Why Our Brains are Hooked on Being Right – via HBR

I’m preparing for my “Summer O’ Conflict”, which basically means 5 weeks of Conflict Resolution training.

Conflict is fascinating, but as someone who watches and coaches Improvisers I have to say that the choice to start a scene with conflict is all too common. Some know it’s an Improv Pet Peeve of mine –  and I try to get at the root of why this is a common choice for so many of us.

I believe there is something about choosing conflict that keeps us safe. It gives us a problem to solve, but also keeps us from truly connecting and playing in the unknown. We can snap into ‘conflict mode’ quicker than ‘connection mode’.

This article from HBR sheds light on the neurological responses involved in conflict:

“In situations of high stress, fear or distrust, the hormone and neurotransmitter cortisol floods the brain. Executive functions that help us with advanced thought processes like strategy, trust building, and compassion shut down. And the amygdala, our instinctive brain, takes over. The body makes a chemical choice about how best to protect itself — in this case from the shame and loss of power associated with being wrong — and as a result is unable to regulate its emotions or handle the gaps between expectations and reality. So we default to one of four responses: fight (keep arguing the point), flight (revert to, and hide behind, group consensus), freeze (disengage from the argument by shutting up) or appease (make nice with your adversary by simply agreeing with him).”

More More More…

Further more, when we argue, and we win, we want to keep winning and keep arguing.

“That’s partly due to another neurochemical process. When you argue and win, your brain floods with different hormones: adrenaline and dopamine, which makes you feel good, dominant, even invincible. It’s a the feeling any of us would want to replicate. So the next time we’re in a tense situation, we fight again. We get addicted to being right.”

We run the risk of conflict not only being a choice, but a habit…one that we are neurologically rewarded for doing well in.

When Improvisers introduce conflict just for the sake of having something to do on stage, I stop and ask them to tell me what the conflict is really about. Often times they don’t know.

From competition to conversation

Improv is a team sport, just like so many businesses. Similarly, conflict is not necessarily a bad thing, it can be productive and important.

What worries me is the instinctual choice to fight instead of doing the harder work…listening.

If we can view conflict as a conversation instead of a competition, remove the idea of winner versus loser, right versus wrong and instead push towards agreement and the notion of being changed by the other person, then I’m more interested in your dynamics, and your scene. Our brains would like that too:

“Luckily, there’s another hormone that can feel just as good as adrenaline: oxytocin. It’s activated by human connection and it opens up the networks in our executive brain, or prefrontal cortex, further increasing our ability to trust and open ourselves to sharing. Your goal as a leader should be to spur the production of oxytocin in yourself and others, while avoiding (at least in the context of communication) those spikes of cortisol and adrenaline.”

 

Replenish your toolkit – 6 training and facilitation soundbites for the week of April 30

One of the best parts of being in a community of educators is that there’s always something new to learn from other like-minded individuals. Call it, adding to your toolbox.

Colleagues, mentors and thought-makers are constantly swapping tips, tricks, and anecdotes to help craft our work to make it stronger, more meaningful and more relevant.

Here are some of my own reminders and learnings from the past week. I hope to make this a weekly feature you can use to replenish your own toolkit.

  1. Know your purpose – meaning, remember the purpose of each exercise/game/discussion you introduce. Does it tie back to your desired outcomes?
  2.  Don’t brainstorm cold – treat brainstorming like an athletic endeavor – to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of your brainstorming sessions, prepare your team with an energizer or warmup that gets them in an alert, present, and slightly brain-fried state. You’ll get those ideas popping faster.
  3. Introverts have longer runways – remember that introverts often just need more time to process ideas and thoughts. Help them feel comfortable by giving them the topic before brainstorming sessions, and utilize more small-group discussion.
  4. Experiential learning and facilitation go hand-in-hand  – a facilitator’s job is to help lead your students to the answer (to the truth). Key to uncovering those answers is adding an experiential element to your session where participants are more active and in control of their learning. This leads to self-reflection which leads to participants finding the answers to the questions facilitators pose. What’s more rewarding – to be told the answer or to discover it yourself?
  5. Choose simplicity – key to retention (beyond adding an element of self-reflection and direct application to the work being done) is simplicity. Have you broken down your teaching points into easily digestible bites? Make sure you leave time for a wrap-up that covers key points.
  6. Observe by playing  – With just 10 minutes, you can learn and observe the dynamics of a team by playing one simple Improv-based game – key to applying an Improvisers approach to training and facilitation is recognizing that Improv is a teachable skill set, and not a comedy routine. Teach a team how to improvise, and watch their communication and collaboration soar.

Your brain on training – what your initiatives need to consider

David Rock… well, he rocks. His neurological research reminds us to ask this important question – in designing organizational transformation initiatives, are we taking into account the way our brains work?

Here are two must-have tips:

1. It’s all about insights

Knowledge is gained through insight, not necessarily transmission and passive knowledge transfer.  Our training initiatives need to encourage more time for self-reflection, de-briefing, and the ability to make connections.

We tend to form new connections when we are happier, which can be encouraged by helping people focus on solutions instead of problems.

The more we want people to change, the more we need to recognize, encourage and deepen their insights. These insights should be generated from within.

We are capable of forming more insights if interactions and initiatives at work trigger our reward stimuli as opposed to threat stimuli in the brain.

2. Social Triggers – S.C.A.R.F.

The brain predisposes us to resist some forms of leadership, training, and interactions, and to accept others based upon whether our brain views them as a threat or a reward.  In fact, much of the motivation regarding our behavior is driven by this system of rewards and threats.

When we feel threatened we tend to adopt an avoid response. When we notice a reward, we tend to have an approach response.

Threats can reduce cognitive performance and decrease our effectiveness. However, the approach response generated by rewards is synonymous with engagement and positive emotions. A growing body of research shows this state increases dopamine which activates the learning centers in the brain, allowing us to perceive more options when trying to solve problems.

David Rock states, there are FIVE important social triggers at play in our brains during every interaction:

Status

Certainty

Autonomy

Relatedness

Fairness

What are some practical and trainable tools companies and managers can use to minimize threat, and maximize reward through these social triggers? 

Status – Build self-awareness of status  (behavioral shifts towards either dominance or submission). Use specific, genuine praise. Start Positive to minimize threat of status differential.

Certainty – Provide clear expectations, break down training or change initiatives into steps.

Autonomy – Provide clarity of purpose, increased control over events.

Relatedness –  Increase trust, connection and empathy at work.  After all, relatedness is imperative for collaboration.  Create and initiate safe social interactions.

Fairness –  increase transparency, honesty, and level of communication and involvement around business issues.

In designing training initiatives, we need to consider more than just the different ways adults learn. How can we adjust the way we approach, market, and deliver training programs with an eye  towards increasing insights and rewards,  and decreasing threats? It can be done, especially with Applied Improvisation and the self-awareness skill-building we take part in.  For me, realizing the neurological implications when our certainty is threatened provides an interesting framework for teaching others how to be comfortable in the unknown.