Even though emotional intelligence is becoming more accepted as a valuable capability in the modern workplace, our language around emotion is often about “managing” or “controlling”. The subtext to this is that emotions are problematic, and that if we can only get them out of the way, the thinking brain can get on with the real work. The picture emerging from modern neuroscience is completely at odds with this view and places emotion at the heart of things:
For everything that has meaning in our system comes from the way experience has been attached to emotions and feelings and then attached to language. All behaviour, thought, decision-making is underpinned by emotion and feelings.
Any experience we have gets emotions attached to it in the pathways of the brain to create meaning. Your amygdala, two small almond sized areas towards the front of your brain, assess any incoming stimulus and make a decision on the neural path to follow based on the strongest emotion or feeling associated with it. This is the habitual pattern for the stimulus, and your brain is a prediction machine, trying to determine what will happen next so that it can react accordingly (studies show that your brain spends 60 to 80 percent of its energy on prediction). A novel stimulus has no emotion attached to it, but the amygdala will make a decision based on all previous relevant experience as to where it should go in about eighty nanoseconds.
The areas of our brain primarily involved in emotion, the limbic system, quickly respond to incoming information before our thinking brains get a look in. Furthermore, there are many more connections from our emotional neural structures into our analytical areas (the neocortex) than there are in the other direction. These emotional assessments shape our thinking and behaviour. They also form an essential part of the meaning of the experience; events only have significance for us to the extent that they have emotions and feelings attached to them. The stronger the feelings, the more meaning they have, and the more potential for action. However, memories are not set in stone, they are not movies or photographs. Whenever we retrieve a memory, it is re-encoded, the context is now weaved into the new version of the memory. If you are angry or sad and then recall something, your current emotions can “stick” to the memory and get integrated into it. Emotion not only plays a role in initial meaning making, but continues to impact it over time. This might seem odd, and it does explain why we can be unreliable witnesses, but it is also a feature that enables us to integrate current experiences into a broader context.
As your brain’s primary mission is to keep you alive, it is understandable that the most powerful and common emotion is fear. Evolutionary pressure ensures that our brains err on the side of caution, and so if in doubt better to trigger a fear response: fight, flight or freeze. I think it is the survival-based dominance of these escape/avoidance emotions that leads us into the view that emotions are problematic, but this ignores the full range of emotions and so we miss their potential. In exploring this point it is useful to use Dr. Paul Brown’s model, the London Protocol of Emotions which describes eight basic emotions.
Dr. Brown argues that these eight emotions are the key source of mobilising the energy systems of the body in one direction or another - think of e-motion: energy creating movement. The survival emotions engage the sympathetic nervous system, increasing heart rate, dilating pupils, releasing cortisol, and redirecting blood flow to essential muscles, enabling rapid reactions to perceived threats. When these emotions are triggered, energy will be diverted into self-preservation. Energy will not be available for action unless it serves the survival interests of the individual. This is expressed in the corporate world through low engagement, absenteeism, or a blame culture. People try to make themselves look good, and they don’t say what they think.
However, when the emotions to the right of the model, the thrive emotions, are triggered, the energy flows outwards. In a work context this opens up creativity and engagement with the strategic objectives of the organisation. The parasympathetic nervous system is activated, promoting "rest and digest" activities by slowing heart rate, constricting pupils, and stimulating digestion, facilitating relaxation.
Neuroscience tells us that emotional energy will be flowing through your system whether you are aware of it or not. That energy shapes your thoughts and actions. There is no getting rid of emotion, but we can also see why that would actually be counterproductive. The thrive emotions are necessary to anything we want to achieve in life. If there was no excitement or joy in the pursuit of our goals we simply wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning.
Dopamine controls “wanting” (motivation and reinforcement) far more than it does “liking” (reward and pleasure). It provides infinite fuel toward healthy, adaptive pursuits.
These insights lead us to think of our coaching work as being to help our clients gain awareness of where their emotional energy is currently, and to provide a supportive environment in which they can redirect their energies towards their goals. This is the energetic shift that can occur in the crucible of the coaching relationship.
How do we do this? First and foremost, we create a calm environment, with generative listening and silence, where there is no fear of interruption, a sense of space. These conditions allow the amygdala to settle down to as much of a resting state as they ever allow.
We then work with our clients to help them develop self-awareness of their current emotional energy, using embodied techniques. Bodily sensations are a crucial component of emotions and paying attention to them can provide vital clues to what is going on below the conscious level in the emotional system.
We use the observer perspective and compassionate mindset of mindfulness to encourage clients to notice the stories their brains are telling them about their emotions and the situation. Remember, the emotional brain projects into the thinking brain. What we feel about, we think about, and the feeling shapes the story. However, whilst the connections in the opposite direction might be less, they are nevertheless still there. Thinking can impact feeling, making a virtuous - rather than a vicious - circle if we can only step out of the thought bubble.
Get in touch today to discuss how we can help you achieve an energetic shift.