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Body language: 5 expressions your brain can’t resist

Whenever we speak to someone face to face, a lot of information is communicated brain to brain even without our conscious awareness.  To keep us safe and thriving, our brains have evolved to pick up on body language and subtle cues during social interactions that could signal our standing in a group or warn us of any potential threats.  Here are five body language expressions that our brains can’t resist.  You can notice and use them to convey persuasive messages:

1.  Mimic me subtly.  Mimicry helps to establish rapport and social bonding.  If people click, they tend to reciprocate gestures, postures and expressions, increasing trust and likability.  Similarly, we unconsciously adopt accents of people we speak to. However, a complete lack of mimicry or too much of it can backfire.  Parroting others or exaggerating their gestures sends a message that social cues are off, which makes people feel uncomfortable and can quite literally give them chills. Don’t be a copycat. Our brains are also quick to notice incongruence of the words and body language.  Balance is the key when it comes to mimicry.

2.  Point that finger. You may have heard the phrase, “Never point a finger at someone because there will always be three pointing back at you.”  While pointing with your finger is considered impolite in many countries, it is very effective in directing people’s attention.  The good news is you can use images of an outstretched index finger to the same effect. They grab attention better than pointed arrows or written words even when the images are irrelevant to the task at hand.  A pointing finger is a biological cue that is hard to ignore.

3.  Look me in the eyes.  The eyes are sometimes called “the windows to the soul” because they express our feelings and reveal intentions.  It is not surprising that we tend to follow other people’s eye gaze.  A directional eye gaze establishes the shared attention field. A recent study of politicians and their voters suggests that people may tend to follow the gaze of leaders they respect and accept as an authority.  Direct eye contact helps not only to gain a person’s attention, but also to create an emotional connection and make an impression.  A direct eye gaze rapidly activates brain areas that are important for emotion and attention, such as the fusiform and amygdala.  At the same time, a prolonged eye contact may appear threatening and uncomfortable.  Some cultures consider looking directly in the eyes aggressive and disrespectful.

4.  People who yawn together, work better together. Yawning gets a bad rap because some believe if you yawn, you must be bored.  It turns out that yawning serves an important neurological function.  It improves alertness and concentration, regulates brain temperature, lowers stress, brings more oxygen into our bodies, among other things. If you ever watched Olympic speedskater Apolo Ohno before a race, you probably noticed a yawn or two.  I doubt the Olympian yawned because he was bored or didn’t get enough sleep.  In fact, when asked about it in an interview, he explained with a smile that his yawning was akin to the yawning lions do in the wild: “I want to be a lion.”  You can yawn strategically too.  Do it right now. Take a deep breath and get yourself into the yawning mood.  Just look at the images above.  If you have people around, that’s even better because yawning is contagious, and it activates a region of the brain thought to be involved in empathy. Fifty-five percent people yawn within five minutes if one person in a group yawns. Yawning can improve group cohesiveness because it helps people synchronize their behavior with others.

5.  Smile. “Peace begins with a smile,” Mother Teresa was right. If we all smiled more, the world would be a more peaceful and cheerful place.  Smiles are contagious. When we smile, people tend to smile back. Smiling signals friendliness and social acknowledgment.  People who are acknowledged by a stranger feel more connected to others immediately after the experience than people who are deliberately ignored. People who smile in their Facebook profile photos tend to have more friends and be at the center of their social network.  We even tend to judge smiling faces as brighter than frowning faces. Smiles are effective in lifting our own mood as well.  Try smiling even if you don’t feel like it.  A genuine smile engages not just the mouth, but also the eyes and the cheeks. The face muscles involved in the smile serve as a feedback mechanism to your brain that things may not be as bad as they appear at the moment. Smile and the world will smile back at you!

How much attention do you pay to body language when you communicate with others?

By | 2012-06-27T15:55:32+00:00 June 27th, 2012|Communication, Perception, Public Speaking|1 Comment

10 ways to gamify your thinking to make it better

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”
~ Plato

Have you ever played with kaleidoscopes – those tubes of mirrors with colorful beads?  You turn and shake them, and the stones form different patterns, reflecting off the mirrors.  Our minds can be like kaleidoscopes.  We receive the same pieces of information, but they get reflected off the mirrors of our experiences, attitudes, beliefs, and form our own, unique patterns of understanding.  We can use play to shake up some old patterns and beliefs that no longer serve us to improve our thinking and decision-making.

Play delights the brain. Some neuroscientists believe that play is a central part of neurological growth and development. Play allows children to build complex, skilled, responsive, socially adept, and cognitively flexible brains.  Play has also been identified as one of the primal emotional systems of animals through brain stimulation.  Many believe adults can also benefit from play as a way to boost creativity, imagination, and decision-making.

As adults we become overly concerned with the opinions of others.  The fear of embarrassment and social rejection inhibits our creative expression.  Play can relax the brain and make it easier for us to take risks and experiment.  Play helps us prepare for the unexpected and produce a more diverse repertory of behavior.  When we play, a part of the brain that is involved in self-restraint and evaluation – the inner critic – is powered down, allowing for a fuller expression.

Through role playing, we can put ourselves into different kinds of experiences, learn to better understand other perspectives, and cultivate empathy.  Finally, play is also a ritual with its sets of rules and scripts.  As with any ritual, play sets expectations for a certain kind of behavior and prompts the brain to give commands in accordance with these expectations. Here is how you can gamify your thinking to make it better:

  1. Connect the dots to solve your life’s puzzles. Scan your past for repeating behavior patterns, causes and effects.  Learning is the anchor of our experiences, both good and bad.  Without it, we are just drifting through life.
  2. Remove the invisibility cloak: you can’t change what you can’t see.  Develop self-awareness.  Pay attention to context.
  3. Play hopscotch with your own stream of thoughts: know where to land and what to overlook.
  4. Master Jeopardy: your power lies in the questions you ask.  The answer is always closer than you think.
  5. Find your good luck charm. The belief anchored in a symbolic object may cause you to perform better.  The power of suggestion makes the brain respond as if it were true, triggering a placebo effect.
  6. Be a  storyteller. Nothing captivates a human brain more than a good story.  Stories engage us on the emotional level.  Experiences accompanied by strong emotions are more memorable.  When the story resonates with the listener, the brains of the speaker and listener may synchronize, suggesting a deep human connection.
  7. Use a box to think “outside the box.”  Acting out creativity metaphors makes us more creative.
  8. Think on your feet, literally. Let your body guide you when you need to make a decision.  If you experience muscle tension, a “pit” in stomach, or a sudden headache, perhaps, your body is telling you that you are moving in a wrong direction.
  9. Play dress-up.  Clothing affects not only other people’s perception of us, but also our own thoughts.  For example, if you need to pay more attention to detail, you may want to don a scientist’s white lab coat.
  10. Sharpen your thinking through doodling. Doodle, sketch, illustrate your ideas.  Pictures are easier for the brain to process and remember.  Get inspiration from Leonardo da Vinci’s illustrated to-do list.
By | 2012-03-01T18:23:37+00:00 March 1st, 2012|Change, Creativity, Peak Performance, Perception|2 Comments

From uncertainty to emergent meaning: How the brain tells stories

“Our perception of the world is a fantasy that coincides with reality.”
~ Dr. Chris Frith, neuropsychologist and author of “Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World”

Design of John W.Karapelou

Conflict management by its nature involves a lot of uncertainty. The paradox is that uncertainty can be both a threat to the brain and a fuel for its creativity.  The brain has an important job of keeping us comfortable and secure in the world by making sure that we understand what is going on around us.  We want to know or be able to predict what happens next.

When uncertainty undermines our sense of control over our environment, it can cause stress.  People would rather know the worst than fear the worst.  The anticipation of negative emotional states influence our behavior and decisions. The dread of not knowing may be paralyzing.

Perhaps, it can explain, in part, why people get stuck in protracted conflicts.  The conflict stories, identities, and behaviors, no matter how dysfunctional they may be, are familiar to the parties. The brain knows what to expect and what behaviors to choose.  In contrast, the outcomes of the conflict resolution process are uncertain.  They may require changes and adjustments in the usual behavior patterns.  They brain is wired to avoid losses and conserve mental energy, which may mean the preference for the painful status quo.  The change is more likely when the cost of being in conflict becomes too much to bear or when the current situation is so destabilized that there is no more certainty left.

At the same time, the brain is equipped to deal with ambiguity, search for patterns, and create meaning.  So, what happens when the brain encounters information gaps?

Research conducted by neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga sheds light on how the brain strives to create a complete picture.  His experiments involved split-brain patients whose left hemisphere and right hemisphere were separated and didn’t communicate to each other due to a rare surgery procedure performed to treat severe epileptic seizures.

Researchers showed a spit-brain patient two pictures:  a chicken claw was shown to his left hemisphere, and a snow scene was shown to his right hemisphere.  The patient then was asked to choose from an array of pictures in front of him.  He chose a picture of the shovel with the left hand, which was controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain, and the picture of the chicken with the right hand, which was controlled by the left hemisphere.  When asked why he chose those items, the left-brain interpreter explained, “Oh, that’s simple.  The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.”

Evidently, the right brain that saw the picture of the snow sent an impulse to the left hand to pick up the picture of the shovel.  The left brain observed the fact that the left hand picked up the picture of the shovel and had to explain it.  Because it didn’t know about the snow scene shown only to the right hemisphere, it came up with a story, which, in fact, wasn’t the correct interpretation.

Similar experiments have been done with mood shifts.  When a frightening picture was shown to the right hemisphere, the patient got upset.  And while she denied seeing anything, she felt the emotional response and said that she was upset because the experimenter was upsetting her.  Once again, the left hemisphere, which knew nothing of the sad picture but registered the emotional response, had to offer an explanation, and it turned out to be inaccurate.  These experiments show that the left hemisphere of the brain will offer an explanation even if there are gaps in information although the interpretation may not be accurate.

On one hand, the propensity of the brain to spin stories may account for disagreement in how parties in conflict see the situation.  On the other hand, it also offers the key to changing the stories that don’t serve the parties well.  When we design a process that allows for new interactive patterns to emerge, we engage the natural power of the brain to create new interpretations and fresh solutions.

Here are some thoughts on how to make conflict management more brain-friendly:

  • Encourage free exchange of information to minimize stress-generating uncertainty.
  • Let the parties express their feelings and concerns regarding possible future scenarios to understand the impact of anticipatory emotions.
  • Incorporate practices that support emotional regulation into the conflict management process.
  • Promote the use of meta-cognitive skills, i.e. thinking about thinking.
  • Relinquish the desire to fix and control. Adopt the mindset to experiment, learn, and improve.
  • Give enough time and “white space” for the emerging understanding and insights to percolate to the surface.
  • Allow for new modes of thinking and patterns to emerge through active listening, storytelling, inquiry, journaling, mind-mapping, role-play, improv, etc.

What else?  Let your brain fill in the gaps.

By | 2011-08-27T20:32:18+00:00 August 7th, 2011|Conflict Management, Creativity, Perception|0 Comments

Emotionally}Vague by Orlagh O’Brien

Whenever I work with people on emotional regulation during conflicts, I like to ask where they feel the emotions in the body. Stress and emotional overload can show up as muscle tension, hair standing up, sudden headache, pit in the stomach, racing heartbeat, deep sighing or shallow breathing.  The body reveals what the brain tries to conceal.  We are wired to react fast to perceived threats.  Often, by the time the mind catches up, adrenaline, cortisol and other stress hormones have already begun their work in the body, triggering the fight or flight response.  If the threat is too overwhelming for the nervous system, the brain may numb the body through the release of opiates, sending us into a freeze.  This may feel like we are not quite there, so we experience less pain and internal turmoil.

The faster we can notice our physiological reactions, the more chances we have to dampen the amygdala activation, stop the emotional rollercoaster, and send the mental resources back to the prefrontal cortex where all the planning, decision making, and social control happen.  It helps to practice emotional regulation in less threatening situations first to build up the resilience of the nervous system.

Therefore, I was thrilled to discover the Emotionally}Vague project about the body and emotion (Hat Tip to Kristin Butler @kirstinbutler on Twitter).  This research project was launched by graphic designer Orlagh O’Brien and aimed to reveal patterns of visceral feelings in a visual, interactive manner.  One of the steps in the survey asks the participants: “How do you feel these emotions in your body? Draw anything you wish.”  The emotions are anger, joy, fear, sadness, and love.  Orlagh O’Brien explains:  “The answers were overlaid to create an averaging effect. It’s interesting to note how people draw around and outside the body and how the method reveals levels of intensity.”

You can see the results at http://www.emotionallyvague.com/results_02.php.

It is fascinating to see those patterns.  Orlagh O’Brien’s method strikes me as a valuable tool in mediation and conflict coaching to help parties better express their emotions, understand each other’s reactions, ultimately learn to manage the self-defeating patterns, and perhaps, track changes over time.

By | 2011-08-02T16:30:06+00:00 July 27th, 2011|Brain, Conflict Management, Perception|0 Comments

Vulnerability doesn’t mean victimhood

What does being vulnerable mean to you?  Most people don’t like feeling vulnerable, myself included.  Without our protective stance, we feel exposed to the world that is ready to prey on our weaknesses. Yet, more and more research indicates that the expression of vulnerability contributes to our sense of well-being.  In one of my all-favorite TED talks, Brené Brown, the leading researcher on vulnerability, explains why this may be the case.

Conflicts appear to be the worst situations for people to show vulnerability.  After all, if you are in conflict, you already feel attacked.  The typical fight or flight response is a survival mechanism wired into our brains.   When our physical safety is at stake, the brain revs up our defenses, and it makes sense.  While conflicts make people feel vulnerable, the typical reaction would be to cover up  vulnerability with anger, attacks, defensiveness, and accusations.  Are there any benefits to expressing vulnerability in situations that don’t involve risks of physical or emotional violence? Or will vulnerability simply lead to more victimization?

Vulnerability may show up as many things in conflict, such as:

  • Sharing your feelings openly;
  • Accepting the responsibility for your role in the conflict;
  • Acknowledging mistakes, confusion, miscommunication, mistreatment;
  • Giving the other side a second chance;
  • Stepping into the unknown territory;
  • Being willing to make a fool of yourself;
  • Risking your reputation;
  • Going against the majority opinion;
  • Speaking your own truth;
  • Risking being isolated from your own group;
  • Delivering bad news;
  • Letting go of the attachment to your conflict story.

What could conflicting parties gain by showing their vulnerability?  Here are a few scenarios where the expression of vulnerability may lead to breakthroughs:

  • When one side drops the attacking or defensive posturing and shows vulnerability, the other party may follow the suit.  Then, the energy of the conflict shifts.  When the parties drop their guard, it increases the connection and allows reciprocal expression of their humanity.  They no longer need to pretend.
  • Vulnerability is a sign of hope that the conflict can take a different path. Vulnerability breaks the patterns of the typical triggers and responses the parties go through.
  • Showing vulnerability signals to the other side that you are comfortable with your own graces and follies.  It conveys confidence in your ability to handle any feedback or reaction that may follow.   When you show vulnerability, you reject shame.
  • When you express vulnerability, you respect the other side enough to be honest and authentic, to let them know the real you.
  • Vulnerability makes you less fearful and more creative.  Instead of spending your mental and emotional energy to protect your image and beliefs, you feel the freedom to express yourself fully.
  • When you show vulnerability, you take risks.  Showing vulnerability can be both liberating and terrifying. And you can’t move forward without taking risks.

How else can vulnerability help in conflict management?

By | 2011-07-08T17:45:52+00:00 July 8th, 2011|Brain, Conflict Management, Perception|0 Comments