While treating a music industry executive for dangerously high blood pressure, I noticed that in the mornings it was high and in the afternoons almost normal. This man loved his job and was otherwise very healthy. One afternoon after a normal reading, he told me about his road rage that morning. The next recording I took was dangerously high. Simply remembering, he spiked his blood pressure high enough to consider hospitalisation. With simple practices to drive calmly and considerately, his blood pressure resolved completely.
Whether in executive health, leadership coaching or team development, inappropriate outbursts of anger and its relatives destroy health, careers and teams. Those who learn to master anger skilfully progress. Those who don’t, suffer endless carnage.
At a global level, anger fuels our wars, genocide, political impasses and terrorism. If there were an emotional cancer, it would be anger.
Anger is a natural, primary emotion. From an evolutionary perspective, anger motivates an organism to attack another. The effect on us is profound:
Physical: blood rushes to jaw, fists and chest muscles (fighting systems)
Emotional: caution, calm, joy, bonding and care evaporates
Cognitive: the mind tunnel-visions to exaggerate the target and minimise alternatives
Spiritual: we are reduced to the biology of our worst selves. Regret and shame follow
Anger, of course, has benefits. It is a territorial protection system. If our territory – land, mate, family or self – is threatened, anger equips us to defend what we love. In nature, anger is periodically deployed in threat or ritual fighting. It is generally brief and violent, followed by rest and reconciliation.
In social species such as higher primates, elephants and dolphin it is largely ritualised. Unchecked, anger becomes a serious disadvantage to survival and leadership. Reconciliation, grooming, bonding, consolation, perspective-taking and targeted helping become increasingly adaptive. And so it is with humans…. with two added twists.
Thanks to memory, we have learned to sustain anger long past its useful signal leading to avoidance, hate and revenge. The physiology, feeling and thoughts of anger churn away destroying our immune system, damaging our hearts and brains. It wrecks a good life.
With the churn and turbulence of our time, many of us do not enjoy the connection, bonding, touch and consistent care (love) to counter the effects of anger. We know that children who grow up in violent and abusive families face massively increased risks later in life. As adults, we rarely allow ourselves the closeness, touch and gentle caring that our closest relatives live by.
Where anger wreaks havoc
Angry outbursts at someone who does not meet your expectations
Persistent, low grade frustration with colleagues or loved ones
Chronic impatience and frustration in queues, with slow communicators, etc.
Hatred and revenge against someone that is held over weeks or months
Rage on the road, airline check-ins or poor customer service
Violent outbursts or abuse at home and with loved ones
For example, when John does not complete an assigned job for Jill:
Jill: “He is an idiot! I simply cannot work with him”
John: “She is such a bully. I hate her and hope she breaks a leg”
Result: distress, illness, contempt, performance failure, toxic leadership and war…..
In these situations, we allow our amygdala and primitive brain to execute behaviour. The more sleep deprived, hungry, distressed or alone we feel the more this part of the brain is primed for action. While research challenges the idea that we have free will, here is an opportunity where we can choose between constructive and destructive actions.
There is, in my view, no more important cause in our modern lives than to be more skilful in our interactions. Anger is not skilful. We do not function, feel, decide or act properly when angry. Whether your goal is wellbeing, a good life, success, leadership, teaming, parenting or creating social good, mastering anger is primary.
How to master your anger
Wake up and dial into the experience
Start by noting and reflecting – preferably in writing or with another person – the experience. Define the trigger, see clearly how you behaved, describe how you felt, and explore if you could have done better. This is situation awareness. Situation awareness exercises the advanced part of our brain. The insula, anterior cingulate cortex, ventromedial pre-frontal cortex (PFC) and dorsolateral PFC get exercised. As you increase the amount of activity in these circuits, they get stronger. The amygdala deactivate and shrink. You are becoming a better version of yourself.
Target a simple but important situation for practice
With an upcoming event in mind, take time to prepare. Visualise, in advance, the two alternatives. First, what will happen if you let anger erupt. Second, how could the situation evolve if you could stay calm and skilful. Resolve not to react if triggered but rather to take a few moments to exhale slowly and notice how you are feeling and what you are thinking. Consider how the other person is feeling. This is level one impulse control and it might be enough. In the car or the queue, you relax and move on towards a better day.
Critical situations – parenting, managing and leading
Skilful conversation is required. This is challenging and requires deliberate practice. If it triggered a feeling of anger, it is important. Stay calm and considerate of the other, own your anger and explain what triggered you. Give the other person a chance to share their side. Explore what you can do together to resolve the situation.
Consider the solution as built from 3 parts. First, is your view. Second, is the other’s view. Third is a creative solution neither can see until you come together – the third way. The more consistently you can execute this skilful conversation, the more you will bring creative solutions into your life, your family and your team.
For example, when John does not complete an assigned job for Jill:
Jill: “We need this completed. You have let me down and I am feeling angry”
John: “Sorry Jill, my kid is sick. I know it is important and will do it before I leave today”
Jill: “I understand, I will be here to help sign off at 5.30pm”
Result: resolution, reconciliation, performance and increased trust
Once you master angry confrontations, extend the skill to complex business, political and social issues.
Anger is a real emotion. It signals something important to you is being challenged. Own the anger and use the energy to focus on skilful behaviour. Use your human brain and PFC. Don’t let the snake brain take over. Connect. Seek the third way. Reconcile. If necessary, apologise sincerely and resolve to be more skilful next time. Start immediately. Help your children master their anger. The ultimate conquerer of anger is love.
Five words define the crucible of civilization and the battle between conflict and progress. This is true in our relationships, communities, businesses and nations.
Whether it is Brexit, the current US election, climate threat, rich getting richer, or data security, we decide based on our judgement of these five factors. British leadership tried with empathy and candour to secure the trust of the nation to vote “Bremain”. Voters suspected deceit and trickery. To everyone’s surprise, Britain is now exiting a process purposed to integrate Europe with empathy, candour and altruism.
The US election is ripping the world’s great democracy into vitriolic deceit, trickery, and self-interest. The consequence is a collapse of trust in government. The window to be good custodians of our planet is closing due to self-interest and a failure of trust.
Voters no longer trust governments, corporates and the rich. Whilst Mark Zuckerberg can wing his way to show empathy for earthquake victims in Italy and the super-wealthy can give away billions, the vast majority of us are hunkered down in survival mode – powerless and suspicious. We feel deceived and tricked.
On the other side, research including Googleand MIT, shows that empathy is the key competence (skill) to liberate performance in teams. The psychological safety (trust) experienced in a team, liberates constructive interaction and work. This trust is not some secret ingredient. It is actively constructed from specific behaviours. First, high performing teams communicate face-to-face (candour). Second, they communicate in concise bursts of straight feedback (candour). Third, they include all participants equally in the dialogue (altruism).
Empathy is the fulcrum of this crucible. Empathy allows us to read others and decide between deceit and candour (see:http://www.paulekman.com/blog/want-president-cant-wont-lie). Empathy with candour triggers altruism and the amazing collaboration witnessed in advanced social groupings. Empathy with deceit leads to a failure of trust, self-interest and further deceit, which we witness in modern politics, wars, gangs and prisons.
This tipping point between collaborative power and deceitful destruction is embedded in evolution and well validated in studies of corvids (crows and jays), dolphins, whales, elephants, and most primates. The evolutionary source of the solution is clearly visible in chimps and bonobos where the role of leadership demands empathy and altruism to secure the survival of the group.
We might be wise to remember that deceit and trickery are equally well developed in the species above. Homo sapiens is only different in the degree to which we exploit and realise the extremes good and evil.
When we choose empathy, candour and altruism we are capable of exponential goodness. When we default to deceit and trickery we light the fuse of massive destruction.
Be a force for good
Be crystal clear on your language
Empathy is the ability, deeply embedded in our species and wide open to learning, to accurately read and understand others. It is a passive competence requiring attention, non verbal cues, analysis and intuition
Candour is the intention to express yourself as honestly as possible. Candour requires self-awareness, courage and skill. It takes time to know yourself well and even longer to express yourself honestly with sensitivity and clarity. Candour is active and effortful.
Altruism is the intention to help others with skill. It is active. Altruism requires the combination of deep empathy (really understanding what action will help others rather than relieve your guilt or anxiety) and skilful means. At first, altruism presents as a cost and therefore risky. However, the practice of altruism leads to multi-party benefit – particularly your own.
Deceit can be an act of omission (hiding something) or commission (fabricating an untrue statement). It is the opposite of candour.
Trickery is exploiting trust. We attempt to appear as x whilst actually doing y. Here lies the failure of trust in many political systems and relationships.
Define clearly your values and purpose
Being clear on what matters to you, builds a platform to tip the axis to good. Short term self interest or self-gratification leads to deceit and trickery. Our own research shows the critical role of developing a clear set of values and meaningful purpose. We must actively choose between self and others, now and later, candour or deceit and altruism versus trickery.
Press for total candour
Accept that expressing candour skilfully takes time and practice. Be intentional about telling the whole truth. Ask yourself if you have left anything out. Give people an opportunity to ask questions. Help others be candid with you.
Practice your empathy skills
Empathy requires practice. We have addressed this in manypapers.
Random acts of kindness
Be good by doing good should guide each day. Even for those on the wrong side of the axis, spending time helping others has an extraordinary benefit to self, others and the system in which you live. Be generous and skilful.
Be gentle and forgiving
Tipping the axis takes time, demands experiment and failure. Reconciliation is built deep into our evolutionary roots. Be patient and kind to yourself and others. It will accelerate the journey to be a true force for good.
Originally published on www.resiliencei.com and reproduced with permission. byTeam
In this Resilience Insight we look at how we harness the mind to change-grow-transform.
Change – a tale of two systems
Change is not straightforward – our default position is to operate much of the time on ‘auto pilot’ playing out behaviours that are well established without even thinking about them too much.
The brain has two fundamentally different operating modes – the first being the instinctive/auto-pilot system. This is a very efficient system that takes little energy for us to operate. This can be the most useful way to go if we want to ‘do more of the same’, but when we want to change our behaviour, this system can lead us down the vulnerable ‘low road.’ When this happens the ‘fight/flight/freeze’ reaction triggers a physiological response that decreases our ability to move towards change.
When we want to engage in some sort of change we need to access the ‘mindful/reflective’ part of the brain, which involves a whole separate system. When we understand how to access this system we can choose to go down the resilient ‘high road’.
The performance supply change
To make changes we need to engage this different part of the brain and understand ‘the performance supply chain’. If we can do this we significantly increase our ability to bring about real change.
All aspects of what we refer to as ‘the performance supply chain’ interact with each other to lead to the actions necessary to produce change. When we go down ‘the low road’ our body is switching on some aspect of the ‘fight/flight/freeze’ reaction that means the sympathetic nervous system is in the driver’s seat. This then colours our emotional reactions (heart), which in turn impacts on our style of thinking (mind).
To break the loop we need to ‘reframe’ at each level of the ‘performance supply chain’.
Begin at Base camp
The first link in the chain is the body. We often refer to this as ‘base camp’ – because without paying attention to our physical state and dealing with it first, we can not sustain the effort needed to change.
To sustain efforts to change we need to engage our ‘willpower’, which involves locking in the ‘mindful/ reflective’ system we referred to earlier. Research shows this is an ‘energy hungry’ system and that some key aspects of the body need to be taken care of before we can sustain the effort to produce lasting change. Four key factors that the research shows support willpower are:
Low glycaemic, plant based diet
These are corner stone practices within The Resilience Institute’s approach.
The other key here is that it is often the physical reactions of the body, and the emotions linked to them that we notice first and give us the clue that we need to switch ‘systems’. When we notice these cues we can start to intervene to ‘take the high road’.
Pause and plan
When we can notice signals from the performance supply chain (physical sensations, emotions, un-useful thoughts) that cue us we are heading down the ‘low road’ we can pause and start to ‘reframe’ starting with the body link in the chain.
This involves intervening to deactivate the sympathetic nervous system and activate instead the parasympathetic nervous system. We can ‘breathing our way to self-control’. By breathing with our diaphragm, slowing both our inhale and exhale, we can even out our heart rate variability.
By calming ourselves in this way, we keep the prefrontal cortex of the brain active and from this space can make choices of action that are more flexible and adaptive (activating the parasympathetic nervous system). This is a very different way of responding than when we are on autopilot or when the fight/flight/freeze response is warmed up in some way (activating the sympathetic nervous system).
A key aspect of this ‘consciousness’ is that we are more able to be aware of what we are thinking and feeling – and therefore are in a position to reflect and then choose a different path for our behaviour. From this position we can ‘Pause and Plan’ – choose not take that drink of alcohol, eat that piece of cake, shout at a colleague, continue to ruminate and beat ourselves up over something that can not be changed. To do this, the next step is to build a different relationship with our thinking and emotions.
A different relationship with thought and emotion
We can easily get caught up in treating our thoughts and feelings as if they are ‘reality’, as if they are an actual external threat. This then triggers some aspect of the ‘fight/flight/freeze cycle’. When we can identify that our thoughts and feelings are purely ‘internal’ we can evoke a different response.
The first step is to train up the ‘watchman’ or ‘witness’, to be able to stand back and observe our thoughts and feelings and as a result to experience more clearly the part of us that can take this perspective. This builds on the concept of ‘open monitoring’ raised in the ‘Awaken the Mind’ Resilience Insight.
Try this simple exercise – do this for a couple of minutes at least 3 times a day. Stop and become aware of what thoughts are passing through your mind. For each thought/feeling you are aware of, think to yourself; ‘I am having the thought that the deadline for the report is coming up’ or ‘I am having the feeling of anxiety’ or ‘I am having the thought I am not very good at observing my thoughts’. This first step is just to strengthen the ‘watchman/witness’. The next step in strengthening this new perspective is to add to the same exercise an extra step. ‘I am having the thought that the deadline for the report is coming up – that is just a thought – it does not control my action – what is important to me/what do I value – and therefore what action do I want to focus on’. The same with the feeling of anxiety – ‘this is just a feeling – it does not control my action – what is important to me/what do I value – and therefore what action do I want to focus on.’
This seemingly simple exercise starts to strengthen our awareness that there is a calm and focused ‘observer’ available to us all the time – a part of us we can keep ‘in the driver’s seat’ by developing a different relationship with our thoughts and feelings. Doing this also brings our attention more often to the ‘present moment’ and enables us to choose action that lines up with what is important to us rather than being pulled off target by the ‘instinctive/autopilot’ system. This gives us ‘behavioural flexibility’ – we are consciously choosing our path – taking the ‘high road’.
Where do values fit in?
Ultimately the goal of having the behavioural flexibility to make changes is to be able to follow a path in our lives that lines up with our values. If our motivation for stopping smoking is a result of our GP saying it would be good; to lose weight so we can look like the person in the magazine ad; to improve our relationship with a work colleague in another department to meet a target set by our boss – all these have the danger of being driven by what others expect of us rather than something we are personally motivated to do.
When we are on ‘auto pilot’ we are more likely to respond to things that provide instant gratification and to respond to what others (bosses, partners, advertisers etc.) expect of us. Part of the usefulness of engaging the ‘Pause and Plan’ part of our brain is we can think longer-term and reflect on what is really important to us.
Before we can do this we need to have spent some time reflecting on what is really important to us – and this is not a one off exercise, because that changes over time and often has to take into account others that are important in our lives (if that lines up with your values). A web search for ‘what are my values’ bring up a number of lists/questionnaires that can be a starting point.
One technique that I have used with some of my coaching clients to get them in touch with their values involves getting them to have a conversation with their future self. The first step is imagining yourself 10 or 20 years from now and asking that future self to comment on the issue your are addressing – you then ‘keep the conversation’ going until you feel you have got the information you need. E.g. “Future Self – how do you feel about the amount of exercise I am doing?” “Well Present Self, I am going to have to live with what ever body you leave me with 20 years from now – I still want to be in shape to tramp and mountain bike – the way things are going I can’t picture I will be in shape to do that – here is what I suggest…”etc
Getting a clear picture of why you want to make the change you are focusing on, how it links to your values and future and developing a ‘mental touch stone’ to remind you of why you are going down this road is a key element in keeping us on track. We end up with a ‘personal GPS’ that helps us navigate a path that aligns with what we value.
How this ‘Reframing’ looks in practice
Tim is part of a ‘virtual team’ tasked with delivering a complex project for the business over the next six months. The pressure is on and this morning his boss had a go at him about complaints that have been coming from Sally who is the Marketing team’s member on the project team.
Response 1: “I am sick of the boss blaming me! Bloody Marketing again – Sally is going behind my back” = Instinctive/autopilot system = un-useful rumination=sympathetic response =fight/flight’ activation – going down the low road.
Response 2: Tim notices! and starts to reframe at the body level – Pause – ‘need to calm myself – use my breath’ – Breath= calm= parasympathetic response= ‘Pause and Plan’ “I am having the thought that the boss and Sally are blaming me. I am having the feeling of anger. These are just thoughts and feelings – they do not have the power to control my behaviour – I can calm myself. My personal values include being a good team player. I personally believe in the benefits this project will bring to the business. The boss’s response is more about his/her short fuse rather than anything I have actually done wrong – maybe Sally did not feel confident to raise the issues with me directly (having reframed at the ‘heart’ and ‘mind’ levels of the performance supply chain we can more clearly see things from the point of view of others). I need to get along side Sally – I will suggest we have a weekly one on one review of how the project is tracking and give each other feedback on what is working well/not so well in the way we are working together. This feels more like the way I want to be.”
These same principles can be applied to a whole range of changes:
Responding differently in a relationship
Building a regular exercise routine
Being able to focus more on our positive vs. negative thought
Staying calm yourself and helping others to understand and engage in a change project
Building Skill Just having an intellectual understanding of this process is not enough – all of these things take practice. There are some key skills to build to be able to ‘take the resilient high road’ and operate more often in the ‘Pause and Plan’ mode.
Shifting from ‘sympathetic’ to ‘parasympathetic’ response. We need to practice using our breath to make this switch.
Mindfulness. Understanding that the basics of a simple mindfulness practice is like taking your prefrontal cortex to the gym. It directly strengthens our ability to keep the ‘Pause and Plan’ system active when we need it.
Building a different relationship with our Thoughts and Feelings. Regularly stepping into ‘observer mode’ strengthens our ability to activate this reflective stance.
Clarifying Values. Without our ‘personal GPS’ we are less likely to make good choices around our actions.
Making a Plan. When wanting to institute a change in your behaviour – make a plan. Reflect on why this is important to you personally – think about what disciplines need to be applied and what ‘tricks’ or techniques might aid you in the early stages. Don’t try to make too many changes at once.