Softening The Edges Of The Heart

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Recently a client said to me,” I need to soften the edges of my heart.”

His comment surprised me but was consistent with the nature of the work we are doing together.   Successful and driven, my client has come to realize there’s been a high cost for ignoring personal feelings  connected with work. 

The comment certainly got me thinking – what does this mean for me – what do I need to pay attention to?

I tried to break it down into segments. First there is the notion of softening. Then, what does it mean to have an edge? And, exactly how should I think about the heart?  How then would I put it all together in a post so that it had resonance in terms of one’s personal and business life?

Edges create borders and boundaries. They can also create a separation between the self and others. In today’s workplace with all of its exigencies; global realities, rapid technological changes, competitiveness, fear, anxiety and uncertainty, it doesn’t take much for our edges to become unconsciously hardened.

Crossing the border into the other can feel too threatening. But what are the consequences of not doing so in terms of human connection, compassion, empathy and love? You can imagine the positive impact on workplace relationships, collaboration and individual performance when those hard edges soften and we walk respectfully and gently into the “territory” of the other.

When it comes to the workplace, the word territory has even greater implications. Increasing levels of fear, anxiety and uncertainty in the workplace, along with what seems to be institutionalized competition, insidiously hardens those heart borders between self and other. 

For example, let’s take employee engagement.

Gallup’s employee engagement study revealed that 30% of U.S. employees are engaged, 52% disengaged and 18% actively disengaged.  In other words, 70% of American workers are ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’ and are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and less likely to be productive.  As the study suggests, a glaring factor influencing employee engagement is an employee’s relationship with his or her own direct manager. The dynamics driving those statistics really goes to the “heart of the matter.”

As much as some organizations encourage employees to check their psychological and emotional lives at the door… it’s impossible. Our relationship to our work extends well beyond our job description. A manager’s ability to cross the “border” into an employee’s unique humanness: their beliefs, values, emotions and needs; thereby demonstrating empathy and understanding of who they are, not just what they do, requires the willingness to act from the heart, not just from the head.

The trajectory of the US workplace since the industrial revolution has brought us to an inflection point where businesses, if they are to be profitable and survive, must shift to a people-oriented mindset.

As expressed in her post, Management’s Three Eras: A Brief History, Rita McGrath traces three eras of management thinking, (execution, expertise and empathy) – from the industrial revolution to present day management theorizing.If organizations existed in the execution era to create scale and in the expertise era to provide advanced services, today many are looking to organizations to create complete and meaningful experiences. I would argue that management has entered a new era of empathy.

So, if we accept the notion that we’re in the era of ‘managerial” empathy, trust the validity of the Gallup study, and the truthfulness of our own personal experience about what appears to be lacking in manager-employee relations; what then is the corollary with softening the edges of our heart?

How often have you heard people say, “ Follow your heart,” ‘Let’s get to the heart of the matter,” or  “He’s suffering from a broken heart?” Where do those statements come from? They’re not formulated out of thin air. They come from a deep, viscerally instinctive place of unconscious knowing in our bodies. There’s plenty of scientific studies supporting the suggestion that the heart is more than an organ that pumps blood…in itself, an extraordinary feat.

Stephen Porges, Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in his Polyvagal Theory proposes that the vagus nerve communicates between the brain and the heart and that our unconscious perceptions of threat and safety are connected to heart rate rhythm and the ability to regulate physiological arousal.

According to Porges, we have a multi-level, hierarchical nervous response system to threats to our safety, whether real or imagined. The most primitive response system causes us to freeze and go numb when threatened, but are immobilized and unable to escape it.

At the middle layer, if our brains perceive a potentially escapable threat, the vagus nerve will shut down this primitive system and activate the“fight or flight” response. 

At the highest level, if our brains perceive the environment is safe, the vagus will shut down the fight or flight response, turn off the autonomic nervous system, send a message that we are safe and trigger the social engagement system. Our heart rate then slows down. This system operates unconsciously and involves the muscles of the face and inner ear, affecting how we respond to the prosodic and non verbal aspects of communication when people speak to us.

Not only can we soften the edges of our own hearts through heart intelligence; we can also help soften the edges of other’s hearts. Because of the connections between the heart, inner ear and facial movements we can have a significant impact on another’s heart response through conscious awareness and moderation of our facial expressions and speech patterns.

Using our heart intelligence not only involves using the knowledge of neuroscience, it also requires self-awareness and acts of compassion, empathy and forgiveness to help inoculate us from arrogance, righteousness, judgments, anger, and retaliation.

Softening the edges of our hearts raises the question  – how willing are we to open ourselves to others, take off our protective gear and assume ownership for our flaws.? Human hearts are fragile. Can we relate from a place of compassion when others’ fears drive behaviors intended to emotionally hurt us?

When we communicate from a place of authenticity, genuinely share our feelings with a gentleness that takes to heart how vulnerable we all are, people become less defensive and more receptive.

Acting from a heart place doesn’t mean we can’t establish boundaries that protect us from unkind behaviors, but it does mean that we don’t have to respond to others in ways that shut off the heart response and miss the opportunity to transform ourselves and others.

Henry David Thoreau captured the “magic” of the potential heart connection when he said,Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. 

George Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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Your Conflict Response Style is More Important than Ever

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“When we dare to break the silence, or dare to see, and we create conflict, we enable ourselves and the people around us to do our very best thinking.” Margaret Heffernan, Dare to Disagree, TED Talk 

 

I’m a little leery when I see relationships or systems, whether workplace, personal or familial, where there aren’t moments of conflict.

I’ve done many surveys in my consulting practice that on paper demonstrate contented, conflict-free work environments. The one-on-one interviews quickly counter the myth of collective cheer and instead detail the fears of open expression.

After all, a driving human force is the need for self-expression. As we go about our lives, pursuing our desires, dreams, shaping our futures, expressing ourselves – we will inevitably encounter people who see things differently or believe that we have incompatible needs.

In other words, conflict is inherent in the social dynamics of living. The challenge of conflict lies in how we choose to respond to it. Any successful response to using the energy of conflict to advance understanding and growth depends on the awareness and skills we bring to it. Continue reading

Feeling Safe is Fundamental to Every Human Interaction

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Just imagine for a moment that it’s a late evening and you’ve just landed at the airport.

You’re eager to return home.  But, first you have to go to the parking lot to pick up your car. The shuttle bus drops you off at the edge of the parking lot. With your backpack slung across your shoulder, pulling your carry-on suitcase, you head for the spot where you remember parking your car. It’s dark and the only light falling on the lot comes from a few lamps on the periphery of the fence.  As you slowly make your way to the space where you believe your car is parked….you see that it’s not there.

What are you feeling in that moment? Not thinking – but feeling?

If you’ve ever had a similar experience you triggered a fight/flight/freeze response – whether alone or with another person – activating your sympathetic nervous system. It’s the system that stimulates the body for action, such as increasing the heart rate, increasing the release of sugar from the liver into the blood, and other responses that serve to fight off or retreat from danger.

Our emotional responses can arise from feelings (physiological responses) in our organs and intestines, as much as any direct cognitive input. What we feel in our “gut” is transmitted via the vagus nerve (responsible for social engagement strategy) to a region of the brain called the anterior insular cortex, which is involved in consciousness and functions usually linked to emotion or the regulation of the body’s homeostasis.

Let’ get back to the parking lot for a minute. Continue reading

A Formula for More Authentic Presence

 

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‘     “I am trying to cultivate a life style that does not require my presence.”

Gary Trudeau

 I was going through a bunch of old notes last week and came across this formula for “Authentic Presence”. I don’t know where I initially discovered it – so my apologies to its author for the missing attribution. 

 Increasingly, I find that one of the most important questions I can ask leaders I work with is – how present are you in your communication with others?  While listening is critical – staying present in the moment carries the weight of what you are trying to communicate.

Their answers are often surprising.  Often there is little understanding of what being fully present means. 

Is asking the right questions enough, they ask? Others don’t want to seem overly emotional. Some don’t feel comfortable with the “intimacy.” And yes, there are some that confide that they just don’t care enough – or feel they just want people to do “what they are expected to do”. 

The roots of this kind of communication stem from the still-pervasive command and control mindset.  I’ve told them what to do. People are paid to do a job. Why should they be coddled? 

 The idea that employees have needs beyond financial compensation is still new for many leaders.  Continue reading

Organizational Leaders Can’t Fix People

 

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Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times, 1936

Last week, in the middle of an important project, my printer stopped working. My first response was unbridled frustration and then I shifted into figuring out what went wrong. It turned out that the problem had to do with the cartridge and all that was needed to fix it was to replace it with a new part. Done –  not very exciting or interesting news. But, it got me thinking about how organizations still go about dealing with change and human dynamics.

In my attempt to resolve the problem with my printer I took a linear approach; get to the source of the problem and replace it with a new part. I can’t begin to tell you how often I hear stories from the workplace that reveal the same approach to efforts to ‘fix” what’s broken – a program, a communication issue, a person. In fix-it cultures, concerned more with quick results, this poses major obstacles to the massive changes needed to shift mindsets towards greater resiliency, transparency and collaboration.

In the thousands of books and articles written about change management, less emphasis has been placed on so-called “soft” management – leadership, motivation and human dynamics. In his article, Why Change Management Fails in Organizations, Ray Williams point out that  “change success in large organizations depends on persuading hundreds or thousands of groups and individuals to change the way they work, a transformation people will accept only if they can be persuaded to think differently about their jobs. In effect, CEOs must alter the mind-sets of their employees-no easy task. I would add to their conclusion that individuals in organizations, to embrace change, must also engage in a process that changes how they think about themselves, not just their job.”  Continue reading

The Deeper Meaning of Change

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What do you believe about the nature of change?

We know from neuroscience that one of the brain’s primary functions  is to see events and conditions in the world as either threat or reward.  This neural imperative raises an important question; if the brain is organized around this unifying dynamic, what is its nature?

While reading Buddhist teacher Pema’s Chadron book, Living Beautifully (with Uncertainty and Change) it struck me how powerful the role of impermanence is in  shaping our  lives and its drive in determining what we perceive as threat or reward.   This  force is constantly compelling the choices and decisions we make and manifesting as our daily behaviors.

Most of us don’t walk around consciously thinking we live in a universe where things are constantly changing and in flux.  Most people don’t wake up each morning and plan their day as if it may be their last. However, when you link this idea with the proposition that under the veneer of our lives is the struggle with our immortality, you see how it can contribute to the forms our lives take. The conflict between living in a world where things are constantly changing – impermanent –  and our striving to feel grounded, is reflected in our thoughts, emotional states and actions – our “self-identity.” Continue reading

How Emotions Shape Decision-Making

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Many people I work with ask the question, “Don’t emotions interfere with good decision-making?”  This article, generously shared by my partner at the Intentional Workplace, explains the process. 

There is little disagreement that effective decision-making is one of the most important tasks we must master to achieve success in every part of life.

If we were to take a survey in the average workplace to poll what people believed was most needed for effective decision-making, which of these do you think would top the list?

  • Factual information?
  • Risk assessment?
  • Clear thinking?
  • Limited emotional interference?

If you chose the last item, I’d like you to reconsider.

In his book, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (first published in 1994)  one of the world’s top neuroscientists, Antonio Damasio, profiled his patient, Elliott, one of his most well-known cases.  Formerly a successful businessman, model father and husband, Elliott suffered from ventromedial frontal lobe damage as a result of a tumor and subsequent surgery for removal.

Following his operation, Elliot dispassionately reported to Damasio that his life was falling apart.  While still in the 97th percentile for IQ, Elliot lacked all motivation. His marriage collapsed as did each new business he started.  Damasio found Elliott an “uninvolved spectator” in his own life, “He was always controlled. Nowhere was there a sense of his own suffering, even though he was the protagonist. I never saw a tinge of emotion in my many hours of conversation with him: no sadness, no impatience, no frustration.”

It was clear to Damasio that as a result of his surgery, Elliot was incapable of making decisions“Elliott emerged as a man with a normal intellect who was unable to decide properly, especially when the decision involved personal or social matters.” Even small decisions were fraught with endless deliberation: making an appointment took 30 minutes, choosing where to eat lunch took all afternoon, even deciding which color pen to use to fill out office forms was a chore.  Turns out Elliott’s lack of emotion paralyzed his decision-making.

In the preface to the 2005 edition of Descartes Error, Damasio wrote, Today this idea [that emotion assists the reasoning process] does not cause any raised eyebrows. However, while this idea may not raise any eyebrows today among neuroscientists, I believe it’s still a surprise to the general public.  We’re trained to regard emotions as irrational impulses that are likely to lead us astray.  When we describe someone as “emotional,” it’s usually a criticism that suggests that they lack good judgment.  And the most logical and intelligent figures in popular culture are those who exert the greatest control over their emotions–or who seem to feel no emotions at all.”

Although neuroscience has built a strong body of evidence over twenty-five years to demonstrate the inextricable link between reason, emotion and decision-making most of mainstream culture still doesn’t get it.  Continue reading

5 Ways Using Neuroscience Improves Coaching

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While there are critics of neuroscience and its interpretations who worry about the “culture’s obsession with the brain and how we have elevated the vital organ into cultish status, mythologizing its functions and romanticizing the promise of its scientific study,” there is unquestionably a place for neuroscience in the coaching relationship.

In  full disclosure I am a coach and organizational development consultant and not a neuroscientist, but I have a passion for social neuroscience. And I’m well informed about the most recent research – so much so, that it has become an integral part of my coaching and consulting practice.

On a purely practical level I’ve found that every coaching experience can benefit from learning and integrating some key principles from the growing field of neuroscience.   Perhaps one of the greatest “revelations” for many coaching clients is the understanding that they can shift their thoughts and feelings and change behavior. Continue reading

To Change Behavior, Change Your Focus

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Recently, one of our clients, the president and CEO of a mid-size company, sent me an email after participating in a development group with his senior leadership team that was focused  on collaboration and emotional intelligence.

His message went something like this, “ A situation came up at work where I had the opportunity to put into practice some of the information we discussed and realized how hard it is to change and break old habits.  He also asked a question that many clients ask –  how do I remember to remember these things that we’re talking about?”   Essentially the question becomes –  how do I become more  conscious of my intentions and my behavior?

It got me thinking about how easy it is to become captive to our internal narratives and reflexive in our behavior.  The question compelled  me to go deeper into what it is I do as a  coach to support  people to break through habituated, unproductive behavior

Two  important influences on behavior are the areas of language and attention - how we describe our experience is indicative of the focus of our attention.  As a coach one of my goals is to share my thoughts in a language that help clients focus their attention and makes connections with new ways of thinking that align with their desired outcomes.

Being able to hold on to new information and learning requires attention and consistency. Having a “container” for new information is essential. One of the most promising “tools” for increasing our capacity to strengthen habits of attention and consistency is mindfulness.  Insights from neuroscience also have the potential to expand the container, while at the same time, bridging psychological explanations for human behavior with a scientific basis. According to Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, “Strengthening attention helps you let go of stressful circumstances because the brain economizes our circuits. Being compelled to pay attention to your emotions is the opposite of being able to choose where you put your attention.”  Continue reading

Think Differently, See Differently

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If you always do, what you’ve always done, you’ll always get, what you always gotten.” I don’t know who said this, but I heard it for the first time when I was studying  NLP  (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) . I’d like to change it slightly to, If you always think, what you’ve always thought, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.”

The original statement relates to the law of requisite variety, which states, “a system only has requisite variety if its repertoire of responses is at least as big as the number of different stimuli it may encounter in its environment.” In other words, the less restrictive and more expansive our thinking processes are, the more choices and options we have. Also, the more resilient we are and the more control we have over our lives. Continue reading

Changing Your Habitual Responses


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“Freedom is the ability to pause between the stimulus and the response.” Rollo May

Beware of quick fix formulas! On this we can mostly all agree.

The E + R = O (EVENT + RESPONSE = OUTCOME) formula, which we picked up on from Jack Canfield’s – The Success Principles How to Get From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, is an effective, practical and not a quick fix tool that can help you to change the way you work – and live.

Why?

Because to use it, you have to change the way you think. Doable – yes! Easy – no!

Here’s how it works. Continue reading

Humanizing Workplace Relationships~People Aren’t Tasks

 

Kind thanks to my business and life partner, Louise Altman, who kindly lent me this excellent article to reblog  from her archives. It’s one of my favorites from the Intentional Workplace and one that her readers consistently rank in her top ten. 

To me, this article speaks to a central issue that I believe is at the heart of so much difficulty in today’s workplace – our inability to regularly connect at the human to human level.  To be sure, the structure of the “modern” organization creates serious roadblocks and even undermines empathy, trust and genuine collaboration between co-workers.   The article points to the decaying legacy of hierarchical control models that were never designed to optimize human dynamics.  The article raises important points that I believe are part of a critical conversation that organizational leaders and their employees need to have if we are to restore trust and authentic engagement. 

“For me, my role is about unleashing what people already have inside them that are maybe suppressed in most work environment.”                Tony Hseih, Zappos CEO

Is the “modern” workplace designed for people?

Are the systems created for work designed to maximize productivity and profit or human well-being?

Who factors in the real cost of human labor when analyzing productivity and profits?

What do most managers believe they are managing?  

I have far more questions than I have answers on this topic. In fact, I think we’re now on new terrain when it comes to redefining the meaning of work in a global “supply chain” world.  While it may seem absurd that in one part of the world children are still working in coal mines; while in another, companies like Google have installed, Chief Culture Officers, this is the new “normal.” Continue reading

Being Human At Work

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People are not tasks or robots. I’m still surprised when I meet people in the workplace who don’t believe that people are the most important part of their jobs.  Sadly, the people are a means to my end meme still dominates. Granted, many people are disengaged, burnt out and disempowered – and can’t summon up the energy to deal with diverse personalities and needs and intense organizational pressures and demands.

Most of the business world is still organized on the principle that a job is essentially an economic transaction.  Workers are being asked to do more with less –and faster than ever before. Employee head count is down and the bar for performance set higher. And managers still don’t seem to understand how to establish a workplace environment that view workers as people. An over reliance on the rational (we’re here to work!) and on emotions that don’t feed the human spirit (anxiety, mistrust, resentment, frustration) all contribute to the sense of exhaustion and disillusionment that many employees feel. Continue reading

Engaging The Unengaged: Part 2

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In Part 1 of Engaging the Unengaged, I refer to the Gallup State of the American Workforce Survey that revealed that “America is largely a nation of working automatons, with most people not feeling emotional ties to what they do and sizable numbers actively seeking to sabotage their colleagues and managers.” 

I cited some astounding statistics (hopefully, not too many) that suggested the issues and causal factors underlying disengagement.  A major component contributing to engagement that explicitly and implicitly surfaced in the study was relational dynamics. In other words, “people skills,” which is the focus of this article.

Gallup places the spotlight on managers and leaders whose weak people skills fail to help others feel connected to their work and good about themselves. What are these people skills that not only relate to others, but to us as well?

At the risk of sounding overly simplistic, here are a few of the people skills that I find missing in many managers that directly affect employee engagement. Continue reading

Engaging The Unengaged: Part 1– Some Facts

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In his book Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul ) CEO Howard Schultz writes,  Like crafting the perfect cup of coffee, creating an engaging, respectful, trusting workplace culture is not the result of any one thing. It’s a combination of intent, process, and heart, a trio that must constantly be fine-tuned.”

Employee engagement is now a critical factor in moving employees to “go the extra mile” in terms of their work effort. However, studies suggest that businesses seem to be at a critical tipping point in their ability to maintain engagement over time.

An illuminating new Gallup poll found that only 30% of all full-time workers in America are involved in, enthusiastic about, or committed to their work. In other words, engaged – and  70% of  all U.S. workers are not reaching their full potential. According to the study, one significant causal factor for employee disengagement is that employee’s hearts are not into their work.  About 18% are “actively disengaged,” meaning they’ve gone beyond just checking out mentally and could even be harming workplace relationships and colleagues’ accomplishments through emotional contagion.

This goes to the essence of engagement –  “Employees are engaged only to the extent that they are emotionally available to be so,” which ties directly to their willingness to go the extra mile for their company. This may seem obvious, but it is not—at least not to managers who are still focused on conventional managerial tactics as the solution in their attempt to create engagement. Traditional managers tend to apply pressure when they perceive disengagement, ignoring the reality of emotions and their effect on people’s abilities to be engaged.

Depending on the emotions that are triggered at work, employees will either be less available or more available to be fully engaged in their work.  The feelings themselves determine the path that will be taken.   Emotions are always present…and until the emotional component is addressed, employees cannot fully engage. This is the major missing link in many efforts to engage or re-engage workers.  Too many organizations and managers still go to the old employee perks goody bag to solve long-term problems with questionable short-term solutions. This is not to say that these incentives are wholly ineffective, but without substantive changes in employee relationships and cultural environment, they offer little more than temporary distraction from deeper problems. Continue reading

The First Step In Leading Others Is To Self-Manage

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How aware are you of how you talk to yourself as you go about your daily activities? Typically, most of us are focused on what’s directly in front of us – and not aware of our internal narrative.

Last week, after speaking about the relationship between thoughts, feelings and behavior to a group of managers, one member of the group approached me and asked, “ I see how thoughts directly affect what I eventually do, that how I talk to myself will determine my behavior, but…how do I manage those thoughts that have negative consequences in my life?”

My first thought was how can I answer the question and stay on point with the discussion at hand – What makes a leader outstanding?  I recalled a conversation I had with a CEO who shared his belief that the key to leadership was understanding that self-reflection was not an end in itself – but an ability to process the difficult, challenging and complex.

The question – and my recollection of the CEO’s experience helped to remind me that the first step in becoming an outstanding leader is being able to manage one’s internal processes through self-reflection. Self-reflection is the key to understanding the relationship between our mindset  and our internal voice.

Everyone engages in self-talk .  We all have an inner voice, but most of us don’t pay attention to the contents of our inner narrative. Outstanding leaders do. For example, not only are they aware of the “data points” in a discussion, they are also tuned into their internal process and external behavior. In other words, they’re self-aware and able to witness their experience in the moment.

Ask yourself, how many times during the day do I stop to pause and mindfully witness my experience in the moment? What beliefs and assumptions am I holding that may be limiting my performance and affecting workplace relationships? How much am I in touch with my needs and values and are they being satisfied? How do I act when they’re not?

These questions along with our emotions, attitudes, desires, hopes and our interpretations of external experience are the key elements that form our internal process – our personal mindsets. Continue reading

Offer Something Extraordinary at Work – Genuine Listening

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“There’s a big difference between showing interest and really listening.”      Michael P. Nichols, The Lost Art of Listening

Genuine listening in most areas of life is uncommon. In the workplace it’s rare. We’re too busy – so we think. We’re distracted and fragmented.  Sitting down for a non-task oriented conversation feels like just another bit of pressure.  Too often we just engage in conversation (more like just convey information) so that we can tick off another agenda item on our endless to-do list and move on.

Yet in nearly every interaction I have with people in the workplace, listening is identified as the most important skill in building trust and relationships.  Most people I work with say they need to become better listeners and they definitely want to experience better listening from their colleagues.

Often when I ask groups, “When did you last feel like someone really listened to you and showed genuine interest,” most say they can’t recall. Sadly, too many say never.

So why are we such poor listeners? What stops us from really tuning into others? Continue reading

What Business Should Know About The High Costs Of Uncivil Behavior

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Last week, Mike Rice, Rutgers University men’s head basketball coach was fired after videotape of his verbal and physical abuse toward his players went viral. The video is a series of incidents showing Rice repeatedly yelling, cursing at his players and aggressively grabbing and pushing them, and throwing basketballs at them.

As if watching this display of outright bullying behavior wasn’t painful enough, later that week Sean Hannity from Fox news referred to the incident in laudatory terms;  in effect condoning the action and saying we need more of this kind of disciplinary behavior and character building.

His comments awakened me to the reality that, while Rice’s particular egregious display of bullying is more the exception than the rule in today’s workplace – abusive, disrespectful and uncivil behavior is occurring all the time and at higher rates in organizations of all different sizes and industries.

While dictionary definitions of civility refer to manners, tact and politeness as the essentials of civility, the root of the word stems from the idea of “good citizenship” and the “state of being civilized.”  Whether we call it respect or civility or etiquette, it’s really how people as citizens think about treating each other in a society.

A 2011 article by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) defines workplace incivility as “seemingly inconsequential, inconsiderate words and deeds that violate conventional workplace conduct.”

Trevor Cairney, writing for the Center for Apologetic Scholarship and Education, says that “civility refers to the behavior between members of society that create a social code and is a foundational principle of a civilized society.”

Jim Taylor, a psychologist at the University of San Francisco, writing in the Huffington Post, suggests “Civility is about something far more important than how people comport themselves with others. Rather, civility is an expression of a fundamental understanding and respect for the laws, rules, and norms (written and implicit) that guide its citizens in understanding what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. For a society to function, people must be willing to accept those structures. Though still in the distance, the loss of civility is a step toward anarchy, where anything goes; you can say or do anything, regardless of the consequences.”

The articles I read on leadership spend a lot of time and space on the traits, characteristics and methodologies of successful leaders. That’s important, but these articles are not  exposing the day-to-day nitty-gritty of office life – long, stressful hours filled with people who did not choose to work together – but in many cases must depend upon each other for work to be successful. Continue reading

5 Things Leaders Are Not Taught, Part 2

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In Part 1 of 5 Things Leaders Are Not Taught, I wrote about how conscious leaders see the world. Their field of perception is broader.  They commit to a continuous process of learning and they resolve to see more deeply because they understand that they don’t have all the answers. There’s a moral courage that grows from this kind of experience – and a willingness to engage in constant introspection and self-correction.

With ancient roots, today’s brand of mindfulness is the new kid on the block. To be fair to most leaders, none of us were taught the skills of mindful awareness. These days it seems everybody’s writing or talking about it (I plead guilty). Google, Harvard Business School, the US government, even the military include mindfulness principles in leadership programs.

In her article, Mindfulness, Meditation, Wellness and their Connection to Corporate America’s Bottom Line, author Arianna Huffington writes, “Even a quick look at what’s happening in the American workplace shows it’s a seriously split-screen. On the one hand, there’s the stressful world of quarterly earnings reports, beating growth expectations, hard-charging CEO’s and focusing on the bottom line. On the other hand, there’s the world populated by the growing awareness of the costs of stress, not just in the health and well-being of business leaders and employees, but on the bottom line as well.” Continue reading

5 Things Leaders Are Not Taught Pt 1

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Recently, a participant in one of my seminars excitedly exclaimed to one of his colleagues, This stuff is great…we should have learned this ten years ago!”

He was referring to our discussion on some fundamental communication processes that underlie all human transactions occurring in the workplace, or for that matter, in all aspects of our lives.

In Part 1, I’ll focus on the first three as steps to enlightened leadership.

  • Reflective Consciousness
  • Thinking
  • Responsive Listening
  • Mindfulness Practice
  • Assertiveness

If you’ve been to leadership seminars in the past, some of these topics may look familiar, but they’re rarely explored in the depth needed to engage the complexity of human behavior in today’s workplace.

  • Reflective Consciousness

Being conscious is more than just being awake and aware of yourself and your surroundings. It  involves a deeper level of knowing and is one of the foundations of emotional intelligence.  It’s the ability, or if you prefer, competency – to bear witness to your experience in the moment.

In my work with senior level leaders and managers the one skill that is often missing in their leadership “tool” box is reflective consciousness. – the ability to be tuned into their own thoughts, feelings and behaviors in the moment.

For many of these leaders their successes often comes at a high cost, usually in the form of chronic stress.  While they are typically highly proficient in their area of expertise, they often are less comfortable and familiar with their own internal processes.   Without a commitment to deepen self-knowledge, these leaders tend to rely on fixed behavioral strategies and often feel frustrated when confronted with resistance from others.

Because self-knowledge can never be “mastered,” enlightened leaders understand that the commitment to inner learning is continuous. They also realize that a crucial pathway in the learning process comes through engaged commitment to relationships.

Increasingly, self-awareness is being recognized as the key element necessary for effective leadership.  In a  survey of 75 members of the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council rated self-awareness as the most important capability for leaders to develop. The authors of this study concluded that self-awareness is the inevitable starting point for managing one’s psychological preferences. Without it, executives will struggle to evolve or find coping strategies.  Continue reading

Boxed In By Self-Deception?

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 “We define self-deception as not knowing – and resisting the possibility – that one has a problem Arbinger Institute

Have you ever wondered if there was a missing ingredient that could improve your relationships – in the workplace and beyond?

Well, it wasn’t until I came across the book, Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting out of the Box, written by The Arbinger Institute, that I was able to put my finger on an important part of the puzzle.  – Self Deception.  Not that it’s THE ANSWER, but it can go a long way in changing the quality and nature of your relationships.

Understanding how acts of self-deception affect our perception of others is the first step.  This can give us insights into recognizing the behaviors that can lead us to treat people more as objects – means to our end – and not living breathing human beings with needs just like our own.

It is easy to get caught up in the endless “doing” of work and lose sight of who is at the other end of our “transaction”.  Managers, even seasoned ones, who pride themselves on their results orientation, can lose their focus seeing interactions between people – as tasks.  Another workplace reality is that we simply do not “gel” with or even like, some of our co-workers – all the more reason to see past their humanness. Continue reading

How Our Words Shape the Experience of Others

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My parents, like most trying to communicate with a distracted child, would sometimes say,  “Well… it’s in one ear and out the other.”  Little did they know that their message literally  “went in one ear” and stayed there, encoding information throughout my brain’s neural circuitry and body.

Interesting things happen when we articulate our thoughts and the words leave our lips and enter the ears of the listener. The actual words and the way they’re spoken – inflection, tonality, volume, etc. – leave a lasting impression on the brains of those with whom we speak. Our words shape the experiences of others.

Looking at the power of words to shape experience from a neuroscience perspective leads us into very interesting territory.

Just as all of life is composed of matter and molecules, so are the words that travel from our lips to the ears of the listener. Each word we speak has its own molecular structure and vibratory field. (For example, the words ‘trust me’ vibrate at a different frequency than the words ‘you should’) Continue reading

Are You Ignoring or Using the Power of Your Values?

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Autonomy. Dependability. Honesty. Freedom. Integrity. Privacy. Respect. Fun. Creativity. Affiliation. Service. Collaboration.

All of the above are values – these and many more can shape what we do in life and how we do it.

We all have values. They represent what is important to us. Values are powerful because they supply our work (and everything else in our lives) with meaning.  They govern our behavior and guide our choices. Values are powerful motivators.  They determine the decisions you make in your life. You’re either moving toward things that satisfy your values, or moving away from things that contradict your values.

Values are contextually driven.  For example, I might value autonomy in my choice of job but intimacy when it comes to forming non-work relationships. While context changes some values –  some we often call “core,” may be important to us in every situation, like trust, authenticity and respect. Continue reading

Habits: Out With The Old And In With The New

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I don’t know about you, but for me, this year seemed to go by in a flash.

As I look back what comes to mind are the everyday routines and interactions in my life. They are as important in the long-term as the more dramatic events in my life. It’s those routine occurrences that are informing my New Year resolutions for 2013.

The difference this year is that I’m looking at the changes I want to make from the perspective of breaking old habits and creating new ones. This year I’m adding my understanding of neuroscience to my usual self-analysis. Habit formation is like acting on automatic pilot. It is so woven into the fabric of our behavior we don’t even stop to think that we’re on automatic pilot. We just keep on doing. Continue reading

Mindful Awareness: An Opportunity For Choice And Change

Jim, age 32 and recently promoted to his first managerial position, has just finished his first one-on-one meeting with Anita – a long time employee, age 56, and the team leader on an important marketing project.

Walking back to his office, Jim’s thoughts flash back to the meeting with Anita and how badly he responded to some of her questions. Although aware of the way he handled himself, the more attention he gives to his behavior – defensive, condescending and interrupting – the deeper his feelings of regret and guilt. He cannot stop the judgments and self-incrimination. He knows that his behavior represents a trait – that it’s not the first time he’s acted this way.

How can Jim use mindfulness practice to overcome these traits and eliminate the unproductive consequences? Just being aware of his behavior is not mindfulness. Mindful awareness is more than just being aware.

 What is mindfulness and how can we use it to create choice and change? Continue reading

How Neuroscience Can Support the Challenge of Parenting

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So, here’s how it went. After sitting in my car, waiting in the queue for twenty minutes, my nine-year-old grandson enters the car with a big smile on his face, happy to see me. How was school today, I ask? ‘Good,” he says, and then digs into his backpack to retrieve his school issued iPad. On our drive to get ice cream, answers to my questions about his day were mumbled or unanswered. The lure of the iPad was too great a competitor!  I felt frustrated in my desire to create a “quality” moment with Ethan.

I love Ethan very much and I know how much he loves me and thinks of me as being real cool and interesting.  I was okay with the silence. The experience, however, left me thinking about the many challenges of full-time parenting (after all, as a grandfather I have a lot of breathing room). It also got me thinking about the many moments parents have to convert frustration (or any other emotion that may be non-productive) into opportunities to help their children to grow into caring, empathetic, loving, responsible and capable adults.

I thought about Daniel Siegel’s description of mental health and well-being – that mental health is associated with the integration of the body with different regions of the brain and relationships. . And, how could that notion of mental health and neuroscience be applied to parenting and shaping the unfolding growth of children and maximizing their mental health. Continue reading

Unraveling Emotional Triggers

I was talking with a group of managers at a recent seminar I was facilitating, when in the middle of a discussion about applying emotional intelligence and neuroscience to management and coaching, one of the managers asked, How do I communicate with someone who is irrational?”

The question triggered the topic of this post. I asked myself, how would I use neuroscience and emotional intelligence to coach this person and address his question? I assumed by his facial expressions, tone of voice and body language that he was emotionally triggered and that’s my logical starting point.                        

So, first, let’s take a brief look at emotions through the lens of neuroscience. While it’s common to categorize emotions as positive or negative, I prefer to think of emotions as either having positive or negative consequences. Which is not the same thing as saying that we use our emotions to discern that something is positive or negative. A slight semantic difference perhaps, but a significant difference in how it can help us learn more about ourselves, lead to more choices and a more satisfying life.

Since we cannot separate our sense of self from our emotional life, every emotion we experience is a representation of a part of ourselves. There is, however, a tendency to avoid or deny emotions that we have identified as negative. In doing so, we deny ourselves the opportunity to learn more about ourselves. In other words, every emotion can have a positive function, because every emotion conveys information about our experience.

Using the language of neuroscience we  can create a new frame of reference to connect brain activity with behavioral change. And unlike the “baggage” that some coaches may feel is too therapeutic or inappropriate for their practice, sharing the language of neuroscience explains the dynamic process that is taking place in the brain.

According to neuroscientist Louis Cozolino, “Emotions are our conscious experiences and interpretations of our bodily states, involving many of the brain’s neural networks. Because our thoughts and emotions are so interconnected, it is difficult to know if they are distinct from one another or really different aspects of the same neural processes.”

For example, the seminar participant I mentioned earlier who held the belief that his colleague was irrational would learn that the annoyance and frustration he was experiencing was related to the activation of his limbic system.  When activated the limbic system diverts “resources” from the part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) involved in logical, rational, evaluative and decision-making activities – resulting in less clarity and the increased possibility of impulsive behavior. Continue reading

Making Changes: Closing the Gap Between Intention and Action



How many times have we said to ourselves, with the deepest intentions, “This part of my behavior has to stop, it’s just not working for me?”

And then we resort back to old behavior – still holding the best of intentions.

Why is it so easy to be our own worst enemy, especially in the arena of making personal change?

What can we do to eliminate the gap between intention and action? What stops us from aligning our beliefs and motivations so that they produce the changes we want to feel and see in our lives?

Resistance to change is powerful. In one study of heart patients, told they would likely die without making lifestyle changes, only one in seven followed the medical recommendations. I’m sure that the six who didn’t change truly want to live.

Change is a decision-making process involving different regions of the brain that become integrated, resulting in behavior and actions. However, too often it’s just a decision to change, not the actual behavioral change we want.

When we want to make a change in our lives, it usually starts with an intention that can be either an articulated expression of some desire or a privately held thought. For example, I might say that I want to lose weight or, think that I want to work on changing the nature of my relationship with a colleague at work..but the weight stays on and the relationship doesn’t change. What stops me?

In other words, there’s a gap between intention and action. Continue reading