Helping Executives Connect with Emotions:
How Neuroscience Wins Over Corporate Skeptics
Part 2 of 4
In the first article in this series, I shared how a brain-based approach to coaching can win over corporate skeptics. In this second article, I examine the resistance and ultimate connection that skeptical executives can create with their emotions through neuroscience.
“I’m Not Going To Have To Get Emotional, Am I?”
I love this question that a corporate compliance executive tossed my way as she settled in for our first coaching session. She assumed that coaching was like therapy, and that we would be delving into her deepest, darkest memories to unpack emotions and bring them to the surface. I reassured her by saying, “No, you don’t have to get emotional. But we can explore ways you can reduce stress and be more effective under pressure. Is that something you would like to achieve?” She responded with a resounding, “Yes!”
In my experience, corporate executives distance themselves from their own emotions in the workplace and discount the emotions of others. They regard the workplace as an emotionless, rational setting where leaders and employees are required to turn off their feelings and reactions. Entering a coaching engagement gives executives a quiet, confidential space to identify and acknowledge their emotions without getting emotional if that’s what they prefer.
Name The Emotion to Tame The Executive’s Brain
Executives can tame their brains by naming the emotions they experience. Functional MRI studies show that accurately naming the emotion—even a negative, defensive emotion—tames the limbic system and stalls an amygdala hijack. It’s like a braking system for situations and emotions that trigger threat responses in the brain.
This sounds counterintuitive, right? If you’re feeling furious at an employee who refuses to get to work on time, and you say, “I’m furious!” won’t your brain just spiral deeper into more fury? No, it won’t.
That’s because the brain craves certainty and clarity. When you accurately name the way you feel, your brain experiences certainty and clarity. It’s as if your brain says, “Sure, I know what fury is. I know what you mean when you say you’re feeling furious. And now that I know what you’re feeling, I can dampen that emotion, so we can think more clearly and decide what to do next.” Executives seem relieved (to name one emotion!) when they realize there’s science behind taming our emotional responses. And it’s the first step to empathy so they can connect more authentically with others and their emotions.
OK, I Named the Emotion, Now What?
Here are some brain-based questions to help executives think more clearly in the moment, now that the amygdala highjack has been stalled.
What can I learn from this situation? When the brain is curious and in a learning mode, it’s not likely to fire-up defensive or stressful emotions.
What priority is this? Prioritizing and reprioritizing stressful situations gives us clarity and certainty. Prioritize based on when a difficult task must be completed, who can help, and how important the task is to employees and the organization.
Is this normal or usual? Executives tend to focus primarily on their own experience and personalize challenging situations. So ask, “Is this issue or challenge truly unique? Is this the first time in the history of the universe that this has occurred?” Probably not. Remind the brain that other executives and organizations experience these challenges, too.
What does this look like from other perspectives? Think about the situation through a variety of perspectives? What does a new regulation look like through an employee’s eyes? What about the manager’s lens? What would customers say about implementing this change? Answering these questions isn’t about looking at difficult situations through rose-colored glasses and making everything seem good or favorable. It sparks the executive’s thinking and potential actions towards a solution.
The next time you’re coaching with a skeptical leader, coach them to name the emotion they’re experiencing, and you’ll have an executive who is ready to talk about their emotions and less skeptical about coaching.
Watch for Part Three, “The Power of Brain-Based Questions When All Executives Want Are Answers,” in the next edition.
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About the Author:
Jeff Nally, PCC is an executive coach, coaching supervisor, professional speaker. and author. He is the president of Nally Group Inc., a practice focused on the science of leadership and human interaction. Jeff is vice president of marketing for the ICF Ohio Valley Chapter, is a member and volunteer with the Gay Coaches Alliance, and is co-author of two anthologies: Humans@Work and Rethinking HR. He can be reached at Email me! and or check out my website.