In his book Who’s in Charge?, neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga describes what goes on in your brain that directs your thoughts and actions. Gazzaniga concludes that we have little control over the neural circuitry that has developed since birth. Your nonconscious brain is constantly processing and making decisions about how you should act and respond to others. Consciousness lags far behind. The nonconscious brain is the master, and humans mostly defend their actions rather than scrutinize them.
When you are triggered by a student’s comments and respond defensively, how fast do you react? If someone then asks you why you let a person push your buttons, you just as quickly have a reason for your reaction—though the reason can stunt your growth.
The skill that will help you is not based in trying to rewire your brain. You need to master reflective intelligence so you can:
- Emotionally detach from your brain.
- Observe the results of the nonconscious processes.
- Then, consciously choose what to do next (instead of defending what you had no control over).
Your Brain’s Prime DirectiveYour nonconscious brain wants you to feel safe and good. It will direct your actions to protect you without regard to your best interest. This prime directive will also make you avoid risks, silence your creativity, and argue with people without thinking.
Your brain is just protecting what is most important to you. The strengths that have helped you to succeed are also your greatest emotional triggers. If you are smart, you protect what you know. If you care about people, you react if someone says you are insensitive or biased. If you work hard to be acknowledged or respected, you will be triggered when students don’t like your well-designed learning activities. Your brain sees these actions as personal attacks.
Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman says it takes work to activate your conscious mind. It may feel strange or seem difficult, but you can change your habits only by thinking about your thinking.
You Are Not Your BrainYou can separate your awareness—your conscious mind—from the automatic responses triggered by your brain. You can say, “Oh look at what my brain has done,” and then choose to act differently if you want to. If you are courageous enough to accept a different reality might exist from what your brain has construed, you will make better choices in the moment.
First, you must deliberately analyze your reactions when your emotions have settled down. If you do this regularly for a few weeks, you will begin to develop the habit of detaching and discerning during a conversation. You can then shift your reactions in the moment.
To activate free will, try following these steps:
- After an uncomfortable or heated interaction, write down your thoughts without censoring them.
- Read your words as if someone else wrote them. Circle the emotionally charged words and note how you judged people’s character instead of their actions.
- Ask, “What is causing me to think this way? What beliefs are forming these thoughts? What assumptions am I holding that are keeping me from opening my mind?” Until you verbalize them, you are rarely aware of the assumptions behind your thoughts. Emotions can be a window to your values and beliefs.
- Don’t condemn your reactions, especially your impulse to defend, convince, or shut down. Be curious instead.
- Hear the story you are telling, such as, “They are out to get me” or “He’s a clueless idiot.” Ask what else could be driving someone’s behavior. What are they afraid of? What do they value that their brains might be protecting, such as respect, credibility, belonging, feeling valued, or being in control? The more you can suspend the story justifying your reactions, the more clearly you can see what else could be triggering the actions that bothered you.
- Practice interpreting with a beginner’s mind. Say to yourself, “If I had never seen this type of behavior before, what might I perceive?” If you already know why people do what they do, there is nothing new to see. Are you willing to look from a different perspective? This doesn’t mean you should accept disrespectful behavior by others. Questioning yourself opens you to seeing other perspectives. Then, what you do next is your choice, not your brain’s.
- Hire a coach or find a mentor to ask you the questions that will help you stop, think, and create a new awareness.
You have an amazing ability to observe your brain at work. You can even laugh at your brain, and then activate free will to feel, believe, and behave differently to create a safe and encouraging learning environment.
For a deeper dive, join me at ATD 2018 International Conference & EXPO for the session, Outsmart Your Brain: How to Manage Your Mind When Emotions Take the Wheel.