Murmuration

“The emotional brain responds to an event more quickly than the thinking brain.”
– Daniel Goleman

Our weekly partners’ call at Reboot begins with a subversively simple check in: “How are you?” It’s a line I’ve heard asked to different audiences–from our four-person partner’s call to a workshop filled with people–that somehow renders the person responding to deliver a register of what’s on their mind-heart-body, sometimes bringing tears along with it.

“How are you?”–such a simple question, right? We call it Jerry’s big, hard question. Yet, when asked as an offering, an invitation, to show up with all of you in the safety of listening peers at the start of a meeting, you begin with an authentic human connection which becomes the point of departure for the agenda and tasks at hand. This alone can bring profound shifts in how ideas flow and, later, how the work gets done. The opportunity that lies in asking this question, and listening to the response, is to tune in to what your peers are feeling. To tune into what YOU are feeling.

As each person responds, how we all are doing on the inside gets named and finds it’s place at the table, versus being an unnamed, self-contained state deemed less important than the matters at hand. A group of people in a meeting sitting on unnamed inner-states can result in those inner states being ‘read’ by the group as feelings that relate to the meeting matters at hand. Someone feels angry. One person is anxious because of a debacle on the homefront. Another is worried about picking his daughter up after school with the project deadline looming overhead. Moreover, some folk’s reactions to items on the agenda may seem over the top, or muted, or listless. You may find yourself in this situation becoming agitated or anxious by the tone, tenor or demeanor of discussions, perhaps wondering “What’s going on here?” And, if you’re like most humans, you may start making up heavily-storied interpretations of what’s happening, or decide that you are somehow the cause of all of this. That feeling and any trailing storylines may leave with you, post-meeting, and seep into the rest of your day’s interactions.

As Ben Rubin mentions in today’s podcast conversation with his cofounder Dan Harris and Jerry, “the thing that I struggle with pretty deeply is that Dan and I can kinda spiral together into negativity very quickly. And I find that Dan having a bad day can spiral into the entire team through me. ‘Cause his anxiety catches to me and then we’re anxious together, in a non-constructive way sometimes. Then I can spin that right back out into a group of people in Boston who otherwise would have had a great day.”

I’ve worked in offices where the feelings of the leadership rippled through the whole team like sound waves. If the CEO was happy, there was a light-hearted feeling in the office. If it was a terse and anxious day, you could almost cut the tension in the air with a knife. Of course, no one on the leadership team said what was going on, or what had them in such a state, yet everyone on the team was reacting in their own way to the tension of unspoken–but felt–emotions.

What we’re experiencing here is emotional wifi. Daniel Goleman explains emotional wifi as something that we’re wired for deep in our neurology thanks to mirror neurons–the parts of our wiring that help us sense our environment, learn, and connect with others. He writes:

““Mirror neurons” are a widely dispersed class of brain cells that operate like neural WiFi. Mirror neurons track the emotional flow, movement and even intentions of the person we are with, and replicate this sensed state in our own brain by stirring in our brain the same areas active in the other person. They enable extremely rapid synchronization of people’s posture, vocal pacing and movements as they interact. In short, these brain cells seem to allow the interpersonal orchestration of shifts in physiology.”

What Goleman is talking about can be simply stated as “I feel you,” as in, “I am feeling you in your state, and feeling my reaction as a reverberation of that.” Mirror neurons are part of the same physiology that gets schools of fish to move together, birds to flock in complex murmurations, and horses to be able to read their herd mates and the environment around them.

In his book How to Be an Adult in Love: Letting Love in Safely and Showing It Recklessly, David Richo notes how mirror neurons help us learn:

“Neurons are cells of the nervous system that give and receive signals neurochemically. Each cell is a system of energy and adapts to changes in its environment. Mirror neurons kick in when we see someone doing something, using a tool for example, and we automatically imitate the action. Our mirror neurons fire both when we observe a behavior and when we imitate it, hence the word mirror.”

This is what helps us learn by watching others such as learning a new skill, sport, or by whatever we picked up around the dinner table growing up. It’s also what allows us to feel all the feels in movies as actors play out the unfolding plot. Mirror neurons also help us tune into things outside of us, such as the people in our lives:

“Mirror neurons also help with empathic attuning, so we can know what someone is feeling. By mirror neuronal connection, we can know the other from within ourselves rather than as an object outside ourselves. Then we can more easily attune to that person’s feelings or pain and be compassionate.”

Emotional wifi is something that we work with all the time as coaches. In coaching sessions, a coach can begin to feel any number of feelings, say angry, insecure, or start feeling like an imposter, that may be contrary to anything else in the coach’s way of being in the world at that moment in time. Yet, a well-honed coach with ample self awareness can discern those strange feelings they are feeling as what the client is feeling, even though the client hasn’t named the feelings yet. Good coaches use that information to help the client name what may be going on for them. Good leaders can do this as well.

One moment you can feel what you are feeling, and after a conversation or interaction or just being with another person, sans words, you may be able to pick up on a wholly other feeling. If you were happy before this interaction, and suddenly began to feel, say, anger yet have no reason in your world to feel that emotion, that’s something to notice. You could very well be feeling what the other person is feeling. (Depending on how deep the emotion is, they may not even be aware that they are feeling that emotion or be able to name it as such.) This happens all the time in our work and home worlds, but how often do we realize that what we are feeling isn’t necessarily ours?

When I think back to some of the more tense office environments I’ve worked in, if the leadership could have said, “I’m stressed about finances and fundraising isn’t going well,” or “My toddler isn’t sleeping through the night. I’m exhausted and feeling like I’m failing,” or whatever the case may be, that simple reveal could have deflated a whole bunch of feelings rippling through the company (and the thoughts that come after those feelings), in as various ways as there are employees. There would have been relief that it was named, and very likely, empathy and compassion for what that person was in, going through, and holding. [Insert exhale here.]

We are all percipient perceptibles, wired for reading our environment as part of self preservation and the part of our hardware that keeps us safe. Only seven percent of communication is verbal. Which leaves us to discern the other 93 percent that is non-verbal through body language (55 percent) and tone of voice (38 percent). Which means we are constantly reading signs and cues from our fellow humans and interpreting those expressions through our very own personalized internalized “body language and tone of voice” dictionary. There’s plenty of room for assumptive error there, as the universal “look” and sound of certain emotional states is a highly generalized thing. One person’s expression for surprise, could look like an expression of anger to someone else.

As a company, whether you have ‘authenticity’ neatly designed and displayed on your walls as value statements or not, there are feelings afoot. We are human organizations, after all, coming together to do great work and further our visions all in the name of a greater purpose. Often, the fundamental unit of doing that great work is a conversation. Conversations happen easier, clearer, and more harmoniously if we can connect as human beings, look each other in the eye, trust, and feel safe naming what’s up for us.

Because emotion travels at the speed of somatic wifi and contributes to the physiological impressions we have on each other, taking responsibility for our internal state is one of the ways to create the grounds for safety and connection to happen in any interaction. Doing so creates trust among peers and colleagues. When we trust each other, we have a chance of not letting our fear-brains get in the way of doing great work.

The beauty of naming your inner state is that you don’t have to do anything with it. You just have to name it, account for it, and include it in your experience (versus pushing the feelings away).

One of the mindfulness practices to help with this that we use at the opening check in for our meetings, bootcamps, and circles is something we call Red-Yellow-Green. Gleaned from a former colleague and based on Steven Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, we use Red-Yellow-Green to give us a simple framework and common language. It works like this:

Each group member has about two minutes to do a quick check-in on how they are doing–Red, Yellow, or Green — and how they’re entering the meeting. People may choose to share a bit more about what’s behind their color choice, or perhaps a brief update about their life, work, or their learning goal for the session. But long processing of these responses is not necessary and by all means not required. (Reboot alum Bart Lorang wrote about using this at his office, here.)

The basic rubric for these inner-state color markers is as follows:

Green means you feel safe, copasetic, or perhaps are in flow. Your able to have eye-contact, creativity, play, humor. In a sense, all systems are go.

Yellow is reactionary, meaning that the fight or flight impulse is present, as is perhaps some defensiveness.

Red means your rational brain is offline, nervous system is shutting down such that you may or may not be present at all, or there may be a loss of trust.

What are some triggers that send you into the red (They can be general, such as “conflict,” or very specific)? What does your body feel like when you are in the yellow? What are the signals and/or signs? What should others know about you when you are in the yellow or red? How can they help? What makes things worse? What type of contact do you need/not need?

The sea change of emotions that can grace our bodies on any given day, or moment to moment, can be subtle or extreme. What we do with these emotions can give us insight and information, and help us work better and connect with the other humans in our sphere.

The Red-Yellow-Green model shifts the tone of how you relate to folks and hold meetings such as 1-1’s and offsites. Being able to name your own inner state, or hear yourself name where you are, in a group check in can have remarkable effects on how present you can be for yourself and others in the meeting. Listening to where others are in their inner states not only helps our nervous systems relax, it fosters a much greater sense of connection among the humans in the room (or virtual room).

As leaders begin to take their seat, they begin to discover that a big part of leadership is coaching. Tuning into how YOU are is the first part of being present for all that arises in a day’s work. And, it can create a generative murmuration throughout your organization.