,
  • Weaknesses—(yes, its weaknesses)—to monitor,
  • Opportunities to leverage, and
  • Threats to be privy to.

How does an organization become aware? It starts at the top. If its top leaders are not aware, then there is little hope. The Aware Organization is also an organization that is open to outside review (assessment) and feedback and is willing to hear and face the truth about itself. This organization is one that will naturally promote awareness as a norm.

How do these principles apply to other roles that we assume—for example, as a spouse, parent, or friend? Well, any way that we can raise our awareness in one relationship (without shame or defensiveness) does the same thing for us in other types of relationships. Here are some examples (that correspond to the 4 areas above):

  1. Taking interactive courses and workshops. For example, I run occasional courses for couples and parents that are highly interactive and “awareness raising.”
  2. Take online assessments. There are many free assessments that you can take. (If you’re interested in knowing more, leave me a comment below and I will forward you the links). Listen to your partner’s (child’s/friend’s) feedback carefully without defensiveness. Consider what parts of what is being said might possibly be true. This should raise awareness and change your brain.
  3. Instead of getting coaching, try a stint in your own personal therapy, or consider working with a mentor or spiritual director.
  4. Create an “Aware Home” where part of the culture of your household is a commitment to non-defensive listening to feedback. Also be part of organizations (clubs, churches) that are awareness-prone organizations.

If you want leaders (partners, parents or friends) who have the ability to bend without breaking while remaining firmly established and persistent (Stability), and the ability to adjust to varying conditions and markets (Adaptability), are able to think with clarity and logic (Coherent), and have a vitality and an enthusiasm (Energy), then you want a leader (partner, parent or friend) with a high-functioning middle prefrontal cortex. And to retrain that part of the brain you need to increase awareness and foster growth experiences.

Share with us strategies that you use to raise your awareness. And remember, emotional intelligence is intelligence you can live with.

This is my last post of 2013. I wish all of you a wonder-filled Holiday and a great 2014.

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3 comments
  1. Al Haimson said:

    Admirable goals-Worth working towards. Will be most helpful to have a nervous system that is stable and not reactive so this new learning can take place more reliably: well balanced diet, exercise, a meditative practice of some kind, some form of entertainment, and sleep.

    • Dr. Sam said:

      I couldn’t agree with you more. If it was simple we would be doing it already. I particularly like the other items that you noted especially sleep (and meditation, which I am still working on).

  2. Diane said:

    Way to go Sam. I’m proud of you being out there with your many gifts. Wishing you the best. Diane

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