“What do you think you could have done differently?”
I stared across the table at Eric, who was clearly uncomfortable with my line of questioning. He avoided eye contact, and was fidgeting with his silverware.
“Eric, is there something else on your mind?” I prodded further. Clearly I wasn’t getting through to him, and he now appeared to be trying to sink through his chair into the floor of the restaurant where we were having his mid-year review.
Neurological studies have confirmed that people lose some of their ability to think rationally and respond appropriately when they feel a perceived social threat.1 And recognizing this can help put us on a path to collaborate better and motivate those experiencing this cognitive response.
It’s in the Science
Research such as David Rock’s SCARF brain-based model explain how physical neurological responses are stimulated when people feel threatened within the major domains of human experience, including
status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness – situations which affect many of us on a daily basis.
Consulting with financial professionals on how to grow their practices for the greater part of two decades, I often find that while many people prioritize their health through diet and exercise, they are not always aware of what they can do to maximize brain health and take control of their reactions to stimuli in the workplace. And much like Eric, when faced with an uncomfortable situation, they succumb to the pressure when a few minutes of regrouping could help them face problems with heightened focus and clarity.
As I help people craft a personalized plan for training their brains like their bodies, one tactic which sometimes receives a mixed initial response is … mediation. However, meditation as a way of retaking control of our responses can be a powerful tool in terms of learning to manage oneself and mitigating threat responses, ultimately allowing you to work at your best. Neuroscientists have repeatedly documented the dramatic effect that our instincts of feeling threatened can have on perception and problem solving, and the implications of this effect on decision-making, stress management, collaboration and motivation.
But Meditation … That’s Not for Me
A powerful anecdote is that of reporter Dan Harris, who shares his personal account of suffering a panic attack during a live news broadcast, which he recounts in his popular “10% Happier” report and book. Overworked and struggling since spending years reporting from war zones after 9/11, the episode taught him that he and many others needed to find a way for their mind to slow down to better handle stress.
Admittedly a skeptic for most of his life, he learned that the voices in our heads can sometimes need to be “defanged” and we must find ways to quiet the threat response that keeps our brains in a place of fear and doubt. Doing journalistic research on how to learn from his panic attack, Mr. Harris adopted meditation, and remains a strong advocate for mindfulness practice, which he says left him more satisfied and productive in his work and family life.
What many people don’t realize is that meditation – or creating some space within your thoughts – can be done anywhere and at any time you have a few minutes on your own. Take a seat, close your eyes, and take a deep breath – even if only for a few furtive minutes between critical meetings and tough client conversations. And for those who need a bit more support, there are plenty of apps, from guided meditation to white noise, that can help you get started.
So did Eric learn to meditate? Through mentorship and coaching, and my acknowledgment of why Eric was having the threat response to feedback the way he did, we were able to get to a place where he was ready to calmly learn from the issues that were holding back his leadership potential. Within a year, he was up for promotion.
Whatever approach you take, remember that even those with the strongest business acumen can suffer without tools for emotional regulation, and sometimes a step back to reduce the feeling of a status threat is an investment in a more productive and successful future.
1Rock, David. “SCARF: A Brain-Based Model for Collaborating with and Influencing Others.” NeuroLeadership Journal, 2008.
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