Slowing Down, Finding the Present
So, here’s the problem. Speed connects and speed kills. The speed with which our Elephant mind can read other people and produce images and words in unthreatening situations, allowing us to speak fluently and connect, is the same speed that kills our connection in situations our Elephant decides are threatening. We simply aren’t aware of this.
Rightness Doesn’t Matter: Solving the Problem Does
Usually what happens when I get through describing the worst aspects of control talk, someone in my seminars comes up to me at break and says, “What about the situation where I was right (meaning correct)?” My answer is always the same, “What difference does that make if they aren’t listening to you and in their heads they are just defending themselves, protecting their own sense rightness?”
Isn’t it possible that your rightness is not the issue? It’s simply a reaction to a problem. Wouldn’t the real issue be about solving the problem that has actually triggered a threat to both your needs to be right? And if it’s about solving the problem wouldn’t the more successful approach be to seek information about what’s really going on instead of telling the other about your way of seeing what’s going on? Your elephant tells you know what’s going on but you don’t, because you don’t have the whole story – their story.
Shifting from a focus on your rightness to solving an actual problem means you need to be asking yourself two questions here: (1) “How can I get the other to help me, help them solve this problem?” This means getting them to give me good information about the situation; relevant, clear and truthful rather than B.A.D. information based on self-defense – blame, avoidance and denial. And to do this (2) “How can I speak so that the other will listen even though we both feel the need to be right?” John Kotter’s definition of management captures this approach. We need to manage by communicating with people not at them.
To Get Present, Change Your Breathing
To discover the answers to these questions we need to calm the Elephant’s emotional responses. We have to clear the circuits in the pre-frontal cortex so we can move our thinking closer to the present. The best way to do that in the next moment is to take a deep conscious breath, that is, breathe in a way that is exactly opposite of our automatic or natural breath.
To stop our elephant mind for a moment we need to engage our Rider in doing one of the things the Elephant controls, our breathing. The natural breath that we take every few seconds is from the upper half of the chest. Worse, when we are frightened or angry, we breathe more rapidly, higher in the chest cavity while drawing in our gut and raising our shoulders. Essentially, we pant. To calm the mind, we need to reverse this bodily cycle through the conscious calming breath.
Get the Rider into This Present: Ask the Right Questions
Once we’ve calmed our Elephant, we keep the Rider mind engaged by asking ourselves a question: “I wonder what’s really going on here?” Notice the present emphasis in, “going on here” and the trick built into the “I wonder … really” form. The Rider mind seems compelled to answer this type of question. It may say, “I don’t know, but they look mad.” Whatever it describes, this simple internal dialogue keeps the Rider’s attention involved in the moment and prevents it from blurting out the first worst judgment about the other that the Elephant is pushing to blurt out, some version of “You are wrong.”
The conscious calming breath, as well as our internal question and response, compel us to pay attention to this present on purpose, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness. It puts our Rider’s attention back on the present without the overwhelming feelings of threat. The conscious calming breath also creates mindfulness as defined by Ellen Langer, “a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context.” My version of this involves engaging the Rider mind in this particular present, where the context has just changed, by recounting to our selves a description of what has just happened.
We do this to push aside the Elephant’s instant judgments of the situation, which are habitual responses based on our past, not on this particular present. And when we calm our emotions the sound of our voice in our head changes. Instead of the sound of the hectoring, judgmental parent, or the angry whine of the frustrated child, we re-discover the modulated, calm voice of the problem-solving adult. As a result, the words we utter and how we sound when we speak them also changes, and for the better.
The Sound of The Present: The Adult Voice
Decades of workshop participants have never failed to recognize these voices in their lives and agree on the emotions they represent. The second voice is called the Adult voice; calm, well-modulated descriptive. The face may be the primary means of emotional communication but our voice runs a close second. Moreover, when we’re trying to learn how to manage our emotions in the moment, we can’t see our faces but we can remember how our voice sounded when we were challenged or threatened.
Now that we are momentarily mindful and calmer, we can focus on answering the second of the questions we mentioned earlier, “How can I speak so that the other will listen even though we both feel the need to be right?”
Seeing The Present In Your Mind
This requires one more step, shifting the way we look at problems. We somehow have to step aside from our mind’s automatic, negativity bias, looking for the bad, and, at least, momentarily disable our tendency to make the fundamental attribution error, “You ARE wrong.” So that when we open our mouths to speak about the issue between us we start in a place that does not make it a result of their “bad” intentions, otherwise we’ll end up back where we started, with them in defense whether they speak or not and they will NOT be able to listen as to anything else we have to say. We’ll begin the next section by explaining this required shift in mindset.
Mindful Moment: Use the Conscious Calming Breath before a difficult meeting. If you don’t have an office then on the way to the meeting, step into a bathroom stall. If you’re already in the meeting and you feel threatened, take out your phone, hold it below table level, look down at it, and breathe. Everyone will think you’re keeping on top of your work when you’re actually calming your Elephant mind.