What Stops Us From Acting Empathetically?

quotes-helping-others-kathryn-schulz-600x411A recent conversation about empathy surfaced in a group I was working with.

One of the group members  described  an experience he had the previous night.  While eating dinner with his friends, a homeless person specifically approached him and asked for some money.

He shared that he did not give the person money at that time, because he was not  sure how it would be spent. But, he said, “if the homeless person had asked for food he would have given him food immediately.”

His story generated interest and a fruitful conversation that eventually led to the question, “ Does empathy have to lead to action?”

This question got me thinking about what prevents people from acting empathetically – especially since there is strong evidence indicating that we’re neurally wired for empathy. 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

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

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