Monday, September 24, 2012

What to do when people won't contribute at meetings

Silence is golden - or is it? What to do when people don't speak up

Robert sat there with his arms folded. He dropped his head a little, widened his eyes and looked up at me with an expression that was hard to accurately read.

Was he still engaged with the discussion? I think so but was it positive or negative engagement?

I suspect the latter because my almond had already started smoking! My amygdala must have become aware of his body language and change of facial expression momentarily after we began talking about the way negative emotional responses infect the team around you.

I wondered what was going on for him. Was it The Almond Effect®? He had just received some challenging information from his personal profile. And a co-facilitator had given him similar feedback about the negative emotional impact his management style had on others. I suspect the current conversation was ‘hitting a nerve' and resonating uncomfortably with him.

Do you notice someone going quiet?

He wasn't happy - that much was clear. His silence, the subtle shift in body language and eyes told me that he was withdrawing from the conversation.

I'm not sure how many others noticed. Certainly no-one in the rest of the group said anything.

And it got me wondering. How many meetings or discussions do we attend where someone simply holds back, doesn't do or say anything because they are in fight/flight/freeze mode?

We lose valuable input, ideas and challenges because, without effective self-management, we ourselves may experience The Almond Effect® when we see it in others.

Silent Saboteurs

We recognise The Almond Effect® when it shows up in explicit ways. For example, people become aggressive, walk out of meetings, go home sick, get together in the lunch room or via Facebook, send nastily toned emails, make mistakes or simply don't show up.

Yet withdrawal can be just as damaging because we no longer have full engagement, participation and contribution. In fact we may mistake someone's silence as implied agreement and consent to a course of action, when unknown to us, we have a silent saboteur in the room.

We are more likely to notice when an extrovert withdraws. But it can be harder to tell if an introverted thinker is simply thinking about the issue or has made a decision to withdraw their contribution.

How can we tell if the silence is golden or a problem?

How much time do you spend actively noticing emotional reactions in your interactions i.e. focussing beyond the content of what you want to say? We are all busy, we all need to get stuff done in a hurry. Looking for and responding to emotional cues requires focus and energy. So it's not surprising that we might miss some of the more subtle signals.

Yet I know that I am not the only one who has regretted not picking up on something in a conversation. Have you ever been there? At the extreme, it could result in a horrendous outcome - someone harms themselves because they are clinically depressed and we either haven't noticed or if we do, we think:' I haven't got time to deal with this now' or: ‘it's not my job to deal with this".

The Black Dog Institute encourages us to take the time to ask "R U OK?" when we notice that someone might be in a dark emotional space.

How can we become better at interpreting silences?

One way is to learn to really focus on what is going on beyond the actual words. Mindfulness is a skill that helps us develop self-awareness and self-management skills which in turn helps us master the ability the read the emotions of others.

It works by teaching us to how to keep control of our own emotions, minimise distracting thoughts and concentrate of what is happening around us at that moment.

If you go here you will find a simple explanation of mindfulness and some techniques to develop it.

Ask the right questions

Another leadership skill in these situations is to ask questions, the right questions of the quiet ones. If their withdrawal is caused by The Almond Effect® then your purpose is to actively engage them in a thinking activity which may help to dampen down the amygdalic activity. This means asking questions that are open-ended and require an answer.

Here are some to give you a flavour of what I'm thinking about here:

  • What roadblocks can you see with your area?
  • How will this be received in your team?
  • Specifically, thinking about how it impacts you/your area, what are the items we must take into account?
  • What would it take for this to gain traction in your area?
  • If you were me, what would you do about......

Getting your kids to open up

It is not just at work that people withdraw. In a recent workshop discussing the language of emotions and feelings, one participant shared a fabulous strategy to open the door for more meaningful conversations with our children.

Single word answers like ‘good', ‘OK', are not allowed in response to questions like: ‘How was school?,' ‘How are you feeling?', ‘What do you think about that?' What a smart parenting and leadership idea!

Monday, September 03, 2012

Does your subconscious mess with your career?

Never forget that your unconscious is smarter than you, faster than you, and more powerful than you. You will never know all its secrets.

Cordelia Fine: "A mind of its own" (Allen and Unwin)

Do you see people at work act illogically?

OK, I know - you see heaps of illogical behaviours at work but have you stopped to really try and understand where they come from?

We need to to look at this in connection with our emotional memories. The role that emotional memory plays in our everyday interactions and reactions is profound. Not only do our emotional memories cause us to react to perceptions of physical threat but also to certain people and events as well.

The emotional memory function is part of our brain's emotional centre, the limbic system. As you know, that is also where the amygdala is, the part of the brain that is responsible for our instant emotional responses, our ‘non- thinking' reactions.

We subconsciously use our emotional memories to help us recognise threats to our survival. I sometimes think of these memories as stored in our brain's ‘database of nasty things'. Emotional memories are made up of experiences, events, thoughts and feelings shaped and defined throughout our lives. When we form these memories in our childhood, we often do so with limited and inaccurate perception and then these distorted memories may come back to haunt us in our adult lives.

When a situation or a person triggers an emotional memory of a threat, our brain goes into overdrive to protect us. Often this reaction is outdated, over the top and not even related to the present circumstances. It's what I call The Almond Effect®.

Her new boss reminded her of her brother

Take this work scenario: Kylie had just been promoted. She had done such a great job in her time with the company that she was asked to train and manage a group of new staff. This meant a move in offices and a new manager. Kylie had heard great things about her new boss and was eager to impress.

Kylie arrived at the new office and was greeted by her new manager. At first, she was a little unsure of what to make of him. She was instantly intimidated which was unusual for Kylie, she even felt a little scared. She found it hard to communicate and was lost for words several times in their first meeting.

In fact, it was her emotional memory connecting the past to the present. Her new boss reminded Kylie of her eldest brother who throughout her childhood was dominating and physically abusive.

Kylie was petrified of her brother and those feelings flooded her brain when she met her new manager. This kind of emotional response is the brain's way of recognising and reacting to a perceived threat. The problem is that this threat though real once is not relevant to the present situation.

Sadly, after a few weeks, Kylie left the office emotionally shaken and convinced she could not work for her manager. She turned down the promotion and went back to her old job. The Almond Effect® had taken its toll and it wasn't until sometime afterwards that Kylie realised what had happened. Even then, knowing how her brain had sabotaged her, Kylie said she would still feel uncomfortable if she had to work for the new manager in the future.

Don't let past memories sabotage the present

Can you relate to Kylie's experience? I can. I recently worked for a client and I thought it quite odd that I found it difficult to make ‘small talk' face to face with him. It was really weird because we had been exchanging emails and having phone conversations quite successfully for many months before we actually met.

I couldn't work it out so I simply reminded myself that sometimes you have to work with a person who for no obvious reason you don't really connect with on a personal level, but that's life and you get on with the work, professionally.

It was only when we were having coffee one day and the client moved in a particular way that I ‘saw' the image of a person from my childhood. The penny dropped and the reasons for my feelings became clear. He reminded me of someone who also had caused me great distress when I was much younger.

When I shared this in a workshop one day, one of the participants also had an ‘ah ha' moment and said: "I hadn't even thought of it before. I hate the fact that because of the recent re-structure, I had to change workstations and now I don't have a window. And in a CLM (career limiting move), I kicked up a real fuss. I've just realised that when I was at school..." and then she told us about an emotional memory to do with sitting by a window, that she realised must have been subconsciously at work, in theory to protect her but in fact causing great unhappiness.

Fascinating isn't it? Think about situations or people who might be irritating you. I wonder if they are triggering an emotional memory buried deep in your limbic system? It might also be happening in your relationships outside of work.

Now you know, let it go

Becoming aware of what you are remembering and the feelings associated with that memory is the big first step to take back control over The Almond Effect ®. Take time to revisit the memory and ask yourself whether it is appropriate that the memory still controls you. It's unlikely to still be relevant so take time to tell your limbic system, thanks but no thanks for the future. Retrain your amygdala that this situation or person is no longer a threat. Get your logical, rational thinking brain working.


One final word - sometimes that ‘gut feel' or intuition that you can't put your finger on, may be coming from an emotional memory. If no amount of logical self-talk gets you past your concerns, they may be real. So talk to someone else and seek assistance to work out where the concerns are coming from. Then you'll take the appropriate action for the situation.