Your Brain is Amazing

So is mine, actually, if I can say so without seeming arrogant.  And this is partly because it can do two things almost at once.

I’m reading the best book ever (well, my latest ‘best book ever’ I suppose): it’s called ‘The Master and His Emissary’ by Iain McGilchrist.  Subtitle: ‘The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World’ – so, an ambitious tome.  But ambition is great if you can back it up – and boy, can McGilchrist back it up!  This is a book which connects neuroscience with philosophy with physics with literature with music with emotional intelligence with evolution with… you get the picture.

For those of us who are right-handed, the basic brain stuff goes like this (lefties: you probably – but not definitely – need to reverse left and right in the paragraphs below).

The right hemisphere of your brain is open to the world: it attends to everything that’s going on.  In a way it’s like a vast satellite dish, receiving signals all the time.  And it picks things up whole, connected, in context with one another.  (You can see this if you get wired up to a monitor which picks up the electrical and chemical activity in your brain.)

What does it do with all that overwhelming data?  It sends it to be ‘processed’ in the left brain: there it gets broken down and focussed and manipulated to make it useful to us.  the left brain will narrow down on what it thinks we need to know, and package it up in a more or less logical way for us – in words for example (for most of us the left brain is most involved in language).

All that happens in a nanosecond; and then the packaged information is whizzed back to the right brain to feed in alongside all the new data it’s picking up.  Stuff ‘reverberates’ from one side of our brain to the other all the time.

I find all this stuff mind-blowing – ironically.  But one of the many great things about it is – it totally fits with Jung’s notion of paired, complementary mental functions (as picked up in MBTI and other Jungian Type instruments).  Right brain – intuition (big picture, context, vision, connection).  Left brain – sensing (data, focus, analysis).  And it fits with Daniel Kahnemann’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ (fast – right brain; slow – left brain).

The question is – how do we get ourselves to attend to both sides of the brain appropriately?  If you’re a leader, this is especially important, of course – but we all need to do it.

You could start by reading the book…

 

Chimp or Human?

A client recently recommended Steve Peters’ book ‘The Chimp Paradox’ to me, and I’ve been reading it for the last week or so.  Dr Peters is well known as a psychologist in the sports world, working with Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Liverpool FC and many others.

The key idea of the book is to think of our minds as having three essential components – the chimp (a personalisation of the limbic brain) the human (the frontal area of the brain) and the computer (the parietal).  The chimp acts and reacts emotionally, driven by the need to survive and replicate its genes; the human considers and acts logically, looking to achieve fulfilment; the computer simply stores material (both facts and patterns and automatic reactions) which the chimp and human use.

His key distinction is this: if you experience an emotion which you don’t welcome, it is the chimp playing up.  So when we are angry, upset, anxious and so on, we recognise that we are dealing with a primitive drive within us.  But, he says, you yourself are the human – you are the rational being you would like to be.  You are not the chimp.  You are  a human, and it is your job to control the chimp within, much as a dog owner has to control a dog.

Of course, this is just a model – I expect the line between chimp and human is pretty grey in reality. But it is a hugely useful model.  It enables us to create a dialogue within ourselves, and it empowers us to deal with the feelings and behaviours we don’t like.

So – do you want to be a chimp, or a human?

Leading in schools and business

Actually, this entry is mainly just a link to an article on the Guardian website where I get a mention as a leadership coach.  Read all about it here.

Matt’s right, in that leaders in all sectors are isolated: it comes with the territory.  And one way of dealing with that is to have someone with some skills ‘offline’ to reflect with.  One reason coaching works is because of the professional boundary: when I’m meeting with a client, my only agenda is his or her development: it’s not what s/he thinks of me, or if s/he’s happy.

A Change in the Weather

Almost overnight, everyone else has turned brown.  Suddenly there are shorts and tee-shirts, sunglasses.  Everyone moves more slowly.  It feels like a holiday.  Outside my window in the centre of Bristol, you can hear desultory chat, the chink of glasses, music turned up, the slap of sandals walking by.

A change in the system (in this case, the weather system) produces a change in behavior, a change in priorities, a change in feelings.

I know there are some hardy souls who just start wearing shorts at the beginning of April even if it’s still snowing (no, there ARE – I saw one guy earlier in the year), but they are the exception.  It is hard to do one thing when the system is telling you to do something else.

I’m coming to realize that as a coach, I’m never coaching an individual – I’m always coaching the system.  It’s extremely hard for a naturally receptive person to become assertive at the best of times.  But when his boss is aggressive and full of initiatives of his own, it’s almost impossible.  Somehow the boss has to change to make the space for the other guy to assert himself.  It’s all very well for a CEO to have a compelling  vision and pull together a team to implement it – but if the Board gets too anxious too quickly about the bottom line, she may not be given the chance to get there.

You have to change the system.  And if you want one of your direct reports to develop, you have to get out of the way.  And to do that you may have to change even more than the person who’d being coached.  Or you may have to see how the system can be changed at an even more fundamental level.

Sometimes we need to change the weather.

Learned Optimism

Have you ever given up?

What makes a person resilient?  Why does one person buckle under a challenge, and another find the resources within to push through to a successful conclusion?

In his book, Learned Optimism’, Martin Seligman gives us at least part of the answer: it’s down to the way we explain success and failure.  There are two explanatory styles.  The pessimistic style looks at the event – let’s say the failure to hit a particular sales target – and says one of three things –

  • I’ll never be able to do this
  • I’m not good at this sort of thing
  • It’s my fault

In other words, the pessimist assumptions are that a failure is permanent; that it affects a whole larger area of life, and that she (and she alone) is responsible for this failure.  Likewise, when a pessimist succeeds against the odds, he’ll probably end up saying something like:

  • I’ll never be able to do that again
  • That was a fluke
  • I got lucky

These kinds of reaction are common enough – we’ve probably all said at least two or three of these six statements.  But contrast them with the reactions of an optimist to failure:

  • I failed this time – I wonder what this teaches me?
  • I can do lots of similar things- I wonder why not this?
  • There are loads of reasons why: it wasn’t all my fault

And to success:

  • How can I find an opportunity to do this again?
  • I worked for that
  • I know what I did to make this happen

The key thing is the effect that explanatory style has on us.  It doesn’t take a huge leap to realise that the pessimistic style can stop us even trying, and the optimistic one encourages confidence.

Optimism isn’t like extraversion – it’s not inborn, it’s learned.  And we can learn it, no matter how pessimistic our explanatory style.

Sell Your Self

We are all in selling now.

‘Always Be Closing’ – as Dan Pink explains in his thought-provoking book ‘To Sell is Human’, a generation of salesmen and women were taught this mantra.  Always Be Closing – in other words, everything you do and say in a conversation with a customer or client should be pushing towards the Close, the clinching of the sale, when the money changes hands.  That is the defining moment of the sales person’s life and work.  After that, the salesman can walk away in the knowledge of a job well done, with an assurance that his commission has been earned.

No wonder selling has had such a bad press.  As Pink points out, such a model of selling could only succeed in an age when the saleswoman could occupy the place of expert – only she had the product, or information about it, and selling was therefore a challenge to show the customer the necessity of parting with her cash to purchase this product (and this one only).  But we’re in a new age, when we can google the details of most products and services, and we can all be experts.  What has become of the salesman?

Pink shows that the salesperson hasn’t gone away.  In fact we are all salesmen and women.  ‘Selling’ in the traditional sense of persuading a person to part with hard-earned income for a product you or your company has created, has now been replaced with the much bigger and all-pervasive need to ‘move’ other people to make decisions.

The teacher has to move the recalcitrant student to complete his Film Studies coursework; the doctor must move the patient to change her lifestyle; the minister must move that nice man on the PCC to become  churchwarden; and yes, the marketing manager or the salesman must move his clients to give his company’s product a try.  We are all in selling in this sense – even in families, when we long to move our children to tidy their rooms or empty the dishwasher.

So in place of Always Be Closing, Pink offers us a new ABC – attunement, buoyancy and clarity.  Attunement: we make a relationship with the person, understand what will move her; we are so attuned, in fact, that we won’t sell her what is actually wrong for her.  Buoyancy: we develop resilience, so that when we fail to move someone we are not destroyed by the experience; we learn to value ourselves and whatever it is we are offering sufficiently, independent of our success in moving others.  Clarity: we ask questions to discover what it is that the person we are talking to actually does want, and how we (or someone else) may be able to meet his needs.

What are you selling?  A vision of the future of your firm, to your staff?  The need to keep on top of school work, to a student?  A product or service you provide?  A new way of looking at your marriage, to your partner?  A great new interest you have discovered, to a friend?  The value of reading a particular book, to a client, or reader?

We are all in selling, and it’s not about the Close, it’s about the relationship and the process.  How can you focus on those this week?

Ten Top Tips About Time

Ten things we all know about time, but often don’t act on!  And I include myself…
  1. Time is a limited resource, like money.  You need to budget.
  2. The way you spend your time now indicates the priorities you actually have now.
  3. If you don’t know what your priorities are, you can’t budget your time.
  4. A diary is really easy to plan 18 months in advance.
  5. A diary is impossible to plan a day in advance.
  6. Once something important is in the diary, it can be defended.  If it never gets there, it can’t.
  7. You have a choice about whether to spend time on what energises and fulfils you, or on other stuff.
  8. You haven’t put an event in your diary if you haven’t put the preparation (and travel) in as well.
  9. A completely full diary is a failure to plan for immediate needs.
  10. Your failure to plan should not be someone else’s crisis.

 

A Loss of Perspective

Have you ever lost it?

I’ve just been to Stratford to see Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale – a great treat for an English graduate!  It’s a weird play, and almost completely unbelievable… but still…

King Leontes runs a pretty loose ship of a kingdom: lots of wine and ‘informal’ relationships.  He has a lovely wife whom he idolises; but then he starts to think she’s having an affair with his best friend.  It was a chance remark and a glimpse of contact – really, there was nothing to it.  But he fixes on it; and jealousy and rage turn him inwards.  He lashes out at his wife; her unborn child; his best friend; his chief counsellor, his kingdom… in the current setting at Stratford, he ends the first part of the play alone on top of a huge physical tower of jealousy, fear and grief, where no-one can reach him.

It’s what pressure can do to leaders.  It can be just one thing that goes wrong; but we lose perspective, and focus on that alone, and the world gets warped and twisted and remote; and the people around us stop trusting us, we turn inwards, become remote…

Of course, I think he could have done with a leadership coach.  Maybe if he’d thought a bit more about how he was leading when times were good, he’d have had a better perspective.

10 Top Tips about Extraverts

1 – sometimes we prefer to be introverts.  When you see us organizing facts, savouring experiences, developing ourselves, thinking stuff through, dreaming dreams – we are working in the inside world, and that’s introversion

2 – the most important thing about us is usually something we show you quite quickly.  Because we prefer the outer world, you can often see what makes us tick.  That can be confusing if you think that the inner world is more important

3 – conversely, there are things you don’t see which are also important to us.  Just because we prefer the outer world doesn’t mean we don’t have a rich inner life

4 – you won’t get the best out of us if you don’t engage with us in the moment.  We love to know what you think and/or feel – don’t hold back!  We can take it…

5 – when we’re noisy, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re hassling you.  We may just be trying to discover what we think by talking.  And we expect you to come right back at us – we won’t (usually!) be offended

6 – we like introverts.  We appreciate your depth, and want to find out what’s in it; although sometimes we may need you to be a bit quicker to tell us

7 – we sometimes feel worried about being extraverts.  Are we too noisy?  Did we say that out loud?  They’re not saying anything – did I upset them?

8 – we don’t think we’re better than introverts.  But we do know that sometimes you need what we have, and we want you to appreciate our contribution

9 – too much time on our own depletes our energy.  We need time to think (well, most of us do) but we gain hugely from being with others and getting their input

10 – once you get really close to us, you may be surprised at how hidden our deep places are.  But we need you to listen carefully to all that we say and understand that some of it is really personal and important to us

10 Top Tips about Introverts

1 – sometimes we prefer to be extraverts.  When you see us gathering facts, having experiences, making relationships, making plans, talking about possibilities – we are working in the outside world, and that’s extraversion

2 – the most important thing about us is usually hidden from you to start with.  Because we prefer the inner world, you may not be able to see what makes us tick.  That can be confusing if you think the outer world is more important

3 – conversely, the thing you see first might not be that important to us.  Because we prefer the inner world, what we do in the outer one usually matters less to us in the end

4 – you won’t get the best out of us if you don’t give us time to think and process information.  It doesn’t need to be long – just a few seconds silence might be enough.  Tell us clearly when you need the response by and you’ll get it

5 – when we’re quiet, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re holding out on you.  We may just be trying to find the space to understand what we think.  Or we may be a bit worried about how you’ll react to what we want to say

6 – we like extraverts.  We appreciate your energy, and feed off it; although sometimes we may need it in smaller doses

7 – we sometimes feel guilty about being introverts.  In a world in which the media presents human beings as essentially extravert (partying, paragliding and falling in love), it sometimes seems wrong to be ‘us’ (reading, looking at the view, being on our own)

8 – we don’t think we’re better than extraverts.  But we do know that sometimes you need what we have, and we want you to ask for our contribution

9 – too much people stuff tires us out.  We like people (well, most of us do) but to regain a sense of balance and to really be able to contribute well we need to retreat afterwards

10 – once we’ve let you into our world, you may be surprised at how open (and extravert) we can be with you.  But it takes time and trust to let you in