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Managing Emotions

We can better adapt our communication when we first manage our emotions. The common expression ‘I get so angry I can’t even see straight’ has literal validity; when we get emotional the prefrontal cortex of the brain ceases to guide us.

There are three key steps to managing our emotions effectively:

  1. Bring awareness. Notice when emotions arise and name them in the most basic terms, such as “upset” or “tension.”
  2. Allow space. After noticing and naming it, be present with the emotion; let it be and do not push it away.
  3. Keep control. While the emotion is present, do not let it hijack control of the situation; make wise decisions despite it being present.

Picture the last time you were upset.  Close your eyes and bring the situation into your mind in as much detail as possible. Notice the sights and sounds of the situation.  Staying with the visualization, shift your focus internally and notice how your body felt at the time.  You may even notice how your body feels right now as you visualize the upset.  Commonly we notice tightness and heat in our bodies.

This exercise increases awareness of emotions for situations in the past and is good practice for dealing with challenging situations in the future.  The ultimate skill is to be aware of emotions as they arise, in real time, while we are interacting with other people.  This is an exercise in “noting” where we see and name what is occurring. During a conversation when you feel tightness in your body or heat rising, note what you feel and name the associated emotion with a simple word.  That is it. That is the noting exercise.  You can also note what you observe in others as you interact.  Peter Drucker, known as the Father of Management influencing modern management extensively through his writing and teaching, wrote, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”  Part of communication competency is the ability to ‘hear’ the emotions of others.

The second skill in managing emotions is allowing them to be, not trying to push them away.  You may have noticed that trying to not be sad when you are sad only makes you sadder.  Pushing emotions down has the opposite of the desired effect and makes them stronger.  The skill lies in being with the discomfort of the emotion.  This skill is best developed outside of communication interactions through insight meditation.  Sit quietly for a few minutes every day and, after focusing on your breath at first, notice what arises in your mind, emotions, and body without trying to change anything.  Inevitably, something unpleasant will arise, like a body pain or an emotion, and you get to practice being with the discomfort.  With this practice, when we are in a communication interaction, we can more easily see emotions arising and let them be.  This practice of being with discomfort also increases our ability to be with other people’s emotions that arise in our interactions.

 

The third skill is not allowing emotions to control the situation.  It might be tempting to jump directly to this step, but it doesn’t work so well if you do.  First awareness, then allowing, and then controlling.  In Patty Azzarello’s book, MOVE, she conceptualizes valor in leadership as accepting fear that arises and still moving forward.  She mentions that fear might be coming along for the ride, but we can tell it to sit in the back seat and not let it drive.  We can allow emotions in without acting on them.  Two techniques that may be helpful are intentionally taking an objective view and shifting your perspective to see outside of your own view. To look at things objectively, state the observed facts to yourself and avoid the back story.  To shift your perspective, think of as many alternative viewpoints to the situation as possible.  With both of these techniques, you don’t need to believe what you come up with; it is just the process of expanding your mind in the moment that is helpful.

An example of the alternative viewpoints technique is to generate many reasons why somebody said something you found insulting, such as “always the last one in the meeting” when you walk in late.  They might be jealous that you took the time to get coffee and they didn’t; they might be trying to look better than you in front of the boss; they might genuinely want to give you feedback that this habit is detrimental to your career; or, they might just be trying to lighten the mood with a joke. I bet you can think of at least two more reasons. See how this technique broadens our perspectives?

With the three steps of managing emotions: awareness, allowing, controlling, we can move from autopilot and reactive to collected and intentional.  In a calm state and with intentionality, our communication will naturally improve.

 

 

Jennifer Kammeyercombines 25 years experience with academic research to advise leaders on how to intentionally use communication to elevate professional relationships and improve business outcomes.  She offers coaching one-on-one, in teams, and through workshops. As adjunct faculty at San Francisco State University, she is up to date on new communication research and trends, allowing her to advise professionals on a wide range of communication topics. Popular training topics include building executive presence, leadership communication, public speaking, high-value meetings, and mindful communication. She has been personally practicing mindfulness since 1999 and incorporates concepts and techniques in all of her teaching.

Mindfulness is Vital to Exceptional Leadership

Leaders excel by being aware of self and others, and the situation at hand. We lead in a time of perpetual chaotic change, we drink from a fire hose of information, and we interact with people from around the globe with different perspectives, cultural norms, and communication styles. To achieve high performance, we need to uptake massive information quickly, process in a non-biased open-minded manner, and respond compassionately. Mindfulness practice gets us there. With training, through meditation or other mindful techniques, our minds become more sensitive and less reactive to the stimuli that are constantly flowing through, permitting us to move out of automatic mode and make more deliberate choices about what we say and how we act.

Leaders Need to Train Their Minds As Well as Their Bodies a recent Forbes article explained.  Based on information from Megan Reitz, researcher and author, three important mindfulness practices are meta-awareness, allowing, and inquiry. Meta-awareness is the ability in the moment to notice and acknowledge our own thoughts, feelings, sensations, and impulses – understanding that they are temporary and we can choose if we act on them. Allowing is a kind and compassionate attitude – letting things be without judgment.  Inquiry is a curiosity of the present moment – wondering how the current situation will unfold. We build a leaders mind by practicing these techniques, just like we build muscles through exercise. Mindful leadership is additive to other skills and techniques required to be an excellent leader as heightened awareness simply helps us apply learned skills more wisely.

Entrepreneur article, Mindfulness Isn’t Just a Trend, It’s Key to Being a Better Leader emphasized the benefit of unlocking intrinsic motivation for today’s workforce that is seeking meaning and purpose.  Based on the extensive research of Jacqueline Carter and Rasmus Hougaard, mindfulness generates greater mental effectiveness for the realization of a leader’s potential. In their recent book, “The Mind of the Leader” the authors’ claim mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion are essential leadership skills. Mindfulness, in particular being present, attentive, and curious is what teaches us how our own minds work. “By understanding how your mind works, you can lead yourself effectively.  By understanding and leading yourself effectively, you can understand others and be able to lead them more effectively.” Long-term mindfulness practice leads to selflessness, where we no longer constantly act as if we are the center of the universe, and to compassion, where we are able to take others’ perspectives into consideration before we speak or act.

In the words of LinkedIn’s Jeff Weiner,  “Compassion is putting ourselves in the shoes of another person and seeing the world through their lens for the sake of alleviating their suffering.” For him compassionate leadership meant “pausing, and being a spectator to my own thoughts, especially when getting emotional. It meant walking a mile in the other person’s shoes; and understanding their hopes, their fears, their strengths and their weaknesses. And it meant doing everything within my power to set them up to be successful.”

Here is the rub. Being an attentive leader simultaneously processing information about ourselves, others, and the environment is not easy. I have practiced mindfulness almost daily since 1999 and I am still constantly learning about my own mind.  That said, I have developed acute sensitivity to my thoughts, feelings, sensations, impulses, and to others in my environment.  That allows me to make decisions based on a greater amount of information.  My practice also allows me to change course quickly when I discover a bad habit arising or see that my current course is not effective.  There is a good reason it is called ‘mindfulness practice’ because it is an ongoing effort and, just like exercise, it takes constant hard work to see the benefits.

We are better leaders when in a chaotic moment we can simultaneously be aware of our own thoughts, feelings, and sensations and have a broad enough vantage to incorporate diverse perspectives of others.  Tapping all that information we can make better decisions and communicate compassionately. To get there, we practice mindfulness daily. There are now several meditation apps to support us, including my favorite Insight Timer.  Then when we are aware of something awry in a given situation, be that in our own minds or in what we observe in others, we pause, take the time to acknowledge and allow what is happening, and then respond with intention.

On Teaching Mindfulness

“I really enjoyed every single exercise we did this course, it made me feel thankful, calm, and alert. A feeling I don’t normally feel prior to entering this class.” – Anonymous Leadership Communication Student

“I struggled with it but it gave me good techniques to apply to my daily life and my stress management.” – Anonymous Leadership Communication Student

Mindfulness is a topic that I teach in every class in the Leadership Communication course at San Francisco State University. Here is my thinking: the more a leader is aware of themselves and others, the more likely they are to make sound decisions, doing the most good for the greatest amount of people. Therefore, teaching future leaders mindfulness will have a positive effect on the future of the world. That may be a bit of a grandiose statement, but it is my mission. The responses I get in the end-of-term survey, like the two above, inspire me with the immediate impact mindfulness makes.

Over the course of the semester, I teach various forms of meditation and mindfulness to expose students to many options in hope that at least one strikes a chord and they make it a habit. I tie the type of mindfulness to the course content. For example, Metta/Kindness Meditation is taught while learning about Out-Groups, and Visualization is taught at the same time as Creating a Vision.

This semester, the survey results showed that 83 percent of students had no prior experience with mindfulness, 92 percent liked being taught mindfulness, and 96 percent indicated that this instruction made it a better course. I had them rank their preferences of six methods I teach:

Breathing – Center your attention on your breath

Body Awareness – Slowly scan your body, focusing on sensations

Concentration – Focus on a word or phrase repeated silently to yourself

Freeze Game – Stop in the heat of a moment to notice and name internal states

Metta/Kindness – Send goodness to self and others through silent kind phrases

Visualization – Picture a situation, immerse yourself with all senses and notice internal states

Focus on breathing came in as the most popular method, with Visualization being the second most popular and Body Scan and Metta tying for third.

My favorite part of the survey is the free-form responses, so I am sharing a few more here.

“I really enjoyed the experience of doing meditation in class. Majority of the time I’m coming from working a full 8 hour shift and then in traffic for about an hour and a half. This experience really helped me calm down and focus on this class. I also really enjoyed the entire concept of being mindful because it not only helped me with myself but with others also. It really helped me become more aware of emotions, thoughts, and actions because I realized that I am the one in control.”

“I didn’t know that we would be having these every class time and I find it super essential to do because I like to meditate and it feels relaxing to do it towards the end of the day so I can be a little relieved and then carry on to just solely focus on this class. I believe that mindfulness and meditation helps a leader out in many ways and it’s highly important to value that.”

“My mind wanders a lot and I have a lot of thoughts and imagination so to clear out my mind and focus on a singular thing was frustrating.”

As that last comment indicates, not all students enjoy the process. It is not easy in a world of constant digital stimuli to sit quiet for a few moments and turn inward. Not easy, but essential for leaders. So, I will keep teaching mindfulness in my leadership course with the hopes that the impact expands beyond the classroom through the careers of my students.

Wisdom at Work

Attending Wisdom 2.0 for my sixth time, I was, as usual, impressed by the caliber of speakers, but this year I was more impressed by the attendees and the way in which they are implementing mindfulness in their work. I met people from all industries from all over. Hearing their stories gave me insight on just how many ways we can practice mindfulness and bring wisdom into work. So, I am sharing the highlights with you.

First, just a quick reminder of the definition of mindfulness from industry veteran Jon Kabat-Zinn: Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.

Second, what struck me through all the stories is how central communication is to implementing mindfulness. That is not a surprise since I look at life through a communication filter, but it makes sense because while mindfulness allows us to pause and gain insight, it is in relations with others that wisdom comes forth. The fruits of mindfulness are evident in our interactions with others at work. Through people’s stories on bringing wisdom to work, we can see this in action. Now, on to the vignettes.

  • Medical devices marketing manager in New Jersey finds that mindful practice helps with coping with a boss who uses an unkind style of speaking to the team. This boss readily admits the aggressive communication style, but expects the team to cope with it anyway. This particular team member uses mindfulness to keep centered and to be able to respond with kindness despite the aggression.
  • Always facing families who are dealing with trauma, rehab worker from Utah uses mindfulness to recharge compassion on a regular basis. Mindfulness helps with staying fully present to families as they go through very difficult times without getting too burned out from the nature of this intense work.
  • Organizational design specialist in San Francisco uses mindfulness in helping entrepreneurs launch their businesses. Staying aware in the present moment fosters creativity and leads to better solutions.
  • Programmer in Silicon Valley uses mindfulness to wisely choose where to place the valuable resources called our attention. People’s attention often goes to the most prevalent and easy-to-access information fed through an application or through online media, even if it is not the best for them or even what they really want and need. By designing more mindfully, programmers can create technology that is both the path of least resistance and in line with what is good for individuals and society.
  • Human Resource manager for consumer goods company in Ontario teaches mindfulness to employees in order to reduce mental health issues, moderating the cost of disability claims for the organization.
  • Onboarder at technology company in Menlo Park uses mindfulness both as part of formal process for new employees and personally as a way to give more spaciousness for making decisions in a fast-paced environment.
  • Business Development Specialist at a start up in Oakland uses mindfulness as core to the business offering and to create meaningful connections with individuals at organizations that are prospective customers.
  • High-profile sales executive in Colorado used wisdom gained from mindfulness to switch careers to be in better alignment with intentions and strengths, giving up prestige for greater well being.
  • CFO of school district in Vancouver uses mindfulness in dealing with fellow coworkers in the district, particularly those who don’t listen well. Practicing full attention in meetings, leaving technology behind and really listening is a way to stay present and model the desired behavior for others.
  • Leadership Development executive from NY uses mindfulness to listen fully and effectively to clients prior to creating development plans.
  • Educator in Pennsylvania finds that Group Think among colleagues is the greatest detriment to productivity at work. Her take is that people want to belong so badly that in the moment they will agree with others even if they don’t actually agree. She uses mindfulness to stay present and true to integrity and will kindly state differing opinions in group settings. When rebutted mindfulness brings forth self-compassion.

All of these individuals inspired me and I hope they inspire you to take a moment to pause and bring yourself into the present moment and see what wisdom is there for you.

 

 

Resolve to Be Mindful

Happy New Year! We are all starting off 2016 with different resolutions, be that improved productivity, reduced stress, healthier body, or more enjoyment. The research is now overwhelming that core to our wellbeing, and the basis for achieving our resolutions, is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to be present moment-to-moment and simply notice new things.

Ellen Langer and Jon Kabat-Zinn have been studying mindfulness for decades and demonstrated myriads of positive effects. Research shows that mindfulness can alleviate suffering associated with physical, psychosomatic and psychiatric disorders, improve your health, slow aging, and improve relationships with others.

A telling overview comes from the review of 52 pieces of research:

“Both basic and clinical research indicate that cultivating a more mindful way of being is associated with less emotional distress, more positive states of mind, and better quality of life. In addition, mindfulness practice can influence the brain, the autonomic nervous system, stress hormones, the immune system, and health behaviors, including eating, sleeping and substance use, in salutary ways.”

With all the evidence, it is clear that making mindfulness the first resolution for 2016 will allow all the other resolutions to fall into place.

Two more recent pieces of research:

1) Mind wandering makes us unhappy

The Greater Good wrote up research in 2013 that Matt Killingsworth conducted in his doctoral program at Harvard University through an iPhone app called trackyourhappiness.org. The study gathered 650,000 real time reports of 150,000 people on happiness. The research found that when people are paying attention to something other than what they are doing in the moment, they are significantly less happy. Unfortunately, except for during sex, people had wandering minds on average 47% of the time. During sex it was only 10% of the time J.

2) Meditation actually changes the brain

Washington Post in May 2015 wrote about Susan Lazar’s et al research using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) out of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, which showed that long-term meditators have more brain gray matter. Meditation has positive effects on four regions of the brain, as shown in FMRI:

  1. Posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self relevance
  2. The left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation
  3. The temporo parietal junction (TPJ), which is associated with perspective taking, empathy, and compassion
  4. The Pons, where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced

Meditation also reduces the size of the amygdala, the fight or flight part of the brain, which is important for anxiety, fear and stress.

With all this positive research on mindfulness, here is a quick reminder of ways we can all practice being more mindful:

1) Meditate On Your Breath – the simple process of paying attention to the breath, which is always there and available, brings our focus to now. In-out-in-out. Practicing this for a few minutes in quiet time every day gives us the skill to use the breath as a grounding element throughout our days, especially when tension rises.

2) Simply Notice New Things – keeping a curious mind helps us remember that we don’t actually know what is going to happen next in life. How fun is that? Everything is always changing and everything looks different from different perspectives. We can just observe what arises and be curious about it without judgment.

3) Pay Attention to Your Body – a quick scan of your belly and your shoulders will tell you plenty about your current state in the moment. Pausing and listening to our bodies makes us mindful of what is happening now. It gives us information about our reactivity and makes us aware of the choices we have in our words and actions.

Make as many New Years resolutions as you like, but make sure the first resolution is to be mindful. May your 2016 be filled moments of noticing something new.