Disclaimer: I might step on some of your toes with this blog post.
I’ve delivered hundreds of brain-based programs to thousands of people over the past 10 years and am often dismayed (but not surprised) when I come across a person who says, “I already know this,” or “I already do that,” but when you watch them in action and listen to them in conversation–it is clear they do not.
Some of the reasons for this are linked to the brain itself. It feels good to the brain to think it is good at something (“I already do that”). It feels good to feel we are better than others (“I already know that”). It also feels painful to the brain to not know something or to find out you didn’t know something.
Another common mistake I’ve seen is people who think a brain-friendly or coach-like approach is all about questioning. While questioning is a significant piece of the puzzle, it is the kinds and types of questions you ask that truly make the difference (I’ll be speaking on this more at the Partners in Business – Operation Excellence conference).
I’ve come to believe there are seven (7) fundamental conversations we engage in at work, whether it be the classroom, the conference room, or the boardroom:
- Performance issues
- Blind Spots
Just as there are seven conversation types, we think there are seven types of questions that are related to or relevant for each of these conversations (there is even a “special case” type 8). And there is different neuroscience research that supports each of these conversations, some foundational, some you might call more “type-related.”
For instance, “Conversation 7 – Blind Spots” refers to actions that are more non-conscious or “blind” to the people performing them. The brain loves to make things automatic so it doesn’t have to spend precious (and limited) energy to rethink every action we take. The very nature of it being automatic means it doesn’t require conscious thought or effort. That’s good (do you want to relearn how to brush your teeth every day?!) AND it can be costly in some ways. We can be automatic about things that require a bit more conscious thought or we can do or say something without even realizing we haven’t given it a conscious thought. Helping someone with a blind spot involves raising his awareness in a way that doesn’t overly engage the “fight or flight” response (governed by the limbic system). Asking “presence” or “learning” questions can help shift someone’s brain into a more quiet state and allow her to “see” themselves in action in order to make more conscious decisions.
This is but one example across the seven conversations. Things are even more complicated by the fact that our brain strives to minimize danger multiple times every second. It is our primary organizing principle (E. Gordon, 2001). This hypersensitivity to threats effects our questioning approach. We tend to hyper-focus on danger (a.k.a. problems) and “question into” them.
And that brings me back to my disclaimer. I don’t fault or judge the people who say, “I already do that,” or “I already know that.” Many do. But in some cases, the person’s brain has taken over (it’s usually in charge without us being aware!) and the questions he asks are not the best he might ask.
When you truly understand the brain, you can begin to change the way you show up and you can start to behave in a much more brain-friendly way–starting with the questions you ask.
You’ll be amazed at the results you can get.
“There is a very long history within psychology of people not being very good judges of what they will actually do in a future situation.”
These words are from Matthew Lieberman, Ph.D., the co-founding father of the field of social cognitive neuroscience, the Director of UCLA’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, and the author of the book “Social.”
Why is his statement important?
Because the field of neuroscience, including Matt and his colleagues’ pioneering work, is helping us to better understand what is going on in our very unique and complex brains. And things are not always what they appear to be.
And why is that important?
Because all of us want results: in life, at home, at work, in school. We are all trying to achieve something, and if you understand the brain and know how to work with it—instead of against it—you can improve your chances.
How do I know that?
Because I’ve spent the past 10 years learning to understand the brain, how it functions, its limitations, what is common among us, and what is different between us when it comes to what is literally inside of our heads. I’ve delivered hundreds of programs to thousands of people and watched transformations take place when people learn how to honor the brain (which, by the way, honors the person to whom that brain belongs!).
What am I talking about?
Did you know that the brain is wired to be empathetic to people who share our racial group. This is linked to our very primal and basic need to survive (if he looks like us, he’s probably safe). We think—and say—we are sensitive to the pain of those who are not like us but the brain tells a different story. In a study that examined the empathetic pain reactions of two ethnic groups, each group was more empathetic to the “pain” of their own racial group, despite reporting a similar reaction to the other racial group’s pain. As one study  puts it, “Race has been demonstrated as a feature impossible to ignore in facial processing ,–, even when race is implicit and not relevant to the participant’s task. Thus, it is possible that race may cause an automatic and bottom-up bias in empathic neural activation to pain. It may be that the neural processing for differentiation of race operates at a more basic level than broader social distinctions. “
What they mean by “bottom-up” you can think of as unconscious or automatic behavior. Another way of putting it is the brain has made a choice without your involvement. And that unconscious choice is informing your behavior. When you understand what is happening, you can begin to employ tactics to overcome this kind of automatic brain functioning. This is particularly of value when you look at what is happening in current day America.
Another fundamental idea we work with is based on Evian Gordon’s 1-2-4 Integrate Model . The “1” in Evan’s model refers to the brain’s “primary organizing principle,” which is to minimize danger and maximize reward. This principle leans strongly to the favor of minimizing danger and is a powerful example of our dominant need to survive. It also links back to Matt’s work in that many of the dangers we face are social, rather than physical, in nature. And these social threats place us in a state of conspicuously low cognitive functioning.
In essence, we become automatic when faced with “social threats” and end up doing and saying things that don’t often work in our favor—although they do keep us alive, from the brain’s perspective.
We help leaders and managers learn how to better manage social threats, maintain cognitive functioning AND improve the nature of their interactions so they achieve the things that are most important to them.
Put another way, it’s not just about surviving—it’s about truly living.
I often think managing people is not THAT hard. Then again, anytime you involve one more person in anything, it gets a little (or a lot) more complicated. Trust me. I’m one of seven siblings (not to mention that first wife).
But I really do believe managing people is not that hard. It’s just not that easy either. And therein lies the nuance.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines Nuance as:
1: a subtle distinction or variation
2: a subtle quality
3: sensibility to, awareness of, or ability to express delicate shadings (as of meaning, feeling, or value)
Those of you who know me know I work in the field of leadership and talent development, leveraging research from the field of neuroscience. (Some people think neuroscience–and neuroleadership–is a fad; I think the brain is here to stay.) As I’ve come to understand basic brain functioning, I’ve come to better understand and appreciate human behavior and performance.
To me, everything about the brain (and life) is about duality–with a nuance. While I would like to look at things in black and white terms, I can’t ignore the grey (just look at what is happening with the current state of race relations in the USA–so much polarity, so little connection).
What do I mean by duality in the brain?
- Prefrontal cortex “versus” the Limbic System
- Problem-focus or Future-focus
- Negative or Positive
- Conscious or Non-conscious
- Serial or Parallel (processing)
And in life?
- Good and Bad
- Yin and Yang
- Heaven and Hell
- Winning and Losing
- Chocolate and Broccoli
(My 5-year old son added that last one.)
I’m sure you can think of some, too.
So what’s the point?
The point is, in the brain (and it seems in life) negative has the much stronger team. Minimally, it’s stacked 5 to 1 in favor of threat.I call it a “losing battle.” And that makes sense when you realize the brain’s “primary organizing principle” is to minimize threat and maximize reward–with the dominant focus to minimize threat (Evian Gordon, 1-2-4 Integrate model). It’s our human survival mechanism. Stay away from danger.
As a leader (and human), if you’re not aware of this driving force, you can easily come at things from a negative vantage point, despite the alternative. And while it is natural and “feels” normal, it’s a limiting approach.
What’s the answer?
As mentioned in my post “Our own worst enemy,” it’s about strengthening your self-awareness muscles (you can also call it presence, mindfulness, interoception, social cognition) and improving your brain’s braking system (Ventrolateral Prefrontal Cortex).
What’s the link?
If you get better at noticing perceived threats/dangers and can “catch” the limbic system’s reaction, you can begin to “brake” against the brain’s choice and make a more informed (thoughtful) choice.
I often like to ask, “Who’s in charge? You or your brain?”
It’s amazing how often it’s your brain.
Tame your brain.
When in doubt, we apply our Operating Principles:
- Integrity – We are who we say we are; we do what we say we’re going to do; you get what you expect with no surprises.
- Fun – Life is better when you’re having fun. If you like to laugh, we’ll enjoy working together.
- Wisdom – Wisdom is knowing what you don’t know. We work with your brain to create the best solutions for your needs.
- Enthusiasm – It’s easy to be enthusiastic when you do what you love. We love helping people create intention and fulfillment in their lives.
- Generosity – We believe you get what you give, so we strive to be generous in all our business dealings. We also donate a generous percentage of our revenues to local charities.