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Entries Tagged as 'noticing'

Emotional Contagion—What Every Leader Needs to Know

August 21st, 2018 · 12 Comments

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“Mom, something’s wrong with my eyes. I have some weird blind spots that aren’t going away.”

My son, 33 years old, was calling. He sounded scared, and I knew exactly why. My son’s father had gone blind with a progressive eye disease that started in his thirties. True, it was a rare genetic condition and the chances of my children getting it are almost infinitesimal.

But still…

My mind immediately jumped to a horrible thought and I brought myself back to the present, to reality. Immediately.

Because I knew my son would be having his own frightening thoughts and my job was to keep him as calm and grounded as possible. To do that, I needed to be calm and grounded.

There are a lot of good reasons to face any challenge, whether a crisis or a more routine problem, in a calm state. We think more clearly, problem solve more creatively, and have greater physical stamina.

For me to stay calm with my son, I had to avoid the impact of emotional contagion, the tendency that we humans have to synchronize our emotions to those around us. Emotional contagion can transmit either positive, supportive emotions, or negative, anxiety-laden ones.

Dealing with emotional contagion is a crucial quality for anyone in a position of leadership, whether it’s in business leading others, in coaching working with upset clients, or in family situations dealing with anything from medical emergencies to agitated toddlers.

In this situation, I didn’t want to absorb my son’s upset and get agitated. I wanted to set a positive tone for him to absorb. I wanted to be the emotional leader.

I do this routinely in my daily encounters with clients and their anxieties and upsets. Before I work with clients, teach a class, or lead a workshop, I make sure I’m aware of my mood. If anything is happening in my personal life that might negatively impact my mood, I will consciously set it aside, and take steps to lift my mood.

Admittedly, avoiding emotional contagion from my son was much more challenging. It’s always more challenging with someone close to us, but it can be done.

Emotional contagion transmits easily in-person, but it can take place over the phone, too. We humans are sensitive enough to each others voices to pick up negativity mood, agitation or anxiety, even when we can’t see the other person or feel their physical presence.

In business settings, studies have confirmed that both positive and negative emotions, spread among employees like viruses. Feelings can be “caught” by others when working together in groups. Not only is employee mood affected, judgment and business decisions are impacted, as well.

Emotional contagion can even take place in writing, over social networks. Facebook drew a lot of criticism a few years ago when it revealed that it had manipulated the news feeds of more than a half-million users to change the number of positive and negative posts they saw.

Facebook did this is in a research study with Cornell University, confirming the existence of emotional contagion in this context. The people who viewed more positive posts responded with more positive content and those seeing more negative posts responded with more negative posts. Facebook was accused of violating ethical boundaries by turning users into lab rats without obtaining their informed consent.

And the study proved how easily our emotions are impacted by others.

Because I could think clearly and brought up my son’s mood, I was able to get enough information to help him decide whether he could wait though the weekend until Monday morning, when we could find a better place for him to be examined. We decided that waiting was a better option.

On Monday, he went to an excellent eye clinic and was told that he had a couple of very tiny retinal tears that had no similarity to his father’s eye disease. The doctor he saw was confident that he would fully heal without treatment.

Within a few days, he called to say he could already tell that the blind spots were getting better.

And for an added bonus, he said, “Thanks for helping me through this. I would have really panicked without you.”

This was a very happy ending. It confirmed my commitment that any anxious or distressed person I’m dealing with is going to synchronize to me and my emotions, where I intend to always remain the calm, grounded, positive leader.

Here are some tips I used that can help you stay away from emotional contagion:

  1. Set your intention to be the calm, grounded leader, to stay in a positive emotional state, and to let anyone else you are encountering synchronize to your mood.
  1. Harness your out-of-control imagination. Your mind may want to create a narrative out of the few facts you have. It’s what our brains do automatically to keep us safe. But those narratives are generally based on speculation and predict terrible outcomes. Remind yourself that you can’t know that the situation will have an unhappy ending.
  1. A regular mindfulness practice is really helpful in building the skill to stay away from imaginary scenarios. So can regular use of my heartbreathing meditation. (You can obtain a free mp3 recording of it and a descriptive worksheet by emailing support@terrydemeo.com and putting “Heartbreathing Meditation” in the subject line.)
  1. When dealing with an upset person, put your attention on them, on what they are saying and doing. If you are in person, make eye contact. If on the phone, you can give them your full attention by closely listening to them.This will help divert your attention from your inner world and your mind’s imagined parade of horrible outcomes.
  2. Breathe slowly and regularly, inhaling and exhaling to a slow count of four. Inhale-2-3-4-exhale-2-3-4. Over and over. I use a simple mantra, “Breathe and stay calm, breath and stay calm, breathe and stay calm.”
  3. Move. If you start to feel distressed, adrenaline and cortisol will be released into your system to prepare you for battle. This is what is known as fight or flight. When you aren’t having to run or fight, you will get a jittery feeling from the hormone buildup. Shake it off any way you can, with physical movement. If you need to go into another room and close the door, do so. This simple tool only takes a few minutes to work.I hold a lot of tension in my arms in tense situations, so in this one, I stood and shook my arms and let my body tremble several times over the weekend when my son was in distress.
  4. Keep this in mind: you don’t need to DO anything to convince the other person to change their mood. Your job is to hold a positive mood. Our bodies naturally want to synchronize. Be the one that gets synchronized to.

Tags: feelings · noticing · stress

Small Connections Can Make a Big Difference

December 10th, 2015 · No Comments

(This article is reprinted from The Huffington Post, where I’m now blogging.)

The day before Thanksgiving, I stood in a long line at LaGuardia Airport waiting for a taxi. I’d flown to New York to spend imagesthe holiday with my family. The couple just ahead of me was finally sent to a taxi, but they quickly returned.

The woman began to shout at the dispatcher. “That driver doesn’t know where we’re going. We’re not riding with her. We have to make a connection.”

Behind her, a frazzled female cabbie was waving her arms and yelling in a thick Russian accent. “I didn’t refuse to take them. I know where we’re going. They didn’t give me a minute to think.”

“We’re not going with her,” the woman said, more loudly than before. “Get us another cab.”

The dispatcher turned to me and asked, “Where are you going?”

His eyes were stony.

“Brooklyn,” I said.

“Go with her.” He pointed to the female cabbie. My heart sunk. She was still waving her arms and trying to be heard above the woman, who was still insisting that they needed another cab.

“I didn’t refuse them,” she yelled over her shoulder as she led me to her cab. “I didn’t refuse.”

I considered going back to the dispatcher to ask for another cab. But before I could, the cabbie grabbed my luggage, stuffed it into her trunk, and slammed down the lid.

She took a few steps in the direction of the dispatcher and yelled again, “I didn’t refuse them.”

The dispatcher waved his arms at her like he was shooing a dog. His face was expressionless.

“Okay,” I said to her firmly. “Please just forget about it. It’s over. I’m with you now.”

She turned to me. Her face was contorted with anguish. “I can get in trouble if I refuse a fare. I didn’t refuse them.”

We got in the cab. She was still muttering about it as we pulled into the heavy traffic. “I can get in trouble. I didn’t refuse them.”

This woman is clearly crazy, I thought. This ride is going to be miserable. She’ll get us in an accident if this continues. I fastened my seat belt and tried to reason with her.

“Well,” I said. “There’s nothing you can do, now. At this point, all you can do is forget it.”

She ignored me and continued to mutter. I contemplated asking her to pull over so I could get out. But we were already on the expressway, in heavy traffic in an area I wasn’t familiar with. I’d just have to hope for the best and see if I could get her to calm down.

“I understand,” I said in the soft, soothing voice I use with upset clients. “But there is nothing you can do right now.”

I might as well have been talking to a wall. Her muttering continued.

I spied a lanyard printed with the words “Albany Law School” hanging from her rearview mirror. I asked her who went to law school.

Her voice softened. “My son. He just passed the bar last week.”

“Wow! Congratulations, Momma,” I said, relieved that I’d distracted her.

For the rest of the ride, we talked. As we did, she relaxed. I learned that she’d emigrated 35 years ago and had driven a cab ever since. Her husband left her when her son was 2 and she raised the boy by herself. We even talked about the incident at the airport and how much pride she took in maintaining a complaint-free record.

I relaxed, too, and observed her impressive driving through the clogged streets. She was by far the most skilled driver I’d been with on that ride I’ve taken dozens of times.

My dislike of her turned to admiration. That same dogged determination with the dispatcher was surely the same quality that had gotten her through what had to be impossibly tough odds–a single immigrant woman with a young child, enduring an arduous job, never giving up.

I recalled my own tough years as a single mother. It was so hard there were times I didn’t know how I could continue. Except that I had two kids, so there was no choice — I had to continue. Yet I was a lawyer with advantages I was sure she could only dream of — a decent income, a comfortable home, household help.

And right before my eyes, this woman transformed from an unpleasant, perseverating crazy person, to a courageous, tenacious champion. I was transformed too. My anxiety about riding with her had vanished. I was relaxed, happy to have met her, and grateful that my trip was off to such an auspicious start.

At the end of the ride, she jumped out of the cab and took my luggage to the sidewalk right in front of my daughter’s apartment. No other cab driver had ever done that for me — they typically just dumped my bags onto the street and took off. I smiled, thanked her, and gave her a generous tip.

The lesson for me was one I continue to experience over and over — the power of social connection is phenomenally transformative, even in brief interludes with strangers. When we can drop our assumptions about others, when we take the time to get to know them, they nearly always magically transform into amazing people.

Social connections transform us, as well. They’re one of the most simple, direct, and important ways we can lift our spirits, improve our physical and mental health, and lengthen our lives. Even a fleeting connection like the one I shared with this cab driver can be powerful.

So as the holidays unfold, and as we shop, travel, and prepare to deck the halls and celebrate, chances are we’ll find ourselves in the company of an unpleasant, frazzled crazy person. If so, perhaps you can find a way to engage with them and connect. You might find, like I did, a wonderful surprise waiting for you both.

Tags: compassion · connection · noticing

There’s no wrong way to practice mindfulness

June 24th, 2010 · 3 Comments

There’s no wrong way to practice mindfulness.
It’s impossible.
You either do it or don’t do it.
But you can’t do it wrong
Because it’s not about right and wrong.

It’s not about sitting still,
It’s about letting something inside get still.

It’s about attention and where it goes.

So go ahead and walk, move, do something,
Something that doesn’t need thinking.

And don’t be fooled.

Don’t think you don’t think when you’re mindful.
You’ll think.
You’re a human and humans think.
That’s why we practice.
To notice that we are such great, grand, relentless thinkers.

It goes like this: you’re following your breath, just like you’re supposed to.
And next thing you know, you’re thinking.
It happens. A lot.

Don’t get on your case.
Just notice.

As a noticer, you notice that you can always notice your thoughts instead of engaging with them.
{Except, of course, when you can’t. Or don’t.}

And then, the magic comes.

Sometimes you notice a tiny clear voice inside.
It sounds different from the usual voice, the one that’s there distracting you.
It’s different because it’s the voice of Truth, and it has no agenda.
It simply whispers in your ear and something inside you goes Ping! and that’s really cool.

But then there’s that other voice. The Nag. The Worrier. The Scold.

Be gentle with her.
When a thought about a problem comes up, gently tell yourself you can solve it later.
When a thought about something interesting comes up, promise yourself that you can daydream about the new shoes you want later.
{Be sure to keep your promise.  Daydreams are important.}
When a thought about something ordinary comes up, remind yourself that you can make the grocery list later.

Remind yourself that you are a noticer, an observer,
A scientist in a white lab coat observing microorganisms dance on a slide.
You are the Scientist of You.
You with the urgent, interesting, enticing, dancing thoughts.

When those thoughts get harsh,
Remind yourself that you are not your thoughts.
You are flesh and blood and hair and guts and spirit and energy,
And heart.
That’s what you are.
You are not your thoughts.  Listen again.
You are not your thoughts.

And if you notice you don’t want to go back to your breath, then
Notice your resistance.
Observe it with the curiosity of a child watching a bug crawl on a leaf.
Notice what color your resistance is and how it speaks to you.
Is it scratchy or smooth, fast or slow, high or low?
Does your resistance come in words, images, feelings?
Notice that your resistance, too, is just a thought.
And an I-don’t-want-to temper tantrum of a thought is still a thought, just like the other ones.
The ones that tempt you with visions of dinner.
The ones that rerun crappy conversations a million times and tell you that you have to do something about this RIGHT THIS MINUTE.
{Isn’t that funny?  What’s the big hurry?}

So go ahead and resist with your wholehearted approval.
Because there’s no wrong way be mindful.

Tags: acceptance · mindfulness · noticing · resistance · stillness

African Lessons in Noticing

September 11th, 2009 · 5 Comments

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Among the many lessons in the African bush, the lesson of stillness unfolded again and again. Many times during our game drives, we were invited to get still and notice what was happening around us.  Putting down our cameras and stopping our social chitchat, we sat still and simply did nothing.

Africa’s a place where there’s stillness in every direction, where the sights and sounds of human activity are completely absent, where not even the hum of a distant highway or an occasional overhead airplane breaks the silence.  Only the subtle presence of nature surrounded us.

Before long, our Shangaan tracker would quietly gesture to something which we hadn’t noticed.

Like the beautiful blue heron sitting beside this lake,

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the impala grazing across the field,

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or zebras hiding in the grasses,

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and hippos disguised as boulders,

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and elephants emerging from the forest.

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The more still we got, the more we saw and heard and learned, and the more we connected with the beauty and wonder around us.

And we can do it anywhere.

This is the place we can become the detached, curious observers of ourselves and access our inner wisdom and intuition.

Lao Tzu teaches, “Empty your mind of all thoughts, let your heart be at peace  . . . you can deal with whatever life brings you.”

Africa is a powerful reminder.

Tags: inner wisdom · intuition · noticing · stillness