A couple of summers ago I was reading a book called The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel. I found it interesting that when children are acting out emotionally it is crucial that we hang out in the right side of the brain with them, empathizing and validating their feelings before bridging to the left side of the brain where we talk about the “why” and use logic. Totally easier said than done.
All I could think of was, “I wonder how this applies to adults?”
A few months later, I was camping with friends, and the book was on the table. One friend saw the book and said, “Oh, you’re reading a Daniel J. Siegel book—that man is brilliant!” I responded thinking she also read the book because her child was only four years older than our little girl.
That wasn’t it, though: she had produced a course for the author as part of the production work she does for her career. She had to read several of his books to understand what he was talking about in his course.
That conversation was the beginning of the path I went down to understanding more about Siegel’s findings and how we actually should be communicating in the same way with adults by hanging out in the right brain before bridging to the left. It follows the same concept I talk about with empathizing before educating, yet it explains more of the “why” behind it.
As humans, we cannot hear or grasp left-brain thinking until we feel heard, validated, and empathized with. Once we have this type of connection, our brains can relax and hear the next steps for resolving the issue or situation at hand. Siegel says that communicating in this way will help us live balanced, meaningful, and creative lives full of connected relationships.
Sometimes I feel like adults can be like a bunch of children running around on a playground lashing out at one another in frustration. I am not convinced that a high population of parents in the 50s–70s were reading books like Siegel’s, but here we are as leaders seeing we must change how we communicate with our team members and in turn coach them on how to communicate with guests.
As I read more of Siegel’s books, I dug into his research about the prefrontal cortex. I learned the nine functions it encompasses: empathy, insight, response flexibility, emotional regulation, body regulation, morality, intuition, attuned communication, and fear modulation. These functions make me think of multiple challenging customer situations I have worked with over the years where these functions were affected.
Siegel shared a story of the son and husband of a woman who was in an accident where her prefrontal cortex was affected and would never be the same. I learned that the prefrontal cortex is compromised by repeated stressors, daily substance abuse, being incarcerated, criminal behavior, sociopathy, and lead poisoning. I also learned that in our state of Oregon, they only started testing for lead paint 15 years ago. What does this mean? I believe there are more people in our world suffering from prefrontal cortex challenges than we realize.
This is where emotional intelligence comes in. Emotional intelligence is defined as the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically. Often when I am coaching the root cause of a conflict, I hear that emotional intelligence isn’t being practiced. I feel that this leads to what Brené Brown refers to as compromising dignity, or dehumanization. Dehumanization involves depriving others of human qualities and is the opposite of connection, one of the top three needs in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The next time you hear team members verbally tearing apart a guest or coworker, what is your responsibility? We don’t know what people are going through or what they have been through.
As leaders, it is our responsibility to educate team members on how to look at situations through different lenses and look at team members through these same lenses, giving them the tools to connect with others, give people the benefit of the doubt, and build them up.
Another part of the brain is the limbic system, which houses the fight, flight, or freeze stress response. I was told during our adoption process that my numbers showed I was in this state constantly, which I think was due to the amount of times we said yes and were still not picked by a birth mother. The limbic system also houses our emotional processing centers where we ask the questions, “Am I safe? Do people want me?”
I like to share the stages of grief with teams: bargaining, denial, depression, anger, and acceptance. We go through grief during any type of change, not just the loss of a loved one. Change is the loss of what used to be. This looks like welcoming a new family member, moving to a new home or city, changing in a jobs or careers, changing technology, facing the pandemic—the list can go on and on.
We are living in a time of extreme and constant change. When you experience someone throwing an emotional volleyball at you, because all humans do it at one point or often, don’t react by throwing it back, yet put it down and hang out in the right side of the brain. Change your vocal tone and facial expressions, eliminate judgements, and put your ego aside so you can really hear what is happening with the person. They may act like they are mad about the door code not working, for example, yet it might really be their anxiety from driving for five hours with a screaming child and a frustrated spouse.
We don’t know people’s triggers, either. If someone is upset about a sliding door not locking or not having window treatments in a room, it might be because they have experienced house robberies. We just don’t know, and the best thing we can do is believe that people are doing the best they can at that moment. I was coaching a person who was frustrated with another team member for not carrying their weight in the job, which was causing this person frustration and creating challenges with their job responsibilities. The easy reaction is frustration. The mindful and emotionally intelligent response is to approach the team member and ask how they are doing and if there is anything they can do to support them. This is connection, and connection is what dissolves conflict and builds strong teams.
A simple way to keep ourselves in check is to remember The Three Ps by Lise D’Andrea, president and CEO of Customer Service Experts:
Present a calm demeanor through body language, tone of voice, and words.
Let them vent, and don’t give a solution too quickly. This is where empathy comes into play.
Give two options when possible for the consumer to feel like they are making the best decision.
For ‘full’ emotional communication, one person needs to allow his state of mind to be influenced by that of the other. —Daniel J. Siegel