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

Minding The Mind

Do you think the brain and mind is the same thing? Does it even matter to talk about distinctions between the two?

It’s about how we can go about making changes in our lives, especially if we want to have more control over our internal narrative, our self-talk and ultimately, behavior.

Late 20th century brain researchers viewed the brain in strict, functional, neuronal terms as an information processor that operated without reference to content and context.  The mind, when viewed from this Newtonian mechanistic model of the world, is determined by brain activity.

Things changed in the 21st century.

Technological advances, interdisciplinary discoveries and a systemic approach led the way to a new perspective about the mind and brain. Key among these discoveries is the notion that the brain is capable of neuroplasticity – capable of changing as a result of experience.  From the moment we’re born until we die the brain is capable of creating new neural circuitry.

Another major contribution to the shift in thinking about brain and mind is the idea that the brain is a social organ. It connects with other brains via neural circuitry in our body that is hard-wired to take in other’s signals. In other words, “we think outside our own individual brain.”

As neuroscientist Leslie Brothers (2001) describes it, “our neural machinery” “doesn’t produce mind; it enables participation.”   While the brain is structurally 100 billion neurons, each connecting to 5,000 to 10,000 others and their complex patterns of firing – the mind as Daniel Siegel’s describes is the “flow of energy and information.”  Continue reading