A Tale of Two Brains

At a busy airport, Bob and Sam collide. And their two brains save the day…

BOB:    (running, out of breath) “Aha! That’s my plane!” 

SAM:  “I’m sorry, sir. The gate is closed.”

BOB:   (pushing forward) “Nonsense! I’ve gotta be in Peoria by 3:00! Don’t be a jerk!”

(Sam’s brain: (telepathically to Bob’s brain) Ouch! What am I supposed to do with that? I’m no jerk.)

(Bob’s brain: Well, when I’m stressed, I automatically default to this strategy: stress fuels aggression…because aggression relieves stress. So, pushing, being loud, and calling you a jerk, feels good…it takes the edge off…and it seems productive…at the moment, of course. I’m a little nervous about the long run.)

(Sam’s brain: You should be! Because I default to that stress strategy, too...here goes…)

SAM:  (raising a hand) “NO, you’re the jerk, sir! Step BACK! This…gate…is…CLOSED!”

(Bob’s brain: Oof! This isn’t working—I’m still stressed and no closer to Peoria. Let me switch from automatic to mindful…I’m gonna try three slow breaths…then choose thoughtfully…Can we try again?)

(Sam’s brain: It depends. What’ve you got?)

BOB:   (stepping back, exhaling) “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. You’re not a jerk. Can you please help me get to Peoria? I’m worried I’ll miss a big job interview.”

(Sam’s brain: Much better! And, by the way, sharing your emotions and interests like that connects me to you…I understand worry…I’ve had important meetings…I feel your pain…I’m inspired to help…watch this...)

SAM:  “Okay, I get it. Let me call the captain. Maybe she’ll bend the rules for us today.”

P.S.:  Sam gets Bob to Peoria…Bob lands the job…and the “muscle” in Bob’s brain that wrenches him from automatic to mindful thinking gets a little stronger. 

P.P.S.: I’m taking my brain to the gym now. 


Your Call Is Important to Us

That’s the caring message I got when I rang customer service at my cell provider last week. 

And, I felt important, too…right up until I was disconnected. Oof!

To be fair, being present for others when there’s a problem isn’t always easy for any of us. 

In fact, when we disagree, or we’re angry, or overwhelmed, or just not happy with that other person, it can be really hard. And, like my cell company, we can “drop the call” and blunder regrettably.

So, here’s a practice I find helpful: 

Before that difficult conversation, bring to mind Deepak Chopra’s Four A’s of a Compassionate Heart

  1. Attention: Show up, and be a good listener.

  2. Acceptance:    Accept others for who they are, and advise only when asked.

  3. Appreciation: Recognize the good that others do (even small things).

  4. Affection:        Care about them (they’re just as complex and flawed as we are).

Then let the Four A’s focus and guide you to be productively present when it matters most.

In the best case, you solve a problem, make a connection, build some trust.  

In the worst case, you treat someone with dignity, without sacrificing your own.

Happy August.

One Ripe Strawberry

An explorer walks a path in the jungle.

A tiger follows.

She walks faster.

The tiger gains.

She runs.

 

The path ends at a sheer cliff.

The bridge is out.

The tiger is close.

 

A hundred feet below a river rages.

There’s no jumping.

She climbs down a vine growing from the cliff’s edge.

A mouse appears.

It gnaws at the vine.

The vine frays.

 

The explorer spots a plant clinging to the cliff face.

There’s one ripe strawberry.

She picks it.

She eats it.

And, it’s a damn good strawberry.

___

*Thanks so much to Sylvia Boorstein (Author, Psychotherapist, and Buddhist Teacher) for this story that I’ve adapted from her telling on a recent 10% Happier with Dan Harris podcast. 

Cold, Cold Heart

Have you ever felt really right about something important?  

Like the genius of single-payer healthcare, or border walls, or gender equality, or the New York Mets?

And you try hard to share your big ideas, but the other person won’t listen. And, like Hank Williams, you’re wondering, Why can't I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart?”

Well, the answer may be…you just can’t. And not because you’re wrong (but check that blind-spot first). 

Rather, because you’re up against several potent elements of human psychology:*

1.    Intuition comes first. Evolved and learned intuitions unconsciously and powerfully push us toward perspectives that feel right—before we even know it. 

2.    Strategic reasoning comes second. When our reasoning mind does fire up, more often it acts as our intuition’s lawyer, justifying and defending a $15 minimum wage—rather than its scientist, open to exploring the economic impacts. 

3.    We trust US and fear THEM. Our evolved intuition is wired with tribal instincts from birth. And our learned intuition comes from experience with people (and ideas) we care about and admire—US—and people (and ideas) that scare us—THEM.

But all is not lost.

If that person you want to reach is important, and you’re willing to do the emotional labor, you may yet connect with that person’s scientist mind—by being admired for the empathy you unpack. 

It can go something like this:

1.     Breathe and be calm

2.     Smile and be friendly.

3.     Listen first and without judgement.

4.     Take a walk in their shoes.

5.     Then share your big ideas.

With effort and luck, you’ll become less of a THEM and more of an US to that person. And neither of your hearts will seem quite as cold.

*See Johnathan Haidt’s, The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion (2012).

Free Your PFC

Watching “Avengers: Endgame” can be good fun. But—spoiler alert—it’s just make-believe. 

For real superhero action, consider that magnificent expanse of gray matter sitting behind your forehead. That unparalleled crusader for pro-social behavior: Your Pre-Frontal Cortex!

From soft folds of densely packed neurons, your PFC unleashes remarkable superpowers: impulse control—gratification postponement—emotional regulation—long term planning—executive decision making. Your PFC enables you to do the harder thing, when it’s the right thing to do.* 

At your PFC’s direction: 

  1. You listen patiently to your elderly neighbor, Bob, who’s upset because his mailbox was smashed…even when he yells…even when he accuses you…and even when you know he’s wrong…because listening will help him feel heard, and calm down. 

  2. You don’t call Bob a “crazy old bird”…even when it might feel really good…because you know he’s just scared…and because if you engage in judgment and name-calling, Bob will never hear you. 

  3. You triumph! Because Bob calms. He hears you. He might even apologize.  And, he’ll still watch your cat when you go to Vegas.

Magnificent, am I right!?! But beware. Your PFC has its kryptonite: stress overload.  

So, the morning your golden retriever vomits in your loafers, and your bus is late to work, and your boss gives the big client to the new guy—be mindful. Your PFC may be tied to the proverbial railroad tracks, powers compromised, unable to prevent certain calamity.

That’s when YOU leap in to action: breathe—take a break—address the stress. And free your PFC to think like a superhero again! 

Your golden, your boss, and—most importantly—you, will be glad you did.

*The fantastic read is Robert Sapolsky’s “Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst” (2017). 

The Magnificent Emoji

I love using emoji.

My favorite is “man dancing”—the disco guy in the purple suit. If I text you “man dancing” I’m feeling joy, confidence, style, and devil-may-care. Or perhaps I’m reflecting your joy, confidence, style, or independence.

My brother, in contrast, refuses to use emoji. He professes to be anti-emoji.

I feel sad about that. He’s missing something. And, emoji deserve more respect.

So here’s my proof emoji are magnificent:

        I.            The great Marshal Rosenberg taught that communicating our feelings is sharing “what’s alive” inside us. And, sharing “what’s alive” inside us enables us to connect with others.

       II.            For example, you may never have your screenplay rejected, or have your child move to California, or get to do yoga on a beach at dawn. But if the person who experiences these things shares how they feel about them, you can relate. Because we’ve all been happy, sad, inspired, scared, excited, angry, or contented at one time or another.

     III.            Thus, since emoji help us share our feelings—what’s alive inside us—they help us connect. Connecting with others is magnificent. Therefore, Emoji are magnificent. Q.E.D

I recommend using as many emoji as you need, and as you please! (smiling face; flexed bicep; flexed bicep; man/woman dancing; red heart; red heart)

P.S. Happily, my brother seems to have found a way around his emoji aversion. In a recent text following a warm winter vacation, he wrote: “I’m back…just landed at a frozen Kennedy Airport. FROWN.”

P.P.S.  (smiling face; flexed bicep; red heart)

I See You

Cesar Millan, the famous dog whisperer, is successful working with dogs who behave disagreeably. He does this without hollering or hitting—instead he connects.

Cesar is mindful of two things dogs are asking of us:

1.       Please see me—I’m a dog, a pack animal. Not a fish, not a parrot, not a human being.

2.      Please see what I see—I see social order. When I know where I fit, I’m content and my behaviors reflect my comfort. When I don’t know where I fit—when it’s confusing—I’m anxious. I may bark, I may bite, I may pee on your favorite rug.

This knowledge guides Cesar’s work with dogs, and dogs respond constructively to him.

Now, people aren’t dogs. But we too want to be seen. And we too want others to see what we see—especially when we disagree.

So the next time you’re in an argument with your teenager, or your landlord, or your boss, and you’re hoping instead for a productive dialogue, try connecting first:

1.       See that person (give her as much attention, acceptance, appreciation as you can).

2.       Try to see what she sees (listen to her first, and listen intently).

Then, allow what you learn to inform your conversation, and open the door for a constructive response.

P.S. If you have a dog at home, she or he will be happy to practice with you.

A Book, A Movie, A Gift

Thanksgiving is next week.  It’s my favorite holiday. 

I had in mind to write about non-judgment, because sometimes getting together with people we know well can make commenting on the unimportant, or the none-of-our-business, all too easy. Such as, “Bob, the seventies called and they want your pants back”; or “Maddy, your string beans are good, but just a little salty for me”; or “Liam, did you really think buying that money pit was a good idea?”

But instead, I’ve decided to “hand the mic over” to two sweet tales: the bestselling novel “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman (2018); and the movie “Lars and the Real Girl” starring Ryan Gosling (2007).

Both stories are wonderfully told, and celebrate the power and simplicity of non-judgement to build human connection. And with a cold November weekend ahead, what better way to spend it than with a good book or movie.

Then, if you’re like me, perhaps you’ll be inspired to bring non-judgement as a gift to your Thanksgiving gathering. (And, don’t forget to notice the results, and enjoy the time with your people).

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Best Time To Give Advice

Okay, it’s the fifth Tuesday in October, so it’s time for a short quiz. Number 2 pencils out, eyes on your own paper, and begin…

Question:  The best time to give advice is:

a)      When a colleague has just shared a painful employee issue, and you faced a similar one once.

b)     When a friend has just clicked “send” on an angry email to her client that you never would’ve sent.

c)      When your spouse is steaming broccoli for dinner, and you think broccoli is best roasted.

d)      None of the above.


 Answer: d.

Because, of course, the best (only?) time to give others advice…is…when they ask for it.

(P.S. I need to take this quiz regularly.)

 

What's Wrong With You?

As a young prosecutor I once had a branch chief who bullied everyone: staff, defense attorneys, police, even judges.  One afternoon it was my turn. “Doug” stormed into my office, tossed me a file, planted both hands on my desk, and, inches from my face, screamed “What’s wrong with you?!

As it turned out, the file with the error in it wasn’t mine. And Doug moved on. But I was stunned…angry…and hurt. Weren’t we colleagues, attorneys, adults? How I could be so disrespected? I carried those feelings for a long time.

What I didn’t understand, was that Doug’s behavior was an expression of strong feelings and needs. He needed the branch to run smoothly, and to be seen as an able manager. And he desperately feared the blunder that would spin life off script and rain negative judgement down on his head.

Had I then understood this about Doug…about all of us, really…I could have released my hurt and anger. And perhaps, summoned the empathy, the calm, the compassion to address the incident candidly and constructively.

Because, after all, what happened that afternoon was not about what was “wrong” with me, but rather…what was “wrong” with Doug.

(P.S.  This post is my pre-midterm election reminder to help me breathe, be calm and see my political counterparts more humanely—with empathy for our common feelings and needs.)

OMG! You’re Right!

Mid-argument, how often have your heard someone say:

  • OMG! You’re right!

  • The way you raised your voice convinced me.

  • When you called me a selfish jerk, I knew that I was.

  • When you belittled my effort, I understood my weakness.

  • Your searing judgement of my opinions means a lot to me.

  • You get me. I feel safe.

  • Let’s work together.

Ever?  Of course not.

When we disagree, we often unleash anger and harsh judgement without regard to outcomes and relationships that are important to us. Our impact on others sits squarely in a blind spot. 

A mindful approach can help: Breathe. Smile. Park the anger. And unpack the empathy.

Everybody Here Smiles

The ethos at my first job out of law school: Get here at 7:30 am, work hard, bill 10-12 hours, leave after your boss. And, by the way, nobody here smiles.

The message: you’re on shaky ground, don’t trust us.

The ethos at my daughter’s first job out of college: Get here, work hard, put in 8 or 9 hours, use your judgment, have a life outside work. And by the way, everybody here smiles.

The message: we’re happy you’re here, do great things, we trust you.

Where could you shine?

Smile. Respect. Build trust. Help everyone do their best work.