Emotions are Contagious

Research has demonstrated that emotions are contagious. Within milliseconds, our bodies are picking up others’ emotions. When we sense that someone is open or closed, we tend to react similarly. Your openness or closed-mindedness can spread to others and influence the climate. You may have experienced the contagious nature of emotions at a gathering of people. If you walk into a room where people are in conflict, you will likely sense a heaviness. On the other hand, if you walk into a space where people are in a positive mood and enjoying each other, you are likely to feel more upbeat and light. We pick up the emotions of others in a matter of milliseconds, and it can be unconscious.

When judging, we experience the classic fight, flight, freeze, or appease adrenaline reaction to a perceived threat. Our older brain structure and limbic system, which are the human brain’s emotional parts, immediately react to potential danger. This happens even before the neocortex, the brain’s thinking section, can register the perceived threat and provide rational input. Our reaction occurs so quickly that it appears automatic, so we may not be immediately aware of it. That’s why it is useful to get to know our predominant sensation signals and understand when we are closed to new information.

It’s important to recognize our impact as leaders and to take an Open Stance. We can do this by engaging in practices such as grounding and being present, being optimistic about what is unfolding, being grateful and being curious and compassionate. When we recognize that emotions are contagious we can influence those around us.  

– Excerpted from the forthcoming book, Open Stance: Thriving Amid Differences and Uncertainty

Be Aware of Your Inner Sense of Safety

You do not have to look far to experience the challenges of polarization these days. People tell me that they do not speak with family members, colleagues or neighbors who represent a different political position or other view.  When they do speak, it is often with the goal of showing how the other person is wrong and anger and distrust persist.  People on both sides share their concern about the “other side’s” views and that they are worried about the effects of the divide on our country, government, community, workplace and family. 

When I ask about their conversations with people on the “other side” they often say they are not having real conversations. And many are literally not speaking with the “other”  at all. They say they are too angry and don’t feel safe. Organizations, like Braver Angels, offer workshops where people with different political views talk with one another to see the humanity in the other and the shared concerns and desires. There are heartwarming stories of people with differences across many areas who have even become friends as they listened and became open to one another and found common ground.

We know that we have each had various life experiences that influence our perspectives and beliefs. Some of these beliefs are clear to us while others are less conscious. Our bodies have a way of alerting us to danger when our beliefs and self-identity are threatened. We naturally experience tension in the face of a difference; we contract and become closed. This is a natural process that helps us keep our identity and sense of self. Can you imagine if we remained totally open, without this built in mechanism? We would find it hard to live as we changed so rapidly. However, we can also remain too tightly closed and miss opportunities to grow and experience more and create more.  

The key skill is to notice when we experience tension and begin to close or contract and to then Stop and Step Back to cool down. This gives us some space from immediately reacting to a different view with aggression or by collapsing or leaving. We can then ensure our safety.  Each situation will be different. Sometimes we will need to take a breath and remember that we are okay and have the skills to engage. Other times, we may need to disengage and take a time-out to cool down the cortisol rushing through our body. Sometimes we may need to have a facilitator or outside party to support a conversation. In cases where there is the threat of violence or physical danger we may choose to never re-engage. There is value in honoring our propensity to close down and seek safety and then skillfully returning to being open. 

Once we have stepped back and cooled down and feel safe, we can shift to being Open where a different part of our brain is engaged. When we are feeling safe and open, we will hear in a different way and ideally see new connections and understanding. When we attend to our own inner environment and ensure our safety, we are more prepared to attend to the climates we are creating in our interactions. 

I believe there are two critical skills needed these days. One is to know how to take an Open Stance (which includes being aware, ensuring safety and with courage, being curious and open to learning, connections and possibilities). The second important skill is to engage in open-minded conversations where we consciously inspire a psychologically safe OASIS-like environment to create shared solutions.

What’s Your Story?

We are always making assumptions about others, ourselves and our situations. We naturally create stories based on our past experiences as a way of ensuring our safety. 

David, a manager, shared with me that team members did not support his ideas and were out to make him look bad. He felt frustrated. With this story, he worked harder to demonstrate his expertise and how he was correct in his proposals. However, the harder he worked to demonstrate he was right, the less he seemed able to inspire people to listen and align around a strategy. 

When we “know” we are right and feel such frustration and contraction, we need to stop and take a look at the story we are telling ourselves. We could say to ourselves or a coach or friend, “The story I am telling myself is . . . that my colleagues are not interested in what I have to say and that they are even against me.”  Then we can assess what is a true fact or observation and what is our assumption or judgment. It is true that team members questioned the findings. They asked, “How did you arrive at that conclusion?”  Is it true that they are against you? This is more likely your story and your self-fulfilling prophecy. 

The more David believed his colleagues were against him, the more he pushed for his ideas with the leader and others and the less he involved his colleagues in his process. It was his internal story that they were against him that ironically influenced his moves that alienated him.  We can only control ourselves and not others. (And managing ourselves is not easy.)

When David became aware of his role in the tangle, he was able to take the first moves to listen and include colleagues in his thinking process during development and to show that he was a team player. He reflected on what he appreciated about team members and became more caring toward them. He was able to forge a more positive and healthy dynamic. 

By questioning our stories and separating facts from assumptions, we are better positioned to create more positive and productive relationships and unparalleled results.

We Have Different Definitions of Respect

I recently gave a talk on the critical skill of taking an open stance. I shared that we all have different definitions of respect and that often it is the small things that matter to us. Respect is what employees all over the world want. Half of employees don’t feel respected by their bosses. (HBR, Porath 2014.) Other research shows that those who experience or witness disrespect have a significant decrease in performance. 

One person shared that when volunteering for an organization, that she sat in for a person who was on leave. Everyone passed by her as they entered the workplace and only one person spoke with her during her week stint and that was the head of the whole organization. She kindly described this leader as respectful and that he made her feel valued and seen.  Another person in the group had a very different experience. She shared that when she had an administrative position, many people greeted her and asked her about her day. She felt that they did not respect that she had work to do and that it was okay to interrupt her. She often had to stay late to complete her work and was glad to leave that position. 

How do we know what people perceive as being respectful? We need to engage in conversations with one another. We often fail to have conversations about respect since we tend to believe that people “should” know what is the “right” respectful behavior. It seems obvious to us. However, we each have different background experiences and learned different strategies. We have different personalities and clearly intention does not equal impact. 

We need to have the intention to be respectful. We also need to be aware and engage in conversations where we effectively share what we need to experience respect and be curious to learn what others need.  Teams and organizations need to incorporate check-ins where people can safely share their experiences of respect. 

Conversations about respect are essential these days when we collectively need a sense of openness and opportunity for all.

An Open Heart is Integral to an Open Stance

During these times of disruption it is critical to adopt an Open Stance. Being open is the path to resilience, well-being, and thriving. Being open is more than a mindset or just related to being available and present to our thoughts. We also need to have a felt sense of opening our hearts of compassion to our emotions and that of others. This open-hearted compassion is essential during times of uncertainty. Naturally, we react to what we perceive as potential danger. Our emotions are signals that we need to pay attention. Then we need to discern if, in fact, we are in danger at that moment and if action is called for. For example, Sherrie’s position was eliminated in her corporation. Her first emotions were distress and worry, and also anger. All of these emotions are real and need attention. She knew intellectually that she would be okay since she had saved money and was marketable. Rather than ignoring her feelings or being swallowed up in them, she became open and aware of her emotions and named them.  She experienced warmth toward her mix of emotions. This supported her in being more responsive in her actions rather than just reacting.  

As an ideal parent listens to a child when she has an upsetting experience, we can be open to our emotions and be compassionate. We simply need to listen and be attentive and open to our range of emotions. This self-compassion allows us to connect with the parts of ourselves that are experiencing emotion. We become better prepared to extend our compassion to others. We can appreciate that we are each responding to uncertain circumstances based on our conditioning and habitual patterns. It is natural to react, and we can practice turning an open heart to ourselves and others. We can learn and adopt new behaviors that will serve us in these times. To be an effective leader or human being, we need both an open mind and an open heart. 

Our brain has different components or neural networks. Our rational brain is associated with our thinking mind. In contrast, our emotional or limbic brain is associated with our feeling heart. It is valuable to learn to recognize what is going on in our hearts and how we feel. Our emotional brain needs to work in tandem with our thinking brain. Fortunately, in recent years research on emotional intelligence has helped leaders, organizations, and some schools to promote the critical importance of understanding and valuing emotions.

Every organ in the human body generates an electric current and an electromagnetic field. The heart’s electric current is sixty times more powerful than other organs in the body and produces an electromagnetic field with a radius of 6-10 feet. This energy affects  those around us.  When we are at ease and in higher frequency emotions such as compassion, joy and peace we tend to impact those around us more positively and create a sense of connection and coherence.  When we are in a state of anxiety or distress others will sense our incoherence and our negative emotions are contagious. According to Heartmath, coherence allows others to feel connected and at ease and incoherence creates disruption and anxiety. Our intention to be open to ourselves and others in a non-judgmental way will create a sense of connection and coherence. This may be experienced at a conscious or non-awere level. It is valuable to practice connecting with our hearts and having the intention of being open-hearted. We can simply move our attention from our heads and thoughts to our hearts and imagine being open to ourselves, others and what is.  

An open-hearted person shows humility and continues to be open to new ideas and others no matter their level in an organization or hierarchy. They generally are confident in who they are and do not see others and their opinions as threats. They are not defensive but open to learning. This creates a positive environment at home or in the workplace. 

An open heart is about being compassionate, sincere, and acknowledging the value of emotions. An open-hearted person is typically warm, kind, and welcoming to others and creates real connections. An open mind supports thinking differently (i.e., opening to new thoughts and ideas). An open heart supports feeling differently (i.e., allowing feelings of compassion and empathy for others). Both are interrelated and needed for effective and positive outcomes. 

[More to come in the forthcoming book Open Stance: Thriving Amidst Uncertainty.]