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

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

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

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