Clearing the Space. How to Do Your Best Thinking.

One of the first tenets from the Neuro-leadership Group in my training as a Results Based Coach is to clear the space before starting any coaching session. It is clearing your prefrontal cortex so that you can prepare to do your best thinking. When I was working with a client this week she said, “Oh so it’s like Lakshmi-ing your brain.” So you might be asking who or what is Lakshmi? Well, apparently it is the Hindu goddess of wealth, love, prosperity and fortune. It is believed that you need to clear out the space and sweep before you can begin to bring wealth and prosperity in. Hmmm. Nice metaphor. Sweep out your brain before you start bringing in the innovative ideas.Clearing the Space

The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that is in charge of executive function. This means that it’s the problem solving area. It brings all the current perceptions and past memories together to make decisions. The problem is that, especially in our technological environment of constant interruptions and distractions, we really don’t “make space” in our prefrontal cortex to do our best thinking; and often don’t even review anything before making a decision We are all on one giant squirrel hunt or chasing shiny objects and never focusing on our true path.

So here we go, my thoughts on how to clear the space:

1. Turn off. First of all, you need to turn everything off. This probably means you need to turn off or place your phone in another room in silent mode. The first squirrel that will interrupt your best thinking is a buzz, bell or other notification from your phone. You can live without your latest social media update for an hour. If you are on your computer, make sure all of your email and social media are shut down. I have a little piece of a post-it note to cover up the little envelope that shows up in Outlook indicating I have a new email.

2. Close the door. Make a space that is free from interruptions from the outside (or inside) world. I close my door so that my dog, or my husband or the noise from the stereo in the other room are out of my space. When I work with clients in person, we sit in a room at a table and the door is closed. The only thing in the room besides paper and pen is a clock so that I know what time it is. Physically create the space to think, that is private.

3. Breathe. I recently learned something called 4-7-8 breathing by Dr. Weil. Basically, you breathe in for 4 counts, hold your breath for 7 counts and exhale for 8 counts. You do this cycle for 4 times. It might take 3 minutes and more likely less time. But doing so really is relaxing and centering. Focus on the breathing, and for me, this comes naturally because I am counting in my head and noticing what is going on in my body. I’m sure there are other breathing exercises out there or you may already have a practice that you use in meditation or yoga. Use what you have or give one of them a shot or try this one. The point is to relax, be present and be centered.

4. One word. When I coach clients, we each disclose one word that encapsulates what is in the “background” for them. This could be the “boss”, “reviews”, “wedding”, “bills” or “graduation”. We then metaphorically place that word on the table or floor or chair or garbage can, so that, if we want to, we can pick up that item at the end of the coaching session. This removes whatever concern, issue or event that might be rattling around in your prefrontal cortex. It physically removes it, so that we can start doing our best work.

5. Basics. I always make sure that I have a glass of water, paper and pen when I am coaching or being coached. When I do a lot of talking, I want to make sure I can replenish. I want to be able to take notes as well. It’s the same if you are trying to work out the logistics of a problem or writing an essay. Make sure you have the essentials so that once you have cleared the space, you are ready to go. When I write, I only have my word processing program open. Make sure you have the basics before you start your best thinking, and make sure you’ve set yourself up for success

Now you are ready to do your best thinking. Your prefrontal cortex is ready to go. It’s like a clean, well swept stage ready for Hamlet’s soliloquy to stand in the center and deliver each beautifully spoken line to the balcony. How do you clear the space?

Is This Your Brain on Venting?

So it turns out that venting is bad for your brain.  Is nothing sacred? I like to complain once in a while; unload all of my jabs and retorts in a long diatribe on how I’ve been wronged by a coworker or whomever.  Just ask my husband.  I’m really good at rehashing every dirty detail.  But you know what? You are embedding your neuro-pathways with bad messages.  You are reinforcing the way you see the world and entrenching a poor mindset. This-is-Your-Brain-on-Venting

During the Results Based Coaching training by the NeuroLeadership Group, the facilitator, Paul McGinniss said “Venting is like pouring gasoline on the problem”.  That’s a powerful metaphor.  If you think about it, aren’t you just reliving the emotional roller coaster and rehashing the same problem.  In David Rock‘s book, Quiet Leadership, he writes, “Unfortunately, drama is a place where many people in organizations are stuck and find it hard to get out of on their own”. You’re in a closed loop and running over the same territory.  This will not help you take a step forward or start building new connections.  You will not find solutions while venting.  

So here are some ideas on how to move off the venting loop and onto a more solutions based focus:          

1. Empathy.  Respond to the complaint with empathy.  This is a key principle from DDI, “listen and respond with empathy.”  The minute you label the feeling someone is conveying to you, let them know your heard them and that it’s time to move on.  “I hear you are frustrated because you didn’t get the raise you wanted” or “I understand you’re disappointed because your boss didn’t use your idea”.  End of loop.  The complainer has been heard.  To move on – Use Empathy.

2. Example.  Set the example.  If you sit around pissing and moaning all day, so will your coworkers, family members and friends.  So stop.  If you must complain that there is a thunderstorm in the middle of your outdoor wedding; say you are upset with the weather and move on.  Dwelling on it isn’t going to change the weather.  Be the optimist and set the example.

3. Ideas. Ask for some ideas.  Become solution focused.  So when your coworker is angry at their boss because she didn’t include him on the safety committee, ask “What do you want to do about that?”  If you are dealing with a chronic whiner, they will end the conversation and seek out other chronic whiners.  If they are willing to look for solutions; you have just helped them move on to new pathways.  You’ve helped break the loop.  Help people find some new ideas.

4. New club.  This might mean joining a new club.  The complainers club is enormous and omnipresent in the world of work.  You might need to hang out with a more optimistic bunch and the pickings might be slim.  The glass half full folks are probably smiling and approachable.  The half empty folks are gossiping and driving the bus over all their co-workers when their back is turned.  You know if they talk about everyone else, they are talking about you.  Stay away and join a new club

5. Silence.  When folks start their complaining and look for reassurance, keep silent.  Complainers aren’t really happy unless you are chiming in with agreement.  Don’t add fuel to the fire.  Let them build their own fires and walk away.  If you aren’t willing to be sucked into their drama, they will find someone else who is more willing.  According to an article by Melinda Zetlin called Listening to Complainers is Bad for Your Brain, “Research shows that exposure to 30 minutes or more of negativity–including viewing such material on TV–actually peels away neurons in the brain’s hippocampus.”  That’s the part of your brain you need for problem solving,” Trevor Blake says. “Basically, it turns your brain to mush.” Keep silent and walk away.

6. Bite. You’re going to need to bite your tongue.  If you start down the road of complaining, take a different direction.  So what if your team just lost?  It happens.  Don’t complain about the blind ref or the guy who cheated, try “gee wasn’t the weather just great” or “we had really good seats”.  Take the high road.  Over time, you’ll start having folks in your club.  People are attracted to optimism.  They might just want to build some of their brain cells with you.  Share the wealth and bite your tongue on negativity.

This post was difficult to write because my husband is likely to hold me accountable for this information.  I hope I can live up to his expectations and look forward to giving up my venting and to start building those brain cells.

Why Fear Doesn’t Work

I just got back from a conference by the NeuroLeadership Group on Results Based Coaching developed by David Rock and all I can say is, “Wow”.  Intimidation and fear have no place in the workplace; or in healthy relationships.  This may seem obvious but aren’t we all guilty of using ultimatums (eat your peas or else I’ll….)? I know I am.  We have this notion that we have to drive performance with the “whip”; much like the slave driver in the movie “The Ten Commandments”.  As Dan Pink has illustrated in his book “Drive”, unless it’s really the type of straight forward, non-thinking kind of work; threat will not drive performance. hebrew slaves building Rameses city_thumb

Paul McGinniss, an outstanding trainer for the NeuroLeadership Group, illustrated this in the training by suggesting that if the leader says “create or else”, you aren’t going to drive performance.  He also said that it takes five “towards or reward” feedback to counteract one “away or threat” responses.  So every time you criticize your employee or your child, it’s going to take five (yes, five) positive responses to get the limbic system back to equilibrium.  And you want that equilibrium.  If the brain of your direct report or spouse is in “fear” mode (when the limbic system is lit up), there ain’t no productive thinking happening.   When was the last time you made a meaningful decision when you were under stress or fear?  Yeah. right – I thought so.  Fear is not going to drive performance.

Here are some ideas on how to diminish fear in those around you:

1. Presence.  Are you aware of how your direct report is reacting or acting at this moment?  Is he tapping his foot with a furrowed brow?  He’s under stress.  If your spouse looks preoccupied; they probably are.  When your child is on the phone and takes a moment or two to reply or to answer a simple question; they might be in the “away” state.   You can’t move on.  We can’t move on, when one of us is in fear, preoccupied or as my husband says, “too many people on my stage” (the prefrontal cortex).  Being present makes you aware.

2. Esteem check.  It’s a good idea to maintain or boost other’s self-esteem (one of the Key Principles from DDI).   Criticizing and nit picking will not enhance performance.  Your teammate will not start picking up the pace or lend you a hand when they are on the defense.  Nagging your partner about mowing the lawn or asking your daughter if she’s gained weight; will not enhance either’s performance.  A thank you or specific positive feedback, on the other hand, will help bring them back to equilibrium.  If you want enhanced performance, make sure you are boosting self-esteem.

3. Steady.  Being steady or consistent is a tenet of emotional intelligence.  Be the same boss, mother, brother or team mate on Monday as on Friday.  Try to keep the team on a steady course as well.  If you are constantly changing directions or “flip flop” on decisions, you will have the team on the back of their heels waiting for the next shoe to drop.  There are times when this is impossible, and that’s OK, just remember that it isn’t the best time to introduce a new project or expect a breakthrough with the team.  Their limbic system is lit up and they are sitting in threat mode.  Wait till the storm passes and keep a steady course.

4. Justice. Hand in hand with being consistent is handing out equal justice.  The same way you need to show up and be the same person day to day, you need to treat Sam, Suzy and Old Joe the same as well.  I’m not suggesting you be a robot but handling situations with an even hand will build respect with the team.  Your family is likely to call foul on this immediately.  If I let my son take a car alone on a weekend trip and didn’t let my daughter (this actually almost happened), your child will educate you on the discrepancy.  Trust me.  Your teammates may not.  Reflect on the manner in which you dole out punishments, rewards and delegation.  Make sure you are using equal justice.

5. Let go the reins.  Let your children, your direct reports or your teammates call their own shots.  Keep your fingers out of the pie.  As I’ve written before, delegate the monkey and let the receiver of the monkey take it from there.  Self-mastery isn’t built under the direction of micro managers.  Delegate the project, figure out the available resources and let them loose.  At some point, you have to allow that 16 year old behind the wheel and Let. Them. Go.

6. Human.  People want to be recognized as human beings.  As Patrick Lencioni wrote in “3 Signs of a Miserable Job“, “People cannot be fulfilled in their work if they are not known”.  This is one of the signs of a miserable job, anonymity.  Know your teammates children’s names, if they play a sport, where their spouse works, what their hobbies are.  You don’t need to know what they had for dinner last night or when their last dental cleaning was, just be able to stay connected.  Make sure they know they are human; that they matter.

There is no need to get wrapped up in perfection with these ideas.  Don’t worry about conquering all 6 by Monday.  Try one out a week and see if you don’t get better performance around you.  One or two tweaks in your approach can go a long way.