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A Conversation with David Rock on Self-Regulation and Leadership

November 24, 2011

Following his October 3rd broadcast on Strategies to Overcome Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, author David Rock engaged in a 30-minute Q&A session with his audience via text, email, fax, and Twitter. In this first section of the Q&A, David discusses reappraisal techniques to limit the negative impact of stress on the human brain.

Rich Rosier for Linkage: Our first question comes to us from Tony.  Tony asks: “Could you please ask David how to deal with post-stress effects.  I can keep my cool and focus during a stressful situation, but I find myself thinking about the situation and feeling the effects for a long time afterward.  How can I ‘move on’ more quickly and productively?”   

It’s a really tough thing. There are a lot of people studying PTSD and there is a big shift at the moment in our thinking about how to deal with these things.  For awhile we thought that talking a lot about it, unloading our thoughts and kind of reliving it was good. Actually we are moving on from that and saying we might need to do something quite different.

One of the things to recognize about the brain is the way we create circuits. The way circuits are created is through a tension.  And literally when you put a tension on something you create connections in the brain.  You either imbed existing connections further, kind of making them thicker, or you start new connections.

So you really have to be careful. If you are trying to not focus on something, you don’t want to spend really any time on it.  That is of course easier said than done. And I have had my own experience. If something frightening happens it is really easy for it to keep coming up.

There is a lot of techniques and strategies for it.  Probably the most effective thing is being able to reappraise in the moment.  You can reappraise downward and say, “Oh, there’s something wrong with me.” But the idea is to reappraise up and go, “Oh, that’s just my brain doing its thing again.” And then focus onto something positive. So reappraise and then focus onto something positive.  “That’s my brain doing something funky, let’s do something interesting instead.”

You wrote about it in the book, four techniques you can use for reappraisals, do you want to comment on each of those four?

It is a little technical.  The very easiest form of reappraisal is actually humor – and easy is good because reappraisal takes a lot of pre-frontal function and a second or two into a threat response you don’t have much pre-front function, right? So actually, looking at the funny side of a situation – “That’s just my brain, it’s a little bit like that” – is the best form of reappraisal in many ways.

If you’ve got the ability, then looking at the situation from a different point of view  change your whole perspective – like from someone else’s point of view, or from your own point of view in a decade’s time, or from a completely kind of different angle, like if you’re an architect, lamenting the shape of a building, imagine how an accountant would look at it. So if you’ve got the ability, then literally changing your perspective on something is a great thing to do.  But in an emergency, humor is actually a great strategy.  It shifts your brain from a threat to a toward state.

When you work with leaders or managers to try to help them to be better at this, particularly if they are suppressing their emotions rather than reappraising, what techniques do you encourage them to use?  

Practice is everything.  What you are trying to do is create new pathways that become easy to find later on.  So create new pathways that are primed in the brain through regular practice.  Change is pretty easy – you just put your watch on your other hand and you will find yourself going to the other hand after just an hour.  So change is pretty easy, but long-term change a bit harder.  So it is really about habitual practice and finding easy, simple ways to regularly practice changing your perspective.

So the building blocks of reappraisal are, noticing what is going on, which is interoception or to be able to label what your experience is.  And that is something you can practice all day, ten times a day.  “What’s my experience right now?  How am I right now?  What’s my dominant emotion right now?  Literally practicing that over and over, set yourself a target.  That’s kind of one chunk of reappraisal.

Another chunk of reappraisal is seeing multiple points of view.  Being able to literally shift your perspective.  Again, if you are an architect and you only ever see things from an architect’s point of view, practicing things from ten completely different points of view.  From the point of view of a clown, a child, or an accountant or a philosopher or an economist or a teacher or a builder or a mole under the ground.  Practice seeing things from completely different points of view regularly so that you literally build your switch function, you know, we’ve got a switching function.

So practice that, and then practice focusing your attention is the third chunk.  So it is really kind of those three parts.  Being able to be aware of what’s going on easily and quickly; being able to shift points of view as literally a flexible thinker; and then being able to focus.  Those are the three building blocks and anything people can design to build those blocks up is going to make them better at reappraisal over time.

I thought it was fascinating when you talked about the labeling of emotions in a word or two.  Do you have to do that out loud or can you just recognize it in your head?

In your head is fine.  Generally when you do something out loud you activate a more robust circuit for whatever you are trying to do.  So if you are speaking about an emotion, there are more circuits involved in the brain’s braking system, and there are more circuits involved in the act.  Because with speaking you’ve got all these other brain regions involved (memory, language, physical – more than with just thinking) so it lasts longer.

Our next question is from Kimberly who asks, “Can you suggest good methods or exercises or ideas for helping quiet the brain?”

Well, everyone’s different, and this is one of the interesting stories about the brain.  A really good metaphor for brains are cities.  If you travel around, which I am sure many people do, cities are very different, and yet they are similar.  They have a public transport system, they have sewage, they have power, they are now mostly wired up with the internet and other things.  But physically, boy, they are different, and they evolved over history through all sorts of different ways.  Well brains are a lot like that.  So just because one city sort of functions one way, be careful of assuming it functions another way.

So everyone is really different, but what we do know is that when you put attention onto rich data streams coming in in the present, it quietens down the limbic system overall.  And the limbic system, especially the threat response, is mostly the cause of the noise in the brain.  Being over-excited can do it but it just doesn’t happen as often (you know, getting that bonus or thinking we are falling in love).  So it is mostly the threat we have to calm down.

So literally if you can put your attention onto your sensory motor cortex, the taste of something – literally, like eat a little piece of chocolate, just focus your attention completely on the taste of that chocolate – you will find yourself so much more quiet in the brain, really quickly, like five or ten seconds.

We talk about stopping and smelling the roses.  If you can, literally take in the data of a rose. If you can spend a whole ten seconds just completely taking in the data, focusing your attention on the different streams of data, the depth of the smell, the quality of the smell, all that – and not so much the story of it which is the narrative circuitry, but what’s called the direct experience circuitry – all of this is at the heart of the concept of mindfulness.  This is really the neuroscience of mindfulness.

So when you focus your attention on the direct experience circuitry, you switch off what is called the narrative circuitry which the limbic system is part of.  And so you switch off the noise.  So the old day, “stop and smell the roses” is great, but only if you really focus your attention.  And it doesn’t take long.  But anything that focuses your attention in the present – taste, smell, touch, feel – anything that is a rich stream of data pretty quickly dampen down the threat.

People use breath for centuries, because it is a fixed stream of data, it is always there – you’ve got bigger problems if it’s not – and it requires no props whatsoever.  So any moment, any time, you can always kind of just [breathes deep] focus on the data. It is not so much the actual breath, it is the data coming into your attention directly in the moment, in the present.

And, by the way, you will see more data overall, and you will be more able to make decisions so that’s something again worthy of practice.

David Rock is the author of Personal Best, Quiet Leadership, Coaching with the Brain in Mind, and Your Brain at Work. In collaboration with several leading neuroscientists, David is working to explain the neural basis of issues like self-awareness, reflection, insight and accountability.  David founded the NeuroLeadership Institute and Summit, a global initiative bringing neuroscientists and leadership experts together to build a new science of leadership development.


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