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.” 

In workplaces driven by information overload and multitasking –  with a “results” only focus – there is often  little consideration given to creating time for reflection and introspection. Obviously, people find it easier to focus on something that is tangible – data points, projects and deadlines than what they’re thinking and feeling about themselves. It takes dedicated effort to keep “intangibles” like becoming more mindful on the front burner in busy work environments.

In addition to believing that there’s no time to think about one’s internal process at work, a major obstacle to making personal changes is often the belief that change is impossible, especially as one ages,  ”You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  Fortunately research in neuroscience is refuting that belief.  Findings from neuroscience are reshaping our perspective to understand that behavior is a result of the hard wiring of neural networks and unconscious habituated patterns. That the process of neuroplasticity  can change the brain and consequently behavior  is a revelatory door opener for people who feel helplessly mired down in old behavior.

When you think about your behavior and actions as a function of brain activity your attention shifts and find yourself noticing things you wouldn’t otherwise notice. That’s because your language for describing your behavior has been expanded. Talking about emotional intelligence and the importance of self-regulation, self-management and emotional triggers is essential and beneficial, but when linked to brain activity and the role of the limbic system, it concretizes the conversation.

For example, Dr. Daniel Siegel’s “brain in the palm of the hand”  is an excellent way of showing the connections between the different regions of the brain and their relationship to emotional triggers, and provides a tangible, visual learning moment.Having a different language for mental experience, not only increases our repertoire of choices; we are able to make choices in the moment whether or not to follow a train of thought.

Understanding that the content of our internal voices – where we place our attention – influences the connections the brain makes.  Using the language of the brain opens up new pathways that help us to become more aware of unwanted behavior patterns and making choices that can lead to our desired outcomes.

Through the explosion of information from science in the past decade, we are re-learning fundamental assumptions about human behavior.  What each generation learns about the “nature” of human experience shapes their beliefs and provides their guidelines to living. In this new era of information, we have many new “tools” to assist us in understanding our experience and redirecting our behavior to achieve a fuller, richer life.  But all change is incremental, slow, if you like…  It’s built on small, consistent steps that eventually can form into new patterns of behavior.  But as we as cultures move faster than ever, our expectations change. We want quicker results. This is an enormous pressure to place on ourselves as we work on changing the internal processes that will produce new behaviors.

Change is not possible on demand, but changing our focus – steadily and surely – will begin to show up in new behaviors that will offer surprising rewards!

Thanks for reading,

George Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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