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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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

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