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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.

MandelaStampThis week’s blog was supposed to be Part 2 of last week’s “The Emotionally Intelligent Brain, Part 1.”  However because of the passing of a historic man, I decided to digress for one week.

Nelson Mandela’s greatness was of historic proportions. He was also—in my humble opinion—emotionally intelligent. Now mind you, I do not believe that all great people are emotionally intelligent. Steve Jobs was a great man. He changed the world. I am not sure if we could say that he was emotionally intelligent—ask his employees. Nelson Mandela was.

In a previous blog (November 11th) entitled “Emotional Intelligence (EI) in Three-D: Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion,” I introduced the Interpersonal Triangle and what I consider the three dimensions of emotional intelligence (EI). The basis of my book, Follow the Yellow Brick Road: How to Change for the Better When Life Gives You Its Worst, is that Dorothy’s three companions represent the three dimensions of the interpersonal world:

  • Courageous Lion represents the Power or “Self “dimension (Moving-Against)
  • Heart-filled Tin Man represents the Love or “Other” dimension (Moving-Toward)
  • Thoughtful Scarecrow represents the Knowing or “Mindfulness” Dimension (Moving-Away)

InterpersonalTriangleAs far as the Interpersonal Triangle describes EI, the premise is simple: When we relate to others—and the world in general—in the positive expressions of all three dimensions, in dynamic balance, then we are at that moment emotionally intelligent. If we get out of balance, unable to function positively in any one (of the three) dimensions we become lopsided and emotionally “unintelligent.”

Mandela and Dorothy have much in common. Mandela and the people of South Africa were under the dominion of the wicked Apartheid regime.  At first the people of South Africa—and Mandela himself—understandably reacted to this regime in one or all of the following ways:

  • Negative Tin Man: they were frozen in fear, like Tin Man in the forest, immobilized and compliant
  • Negative Scarecrow, detached, indecisive and ineffective in the cornfield
  • Negative RED Lion, violent and angry

By the end of the story, Dorothy pulled her inner Team together and with equanimity was able to move fluidly in all three dimensions so that she could eventually melt the Wicked Witch of the West. Tin Man was no longer frozen, but with some oil was able to move with passion and compassion steadfast in the mission.  Scarecrow was no longer ineffective and indecisive. When he found his knowing, he was able to mindfully and persistently see how to move forward with self-control and wisdom. And yes, Lion (finally) found his nerve and was willing to march into hell (the castle) for a heavenly cause to face the most dangerous witch. This, my friend, was Nelson Mandela. Mandela eventually and consistently pulled together his inner Team—like Dorothy—to melt the wicked regime of Apartheid. This is why we love and admire this giant of a man.

With notable equanimity, Mandela lived and functioned in the positive aspects of all three dimensions:

  • Courageous Lion: He spoke truth to “Power” (not unlike Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King). And what courage he exhibited, to confront the green-faced hag of Apartheid and then survive an oppressive and impossibly prolonged imprisonment!
  • Heart-filled Tin Man: His compassion for his people and his passion for the mission was unshakeable. His life was a life of service. But the thing that I admire most about Mandela was his capacity for forgiveness. He was once asked if he forgave his jailers who brutalized him for nearly 3 decades.  His response was profound.  He said that he was their prisoner for 27 years and if he did not forgive them he would still be their prisoner.
  • Mindful Scarecrow: He was a man of patience and self-control. Prison allegedly taught him the benefits of silence and solitude, attributes of mindfulness. One of the sub-categories of EI is what is called “political savvy.” Mandela had political savvy. He knew when to fight (Lion) and when to forgive (Tin Man).

His ability to move freely and dynamically in all three dimensions is why I consider him a notably emotionally intelligent person and a model and inspiration for all of us—on whatever stage we live out our personal and work lives. Emotional intelligence is an intelligence that he lived by. South Africa is grateful; the World is grateful. Rest in Peace.

emotional intelligenceThere is much–albeit not enough–talk in the business world today about emotional intelligence (EI) and its importance in understanding what makes leaders transcend to the next level. There is less discussion of EI as it pertains to matters of love—couples, parenting, friendship. From what I know as a psychologist who is interested in neurobiology, I do not think of EI independent of thinking about the brain. Daniel Siegel, M.D., is one of the cutting-edge leaders in this new area of study called “Interpersonal Neurobiology.” Dr. Siegel, in an article for the Psychiatric Annals in April of 2006, wrote the following (I recommend reading it slowly):

An interpersonal neurobiology view of well-being holds that the complex, nonlinear system of the mind achieves states of self-organization by balancing the two opposing processes of differentiation and linkage. When separated areas of the brain are allowed to specialize in their function and then become linked together, the system is integrated. Integration brings with it a special state or functioning of the whole, which has the acronym of FACES: Flexible, Adaptive, Coherent, Energized and Stable. This coherent flow is bounded on one side by chaos and on the other by rigidity. In this manner we can envision a flow or river of well-being, with the two banks being chaos on the one side, rigidity on the other.

The focal point in this paragraph is on the idea of a “complex non-linear mind” that is “integrated.”  Integration comes about when the special functions of the brain work well (differentiation) but are also connected and communicative (linkage). As a result we get FACES.  When we consider these five functions of an integrated mind, also think of a leader, partner, parent, friend—who has all these functions working together as well:

  • 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

This is how Siegel describes a mentally healthy brain-mind. It is a mind that “flows” optimally between chaos (disorganization) on one side and rigidity (over-organization) on the other. What I find compelling is that these five (FACES) brain-mind functions aptly describe an emotionally intelligent leader (partner, parent, friend) as well. Emotionally intelligent people apparently have healthy, integrated brain-minds.

Who would not like to be married to (or have as a parent or friend) a person who is Flexible, Adaptive, Coherent, Energetic yet Stable–in other words, emotionally intelligent? Likewise, who wants people in their organization–not the least of which a leader—who possesses the opposite attributes of being inflexible if not rigid, unable to adapt, incoherent (confused, unclear and illogical), depressed, unmotivated or unstable? Having someone like this to follow (be married to, parented by and/or friends with) would be at best unpleasant and at worst damaging.

We can’t choose everyone in our life, of course. We get to pick our partners and friends. (Unfortunately we do not get to pick our parents.) We don’t always get to choose our workmates, but organizations can choose employees and leaders. So if emotionally intelligent leaders have healthy or integrated brain-minds and these integrated brain-minds make for transcendent leaders, how do we get a few of these brains into our organization?

I often argue that it is easier to hire a star employee rather than develop one. That is why I spend a good bit of time in my consulting practice helping organizations hire best-fit (emotionally intelligent) people. It is relatively easy to find someone who has the right education, training and even experience–especially in this current “buyers” market. It is much harder to find someone who is Flexible, Adaptive, Coherent, Energized and Stable . . . someone who has a healthy brain-mind, someone who is emotionally intelligent.

But it is not possible to hire an entirely new company full of integrated emotionally intelligent people. We have to work with the employees (and owners) that we have. This begs an important question: 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 neurobiologist agree that the brain is “elastic.”  What they mean by that is that—although difficult—we can recondition the brain: build new and better brain-mind integration. How does one do this?

The better question might be “where do we do this?” We do it in the Middle Prefrontal Cortex. It is the at the crossroads between the emotional limbic system and the thinking cortex and it has to do with things like emotional balance, empathy, insight, fear extinction, intuition and morality. One key way to effect and eventually develop this part of the brain-mind is through awareness. When we raise people’s awareness we increase the proper functioning of this important region of the brain.

There are different ways to raise awareness in a business environment: the use of assessments, targeted workshops and especially one-on-one coaching.  But there are other ways to affect this region of the brain-mind. Stay tuned, I will discuss them further in part two of this article. For now, I hope you are encouraged to understand that we really can increase emotional intelligence and thereby improve relationships with everyone who crosses our life path.

Please let us know your experiences with emotionally intelligent (or lack thereof) bosses or leaders, as it pertains to FACES. And remember, EI is intelligence you can live with.