Each of us has our own unique set of rules that govern how we engage with people, situations and life in general. A great majority of the time we are fully and completely oblivious to the influence they have on our every choice.
These rules set the parameters of our behaviour. They determine the extent we will take risk or not take risk. They define for us what is acceptable and what is unacceptable; what we are willing to do or not willing to do; and what we deem to be pleasurable or to be painful.
The rules we have learned to live by are both helpful and harmful. Those which are helpful drive us to grow, to learn and to develop. They are rules that allow us to act with tenacity and fortitude. They enable us to face changes with an objective and reflective state of mind.
The flip side of helpful rules are harmful rules. These rules function based on the same mechanism as helpful rules, but there is an insidious depth to these set of rules. The harmful rules that we harbour restrict and retard our growth. They can make us experience irrational fears in situations where there shouldn’t be any. They can make us behave and act in foolish and detrimental ways. Where an event requires a calm and collected mind to get out of a sticky situation, our harmful rules promote decision making based on a reactive and racing mind. We fall into the dark abyss of our subjective world like a parachutist tumbling out of control, head over heels, disoriented between the sky, the horizon and the Earth.
Ironically, these harmful rules started out originally as helpful rules. Any and all rules that we have established are based on some level of repeated experience. All of our experiences are lessons in disguise. Our brains learn and adapt. They map the event as a memory in order to create predictability and certainty for similar future events. Every rule that guides our lives starts out as a healthy rule safe guarding us from potential harm.
Although somewhere along the line some of our rules grow beyond their original constraints and begin to encompass more and more. Our brains begin to lose the distinction between what local event brought us harm to creating a more global response to everything associated with that event.
DOGGED BY DOGS
For instance, I remember quite vividly when I was 10 years old my parents took my brother and I to a farmers market. The summer day was hot and humid. As we wandered through the market I saw a German Shepherd next to one of the stalls. I reached out to pet it and the next thing I felt was its canines sinking into the soft flesh of my hand. I cried out in pain and pulled my hand back in fright. At that moment my brain set up a rule: ‘Do not pet strange dogs on a hot day when in a crowded market!”
As time passed and I grew older the event at the farmers market faded into the background of my mind and I eventually forgot about it. Or at least I believed I forgot about it. In reality the rule was still running in the background of my mind even though I was completely oblivious to it.
By my late 20's I had developed an uneasiness even around the most timid of dogs. When you think of a Labrador with big brown eyes sitting on his haunches with something akin to a curious smile on its face, this is the farthest thing from threatening or scary. But my mind had set up a rule that stated dogs were something to be feared. Over the years the simple rule established at the farmers market evolved into something the encompassed all dogs in all situations.
Of course, I logically knew not every dog I encountered saw my hand as a tasty morsel ready to be devoured. But on an emotional level I believed it to be the truth. In my negative emotional stupor around dogs all logic and orientation to reality was vaporized. I became the parachutist spinning out of control losing all context between the on-coming ground and the spinning sky. Instead of being reflective my irrational emotions pushed me to be reactive.
At the time I did not understand why I had such an irrational response and reaction to dogs. It was something that I just experienced based on no fathomable reason. We can completely forget about our rules and the reasons why they were first established, but they are still working behind the curtains 24/7. This is what I mean by the insidious nature of harmful rules. They creep up on you and automatically influence your thoughts, emotions and behaviour in detrimental ways that often exacerbate the situation.
HOW TO REDEFINE THE RULES
Thankfully I exposed the rules for what they were and changed them so I no longer suffer from an irrational uneasiness around dogs. It is this same methodology I teach to my clients on a weekly basis to help them expose their own rules of engagement. It could be anything: speaking in front of large crowds; having a difficult conversation with a colleague; dealing with transition and change; learning to be assertive or any number of other challenges both professionally and privately.
The general idea is to get my clients to articulate their rules to a specific situation. In addition to this, I give them homework and ask them to further elaborate their rules and capture them on paper for our next meeting.
Through this process we expose the unconscious rules and lay them bare for introspection.
For many people the simple fact of seeing their rules written down in front of them is very cathartic. There is a release of tension as people realize that they are not psychologically warped, but that they were simply following a set of dysfunctional rules they had establish, perhaps, decades ago.
Clients learn to redefine their rules of engagement. They rewrite the rules so they are functional and healthy instead of dysfunctional and unhealthy.
One important caveat to note is that we can never erase a rule from our brains. Just like you can't unlearn to ride a bicycle or forget how to speak your native language (not barring major traumatic head injury). By consistently applying a new set of rules they eventually become the dominant default pathway of how we constructively deal with a situation.
By changing the rules of the game we change the rules of how we engage with life. We can set up the Rules of Engagement so we come out on the winning end.
In the professional world time is a valuable commodity not to be squandered frivolously. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of time-wasting, mind-numbing tasks, meetings and people who insatiably devour this limited commodity.
One of the biggest time wasters is when people don’t get to the point. When I get trapped into these types of conversation my mind always flashes back to the Seinfeld sitcom episode (http://imdb.to/1PzuQuQ) where Jerry, George, Ellen and Kramer spend the entire show wandering around a multi-level car park trying to remember where they parked the car. Instead of Kramer (or any of them) investing a moment to note down the car’s location, which is both important and relevant, they need to search every corner, aisle and level for the vehicle. Of course all sorts of others antics ensue during their epic search.
If people spent even a moment to think about the importance and relevance of their point when communicating in a professional setting we would probably not get lost so often in irrelevant details and exhaustive explanations.
There is a tendency for people to admire and respect a person who is able to articulate their ideas in a clear and concise manner. It not only shows consideration for another person’s time, but it shows their ability to have a meaningful and controlled conversation.
Taking even a few minutes to reflect on why you need to have the conversation, send the email, or call for a meeting can save you and those involved a lot of frustration and grief.
When working with clients with this particular issue I always ask them to equate their message with writing an article in a newspaper. People tend to scan through the paper to see if there are any headlines of interest to them. If they find one the scanning continues to the sub-headlines in the article. If something peaks their curiosity then they can read the section for more details.
People tend to ask 2 questions when filtering through the headlines in a newspaper:
1. Why is this important to me?
2. Why is this relevant to me?
When you begin a conversation in a work situation people will be asking themselves these same questions. Invest a little time up front by knowing what the take home message is and then qualify it by answering the above two questions.
If your communication is an email, report or presentation then you might want to further consider the governing details, which are akin to the sub-headlines in an article. They are the major points to your take home message. If people are interested in the minutiae then they will ask.
When it comes to communication at work the dictum more is less and less is more is both important and relevant.
In my last three posts I wrote in some detail about the principles of neuroplasticity. In order to use these principles to our advantage we need to consciously use directed neuroplasticity, which requires us to be attentive as to where we place our focus.
It is focused attention which creates change in the structure and organization in the brain. The key is to understand how attention functions and to work within it’s finite limits.
Consider little Bobby who is four-years old and sitting at a table staring intensely at a tantalising white marshmallow only a short arms-distance away. There is no one else in the room. It’s just him and the marshmallow.
Let’s take a moment to rewind. Two minutes ago a researcher in a white-lab coat was sitting across from Bobby and gave him a choice. “Bobby, after I leave the room you can either eat the marshmallow right away or you can wait until I come back and I will give you two”. The researcher then got up from his chair and exited the room.
So let’s now fast forward back to the present. There’s little Bobby confronted with quite the dilemma. Does he devour the yummy, fresh, soft marshmallow or should he wait and get two? He looks at the clock. Tick. Tock. Time has never moved so slow for Bobby as it does at this very moment. From the monitor in the next room the researcher can see the furrowed brow as Bobby is contemplating his next move. It seems resistance was futile. Bobby gives in to his tastebuds and devours the marshmallow in two bites.
This same experiment was conducted with hundreds of children. Most of them used on average two-minutes before they gave into the allure of the marshmallow. Only about one-quarter of the children were able to resist eating the marshmallow until the researcher returned to the room.
Years later when they followed up the children from the study the researchers discovered those children who had managed to hold out for the second marshmallow grew up to have more successful lives than those children who couldn’t wait. These children were found to have a greater likelihood later of having behavioural challenges. The researchers also found that as adults those children found it difficult to hold their attention and to control their emotions.
Years later the researchers at the University of Rochester conducted the classic marshmallow study again, but this time with a slight twist. This time they randomly divided a group of 28 children, between the ages of 3 to 5 years old, into two equal groups.
The first set of children were put through the ‘unreliable’ condition. They were provided with a closed jar of used crayons. The researcher told each child if they could wait until he/she shortly came back they would get a set of bigger and better crayons and new art supplies. The researcher than left the room and returned two and half minutes later with their hands empty and apologized to the child. The researcher said he had made a mistake and told the child they could still use the old crayons in the jar.
The second set of children were put through the ‘reliable’ condition. It was the exact same set-up, but instead the researcher returned with the bigger and better crayons and the new art supplies.
Immediately after the crayon experiment the researchers conducted the classic marshmallow test. Each child was given the same instructions as their predecessors were when they first ran the test years ago - if they waited for the researcher to return before they ate the first marshmallow than they would get two.
Those children who went through the ‘unreliable’ condition waited an average of 3 minutes before reaching for the marshmallow. Those children who had undergone the ‘reliable’ condition waited an average of 12 minutes. Only one child in the ‘unreliable’ condition waited for the full 15 minutes compared to 9 kids in the ‘reliable’ condition.
This experiment showed that self-control was not the only determining factor. It was also based on how the children rationalised the situation to themselves which in turn was influenced by their prior experience with the crayons. So those children in the ‘reliable’ condition where their expectation of receiving new crayons and art supplies was met tended to hold out longer for the second marshmallow. On the other hand, the children in the ‘unreliable’ condition whose expectations were not met were likely to eat the first marshmallow then wait for a second that may never come.
Part Two to follow....
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There are two major ways neuroplasticity works to shape the structure and function of our brains. The first is the direct interaction we have with our external world in the form of our mental, emotional and physical experience. For instance, when we find ourselves staying at a hotel in a city we’ve never been to before and we venture out to find a restaurant, see a famous site or visit a museum. Our brains automatically begin to map everything. Piece by piece we begin to have a better idea of the street layout, where the decent cafes and restaurants are located, the shortest route to the subway and so on. Our brain is literally being shaped by our mental, emotional, and physical experiences with our new surroundings.
The other major way neuroplasticity shapes our brains is through how we think. The famous French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes wasn’t far off with his words “I think therefore I am”. What we consistently think has a direct impact on how our brains develop. Our thoughts determine how we feel and behave. We can literally re-engineer the structure and function of our brains by changing our thoughts. This means the words we think and images we consistently recall in our minds directly and physically rewires our brains.
As an example, we can all recall a time when we have felt emotional or physical pain. It is part of the human condition. As with most things painful the brain does not want to revisit it. It understands that pain could easily lead to one’s ultimate demise. This is the brain’s default strategy with all things painful and it shows itself in the multitude of ways we tend to avoid things. As we will discover in more depth in future poststhis avoidant behaviour only intensifies feelings of anxiety and negative stress.
One of the principles of my conversations with clients is about walking into the storm. This means in order to create the necessary changes we want it is imperative for us to face our fears whether it is the dread of public speaking, the fear of being more assertive at work or the anxiety of coming to terms with a traumatic event.
When we walk into the storm of our fears we trigger the specific brain circuits tied with that event. In doing this we put those particular circuits into a malleable state where we can literally rewire our brains by having more constructive thoughts about the meaning we give to the event. This means we don’t have to continue to feel stupid, vulnerable, scared, weak, at fault, victimised or any number of other emotions. We can choose to rewrite the meaning we have given to an event and this in turn will rewire our brains so we are stronger, more adaptable and more flexible.
With that said it is important to note that neuroplasticity is not always a positive thing. It is the brain’s ability to reorganise itself based on all types of learning and experience whether good or bad. This means the brain can change in positive and negative directions by developing both helpful and harmful habits. It’s beneficial to understand how plasticity works and how we can make use of it’s principles to correct the runaway negative forms of plasticity while at the same time enhancing the positive ones.
In order to use the principle to our advantage we need to concentrate our efforts on directed neuroplasticity. This means we need to be vigilant to having thoughts which will help us reorganise our brain in order to build a more robust mind.
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....With each new thought you begin to create a new neural pathway. This is analogous to walking through a field of tall grass. When you look back you can distinctly see the path you have taken. The grass is bent and broken where you have trodden. If you continue to take the same route through the field it will eventually become a well-formed path. This is no different with the brain. Every time we repeat a thought or an emotion we reinforce a neural pathway.
Over time we become more efficient, more adept and more skilled at playing the guitar, swinging a tennis racket or speaking a foreign language. It becomes automatic and forms a fixed pattern of behaviour. These habits of thought and action become a part of us. We literally become what we most consistently think and do. In essence, neuroplasticity underlies all learning.
Winston Churchill is often quoted for saying, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. From the perspective of the brain by simply recalling a specific event from our past we activate a neural circuit in the brain whereby it enters into a malleable state. This means the activated circuits are in a state where they can be rewritten so they are no longer unhelpful, unadaptive and inflexible but instead helpful, adaptable and flexible. We can literally learn from our past and use the principles of neuroplasticity to physically rewire the brain from being fixed in thought to being fluid in thought.
The important idea is that the brain has not evolved to stay in a static and unmodifiable state. Rather it is always a “work-in-progress”. The brain is continuously learning, adapting, and changing consciously and unconsciously in response to what we attend to and what we experience.
On an unconscious level we respond to the world based on prior experience and learning. To some extent we are mindlessly and automatically going through the motions of thinking, feeling and doing connected to a particular situation or person. Think back to earlier today when you got out of bed and went through your morning routine. You brushed your teeth, got dressed, toasted your bread, locked your front door and any number of other actions. Most of it, if not all of your routine, was carried out in automatic state of mind.
On a conscious level we are mindful of our actions and where we place our attention. For example, when we learn to play a new instrument, memorise the lines in a play or comprehend the key principles behind a scientific idea. In this conscious state, we are directly and actively shaping our brain to how we want to develop and grow. We use the process of neuroplasticity to our advantage.
Part Three to follow....
Interested to find out more about MINDtalk coaching and workshops? Visit us at www.MINDtalk.no
As human beings we have an innate drive to improve and to develop ourselves. There is a rhyme and reason behind why we do anything. Those reasons may not always be clear to us. Those reason may be logical or illogical, rational or irrational. Regardless of the origins of why we do something, we do it because there is some form of reward. There is some sort of return on our investment.
Much of what we do, what we think and what we feel is down to habit. Evolutionary-wise our brains evolved to think as little as possible. Thinking needs energy. A lot of thinking requires a lot of energy. It was quite an arduous effort for our ancient ancestors to find, track, hunt, kill, prepare and eat on a regular basis as we do today. As a result of these environmental variables it was better for our brains to evolve down the road of forming habits in order to conserve energy.
When learning something new a lot of initial, upfront energy is invested. The payback is our brains have evolved to automate repeated behaviours. This means when we move into a familiar situation very little to no thought is required. How we react, how we feel, and how we think is pretty much on autopilot. Habits allow us to turn learned tasks into automatic routines so we can focus our attention to more pressing matters such as potential dangers in our immediate environment.
Many of the habits we’ve accumulated over the years save us time and effort so we don’t have to constantly relearn skills. It is also no surprise to any of us that some of the habits we’ve developed are road blocks to our growth. As with many bad habits they may have started out as good habits because they served an emotional purpose. Perhaps in grade school you avoided the role of giving group presentations or other situations where you had to address the class. This made you feel safe and to feel the same as the rest of your friends. You developed the habit of avoiding situations of being singled out and leaving yourself exposed to criticism. The habit served a beneficial function back in school.
Since then time has moved on, we have moved on and the world has moved on. The original reasons for why our brains first established the avoidant behaviours has faded into the blurred distance of our past where it has been long forgotten. Bad habits are akin to maintaining a train station when the train service has long ago disappeared. The station no longer serves any function. Those once functional habits, now dysfunctional, have remained untouched by our inevitable movement forward and no longer play any useful purpose. They have gone from being helpful behaviours to ones that hinder us and hold us back from developing.
The fact is our brains are constantly learning from experience both consciously and unconsciously, the majority of it being unconscious. We’ve always known that the brain has the ability to learn regardless of age, but it is only very recently that science has woken up to the truly deep insight as to what this really means. The challenge is to occasionally step off the automated conveyer-belt of learning and to be cognizant of how we can use this natural ability to our advantage.
It was not so long ago that scientists believed the brain formed all it’s nerve cell connections during childhood and by the time we reached adulthood everything was pretty much hard-wired. The belief was if the brain was injured by disease or trauma the nerve cells could never form new connections and would never be able to regenerate, and so any functions controlled by that part of the brain were permanently lost.
Advances in brain-science research on animals and humans in only the last couple of decades have completely dissolved this belief. We now know that the brain can and does change throughout our lives. The research unequivocally shows the brain continues to reorganize itself by forming new brains cells as well as new neural connections throughout the entirety of our lives.
This game-changing property is called neuroplasticity. The term derives from the root words neuron and plastic. A neuron refers to the cells that make up our brain. The word plastic means to hold, modify or sculpt. Neuroplasticity is the property of the brain that allows it to change it’s structure and function through mental and physical experience. Neurons are able to adjust their activity in response to changes in the environment, to new situations and to compensate for injury.
If you think back 10, 15, or 20 years ago your thoughts and behaviours are different from what they are today. They way you think now as an adult is different to how you thought as a teenager. This is neuroplasticity in action. Our brains reorganize and adapt based on what we experience and learn.
Since 2001, MINDtalk has been bridging the disconnect between what brain-science knows and what business does.
We are continually helping clients, through one2one coaching and group workshops, to utilize brain-science, psychology and interpersonal communication skills to improve their ability as leaders and business professionals.