Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Power of Focused Attention

Check out this excerpt from a recent David Brooks column:

Most successful people also have a phenomenal ability to consciously focus their attention. We know from experiments with subjects as diverse as obsessive-compulsive disorder sufferers and Buddhist monks that people who can self-consciously focus attention have the power to rewire their brains.

Control of attention is the ultimate individual power. People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them. They can choose from the patterns in the world and lengthen their time horizons. This individual power leads to others. It leads to self-control, the ability to formulate strategies in order to resist impulses. If forced to choose, we would all rather our children be poor with self-control than rich without it.

It leads to resilience, the ability to persevere with an idea even when all the influences in the world say it can’t be done. A common story among entrepreneurs is that people told them they were too stupid to do something, and they set out to prove the jerks wrong.

It leads to creativity. Individuals who can focus attention have the ability to hold a subject or problem in their mind long enough to see it anew.

To read the entire article, click here:

Thursday, November 20, 2008

We are Transparent

Current brain research and work by Paul Ekman confirms the old axiom--"actions speak louder than words." Even as we try to control and hide our anger, others will sense it unconsciously. They will detect our feelings through the tiny micro-expressions that pass over our face in a split second, or our involuntary vocal inflections, and incongruent body language. It is almost impossible to hide our emotions from one another. Even if we are unconscious of the messages that we're sending-our listener will "have a feeling." They might not ever decipher these feelings but the unconscious encoding and decoding of messages will continue to influence them and us.

This is why changing our interactions must happen on a very deep level within. If we start with recognizing our own feelings we can then appreciate the nonverbal messages we are sending out to others.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


I sit in the sun on a warm winter day, soaking up vitamin D and images of blue sky. After a hard work-week, I wait for my conscious and unconscious minds to reconnect-- like lovers who've been apart-these two just want to gaze upon each other, silently. I feel like a third party to this scene, wondering what is happening as I sit doing the "nothing" I've so desperately craved.

I sit while Mind wanders. Although I have many (mostly pleasant) chores that beckon, I ignore them. My most important task is to listen for my soul's voice. I've been too busy to hear its subtle message and now, like an athlete who's had to miss training for a week, I'm hungry to resume meditation.

How lucky to have unstructured time! But it isn't only luck; I've been determined to secure this. I'll downsize if necessary-- to preserve a healthy balance of work and rest. It's vital for my well-being and the discovery of my own genius. Stephen Covey agrees-- taking regular downtime is his Habit 7 - "Sharpening the Saw."

So I sit and let Mind wander. Today it seems that I will never get enough of this "do nothing" time. But I trust the process. My extremely demanding schedule--is that why I seem so starved for quiet? From experience, I know I'll eventually move from "ebb" to "flow." Then I'll have one of my "aha" moments and a seemingly new idea will burst forth.

Meanwhile, I trust and wait. Both Jungian psychology and current brain science suggest that much of our thinking and many of our perceptions happen below consciousness. So, even though I can't know what goes on in these hidden areas of my psyche, I can help myself by believing in what can't be seen or measured. I can help myself by resting and listening to the still, quiet voice inside.

Monday, November 10, 2008


Have been working on a class on empathy today. Is that why today’s news seemed relevant?

The cordial meeting of our current and soon-to-be first lady shows me how differences are overcome when we recognize our shared humanity. Reports said that during the meeting of these two very different women, much of their talk centered on raising daughters. Was it this similarity—both are mothers with two girls--that created such a warm and friendly meeting?

Since I don’t have children, I don’t relate to parents in the same way that I relate to pet owners or gardeners or camping enthusiasts. When parents discuss their teething babies or grouchy teenagers, I have to work to find an analogy to understand their pain or joy.

But since empathy (and compassion) are born from sensing another person’s inner world, it is important that I work to understand. I probably won’t ever understand raising children as another parent would, but I understand the hunger for recognition, the fear of failure, and the pain of being misunderstood—emotional challenges that we all face, no matter our circumstances.

If we are similar, I can quickly empathize with your struggles and concerns. If we are very different, I’m often tempted to simply judge you. It is much easier (in the short run). But if I’m willing to push past my biases and keep an open, curious mind, I can be rewarded with empathy. Then, my world expands as I discover a more peaceful and compassionate heart within.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Power of Intention

Sophie wears me down with her focused intention. She wants some people food! She follows me from room to room. At the table, she follows me with her eyes. She is patient. She is vigilant. I forget that I’ve promised myself: I will not add additional treats to her already-doctored food. Her objective is working. Absentmindedly, I take my used plate and mix her dried food into the meat drippings. Sophie has trained me well. She reminds me of the power of tenacity.

Sophie is determined and will cajole me until I take her on our daily walk, give her some people food, and tug on her toy. If I can’t (or won’t) accommodate her desires, she may give up momentarily, but she will resume her quest again and again and again. Sophie gets more of what she wants because of her dogged (pun!) persistence.

How much could I achieve if I was half as tenacious as Sophie?

Disciplined Thinking in a Quick-Fix World.

Did an EI program today. While the bulk of the day flowed with excitement and laughter, our group did have some problems working through the 6 second videocamera exercise. This analytical tool can help a participant explore the costs and benefits of our behavior patterns. The exercise challenges us to delve deeply into a moment of our lives and extract the core thoughts and feelings that were driving our behavior. Then, courageously, we identify the pattern this behavior may represent. In addition to unflinching honesty, the exercise requires us to slow down our thinking and ponder a small interaction for its deeper meanings. To do this, we must strip away the (sometimes dramatic) distracting details of our encounters and state what happened in the simplest way. It is a disciplined way of thinking—one that is rare in our frenetic world. It reminds me that EI isn’t a quick fix—it’s hard work. (One of my participants endorsed the day’s offerings as “meaty.”)

Hard work pays off. I’m humbled (and also thrilled) to use very practical EI tools. With concentrated effort these tools can yield life-changing results.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Black Cloud, Bad Luck

A friend of a friend, falls and breaks her wrist. Six months later, she falls and breaks her ankle. “Julie” has suffered through chronic family, weight, and drinking problems--and a cancer scare. When coworkers talk about Julie, they shake their heads. Why does such a black cloud hover over their friend? Still, while all are sympathetic, some friends secretly wonder: could Julie be unconsciously creating health problems to get a break from her frenetic schedule? Unless she’s in the hospital, Julie is the perpetually tired and overwhelmed superwoman.

This theory makes sense to me and extends beyond the problems associated with chronic fatigue. I’m convinced that when we don’t follow the promptings of our heart, we can get sick, have accidents, or career implosions. How many of us are doing the work we long to do? Our true destiny calls to us, from the depths of our soul, when we are quiet. If we refuse this call, aren’t we living out of our own natural flow? Then, why are we surprised to pay a price, in our physical or mental health? We are wise to look at our “bad luck.” Is it actually a message from our soul? A warning? Or even the karmic result of an inner lie?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Know Thyself

I have a friend from high school. We graduated over 25 years ago! I have affection for Leslie but since she lives an hour away, we rarely see each other. Over the years, even our emails have become infrequent and we've grown apart. Several months ago, we made plans to meet at a party. Unfortunately, through poor communication (or another reason?) we came at different times and missed each other. Afterwards, we played phone tag until I suddenly stopped calling. I wasn't mad at Leslie; I just had to accept what her actions were telling me. For several years now, Leslie responded to my emails or calls but never initiated them. She wasn't interested in maintaining our friendship. It was time to let go.

On the other hand, if I told you I wasn't angry with my cousin, I'd be lying. I may act nonchalant and deny my resentment. I may create plausible excuses for why I'm not returning phone calls. But I know the truth. I'm angry with my cousin.

It is ironic that an outside observer may be fooled (does Leslie think I'm angry since she arrived late to the party and I haven't talked to her since?) but this isn't important. What is vital is that I know the truth. Since anger is taboo for women in our culture, we often make a great effort to convince others we aren't angry with them. We don't want to be perceived as “mean” or worse. But are we also convincing ourselves of a lie?

Even if I decide to lie to my cousin because:

**I don't trust her with the truth, or
**I don't want the hassle, or
**I just want to be passive aggressive and punish her;

I need to know the truth.

If I convince myself that I'm really not angry with my cousin, then:

**I won't acknowledge my own passive aggressiveness and its effects, and
**I lose the message of what my anger is telling me about my needs, and
**I lose the opportunity to grow closer to my cousin by helping her know my needs.

As someone who teaches others about Emotional Intelligence, I'm humbled to see how I don't always make the most ideal choices when I'm frightened or angry. Still, as the Greek philosophers remind us, the first and most important step in health and maturity is to “know thyself.” If I can at least acknowledge my true feelings to myself, I can begin to take responsibility for their effects and learn their unique wisdom for me.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

What is emotional intelligence?

I’ve been exploring the field of emotional intelligence (EI) for a while now but still ask myself fundamental questions such as—what do I mean by Emotional Intelligence? I know some standard answers. I can spout out skills and competencies to be taught or assessed. Still, deeper questions linger.

My husband, Rick, is struggling with an angry colleague at work. “Jim” recently raised his voice at Rick, saying, “I’ll get to it!” While the words themselves were not abusive,
Jim’s angry delivery upset Rick. My husband walked away, enraged and confused. As we talked about the episode, I scoured my mind for helpful exercises. Rick could examine his thoughts and see how they led him into a habitual pattern of withdrawal from confrontations. He could look at his own “reaction cycle” and practice other responses to the often-unpredictable Jim.

We both agreed that Rick needed to stand up for himself more. Ideally, he could strongly but calmly let Jim know that his behavior was unacceptable. But, knowing Jim, and knowing the often brutal company culture, would this work or even be the best option?

Rick could fight fire with fire. He could throw back strong language and a fierce delivery. Would this be a more emotionally intelligent action under the circumstances? There are no clear-cut answers in this work (one reason I love it so much). Brutal self-honesty is necessary to help discern what is ethically responsible and emotionally intelligent.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

I’m not a brain scientist but….

I’ve been thinking about mirror neurons after seeing a wonderful video at the PBS/Nova site. These specialized brain cells help us relate to our surroundings and other people. Mirror cells build empathy and connection. They are activated when we watch and listen to others.

The video suggested that mirror neurons function even more profoundly when we witness an emotion or activity that we ourselves have experienced. This explains why my husband can feel intensely involved when simply watching a football game and I am unmoved. Could this also explain why women are more often affected by “chick flicks” that explore subtle or complicated emotional situations? (Sorry for the stereotypes in this entry, I use them only to offer simple examples!) In this case, young girls and women in our culture seem to practice and explore these “complicated emotional situations” more than men.

I recently met a manager who was supervising a team of eight women. “Tom’s” struggle to relate to his team compelled him to attend one of my EI seminars. Tom confessed that he wasn’t comfortable expressing emotions. He also acknowledged that the women on his team seemed like an alien species. If Tom isn’t emotionally literate, are his mirror neurons less able to help him relate to the “emotional” women at work?

Learning about brain structure continues to help me understand how emotional intelligence offers practical assistance in daily life. I see the benefit of constantly developing our awareness of emotional states. For Tom, recognizing his own fears and angers could help his mirror neurons fulfill their function--helping Tom empathize with his team.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Psyche's Purgatory

Been struggling with a vague feeling of fear this morning. I've been writing about it but it doesn't budge! Strange. It isn't a feeling that relates to the present moment but just some kind of strange psychic remnant from the past. Some kind of dysfunctional, unconscious belief like, "If I really relax and enjoy myself today, something bad is bound to happen because I can't have time off like this, there is too much to do and too many people depend on me and besides, I'm destined to fail in all or at least one of these many new endeavors on my horizon." Crazy...... Feels good just to bring it out to further consciousness and show that thought to the light of day. It's been very tenacious this morning but at this moment, I feel a loosening of Fear's stranglehold. I breath deeper and easier.

My folks went off to a movie with some friends. They live in a Sun City development outside of Chicago. In them I see the genesis or my own crazy fear filled mind. They have so many blessings but each day is still dominated by an unseen task-master. Each minor activity on their agenda: grocery shopping, laundry, or lunch with neighbors, is filled with psychic worries about being late or somehow, "not doing it right." They seem to have no release from these constant worries and free themselves as best they can by watching lots and LOTS of tv and scheduling themselves very sparingly. Perhaps my current psychic purgatory is a purging. If I suffer through these outdated and unnecessary feelings, I can get through to the other side--freedom and peace.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Fighting the Daemon

Woke up this morning feeling afraid. A persistent and nagging fear. What is it? Am I afraid I'm in trouble with the church because I'm not going and I don't want to go any more? Why should that scare me so much?

I'm reminded of yesterday's reading (Helen Luke's The Laughter at the Heart of Things). Luke discussed "the daemon," the life spirit that animates and directs our life. When we oppose that spirit, we set up neuroses, psychoses, anxieties, and depressions. My conflict seems to be that I want to be the "good, likeable girl" and my daemon is wild, unpredictable, fierce, impatient, bold, and even rude. Or is that my (in Jungian terms) shadow? Hard for me to figure this out on my own, but in either case, when I deny this essential part of me, I get screwed up. In this case--irrationally afraid.

This struggle, to be true to my daemon, is the main theme of my mid-life-crisis-filled life right now. I feel like an awkward teenager, trying out different personalities and groups, groping for where I belong. But now, as I sense time to be at a premium, I feel a pressure to choose well. I don't have time to waste any longer. There is so much left undone.

(Is it the influx of aging boomers that has lead to our cultural preoccupation of "not enough time?" It seems like many of us are feeling this crush of duties vs. dreams.)

This morning I suffer through my feelings and projections that "I'm in trouble, everyone's mad at me." I know it isn't true but even if it were, I'd have to persevere. I must simplify my life! I need time to write, to meditate, to think! Besides work and Rick, those are my priorities.

How long does it take to release cultural conditioning? Soon. I can feel it. My anxieties show that I'm on a threshold.. Moving toward the doorway of a truer Self. May it be soon.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A soapbox moment

Am I the only one who sees a benefit in the current financial meltdown? Will we finally simplify our lives, and seek our true values? Will we look at our own misdeeds? Will will stop trying to cut corners to reap what we haven’t sowed?

We lived in an anonymous world. If I thought I could easily cheat “the system,” I now see that each of our minor moral lapses adds up to a world-wide catastrophe.

Still, if together we created our many dire problems (financial disaster, global warming, poverty, hunger) we can together create solutions. But first we must confront our own laziness and fear. We must learn to be honest with ourselves. We’ve become so familiar with “spin,” double-speak, and lies that we may have to work hard to rid ourselves of fuzzy thinking. Are we brave enough to look at our racism, avarice, and sloth? Only then, when we face our own “dark side,” can we begin to choose right actions. Choosing right actions, helps others to choose well. Speaking the truth, helps others choose truth.

We can each begin today to try to choose right actions. We can seek to offer goodness to the world.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

No Problem

We found a contractor to install new wood floors in our kitchen. We were thrilled to have found Tom. He seemed honest and very accommodating. Then, just before we were to begin, the project needed adjustments. Tom’s response was always, “No problem,” but we began to worry. We felt badly about the last minute changes. We worried that Tom was beginning to resent us.

Then, a final shift in the project parameters meant we had to postpone. We felt terrible and feared calling Tom. Again, his response was “No problem.” But the words didn’t seem to match the terse phone conversation. Was it our guilt or was Tom angry with us?

When the time came to renew the project, we needed slightly different services. That’s probably the reason we hired a different contractor. Still, we preferred Tom and wanted to give him our business. Would we have called him if we felt more comfortable with our last encounter? Perhaps.

It is possible that we misread Tom’s reactions. It’s difficult to determine a message on the phone. Without seeing all of Tom’s non-verbal cues, it was much harder to gauge his sincerity. But I wonder: what if Tom had said something like, “I understand your need to postpone, circumstances change, but it’s a bit frustrating for me since I put you in my schedule. If we work again in the future, you’ll need to guarantee that I’ll be working for you during the time I’ve blocked out for you.”

Frankly, I prefer that explanation instead of a cryptic, “no problem.” I now know where I stand. I feel safer.

One value in recognizing our emotions is being able to name them for others. When there is congruence between what I’m sensing and what someone is telling me, I feel assured and secure.

Our desire to hide our emotions from each other (and ourselves) harms our relationships. Building up our knowledge of our own emotions is a key focus of emotional intelligence. If we accept our own feelings, we can respectfully describe them to others. This leads to more transparency and much more trust in our dealings with other people.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Everyday dilemmas

It had been a brutal week for both my husband Rick and me but we had survived and even triumphed over our career challenges. I had given three different presentations throughout the week, ending with a workshop at my college on emotional intelligence. It was the first time I had presented on this subject and, to add to the pressure, my department Director and our Dean had decided to participate. Happily, the seminar was a rousing success. Now, exhausted and proud, I looked forward to a lovely dinner at our local bistro.

Although we were famished, we decided to “go green” and take our bicycles. We had waited this long, we could wait a bit longer for our special meal. As we parked our cycles, we noticed the overflowing outdoor patio. Would we have to wait longer? Thankfully, we received the last table. It was going to be a fabulous celebration. What wine should we order? And then…. Thud. Thud. Thud.

We were seated next to the parking area where a boy was throwing his ball against the restaurant sign. Thud. Thud. Thud. I looked at the boy. He was oblivious to his game's effect on my nerves. Thud. Thud. Thud. I looked to a woman at a neighboring table. She was watching her son and then walked over to whisper in his ear. Whatever her message, the whacking continued. Thud. Thud. Thud. I glared at the woman. What to do?

I hope you aren't surprised to know that those of us who teach emotional intelligence aren't saintly. Practicing the techniques of EI won't make you perfect. But EI can make you more conscious of your patterns and your choices. As I sat in the bustling restaurant, I weighed my options.
1. I could continue to feel outraged that my meal was “being ruined” and sit, stew, and glare.
2. I could talk to the family and ask them to rein in their child.
3. I could try not to be bothered by the loud thumping behind me.
4. Rick and I could move to another table inside the restaurant.

Perhaps this would be an easy choice for you? Not for me.

1. It was difficult to let go of my feelings of righteous indignation, but I knew this was a self-defeating choice. My anger would ruin dinner for both Rick and me.
2. Talking to the family was a courageous alternative but….even if I was the model of diplomacy, such a discussion could prove upsetting to all parties. Was this annoyance worth that risk?
3. This wasn't really a choice for me. I was truly disturbed by the intermittent whacking.
4. I could think of no other possible solution but….. I didn't want to move inside! I wanted to eat outside! I had been stuck inside all week and this lovely outdoor meal was my reward!

What to do?

After further deliberation, Rick and I moved inside and had a lovely meal.

Emotional Intelligence recognizes that, while we cannot always choose how we feel, we always have a choice in our actions and even our reactions. My own self-reflections had warned me of some of my tendencies. I was then alert for my patterns of “seeking justice” or seizing onto righteous anger. Since I was more prepared to see my patterns, I was more prepared to question them and determine other choices.

Would my “dilemma” be immensely easy for you? If so, think of your own version-your own situation that rapidly triggers intense feelings-especially anger or fear. When you think of the circumstance, do you find yourself reacting automatically? Are your reactions serving you? Or would you like to change your patterns?

To be emotionally intelligent is to continue to practice our awareness and managing of emotions. It is a lifelong process. But if we continue to persevere, we will find ourselves gaining self-knowledge and mastery of difficult situations.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Projecting ourselves onto others

One danger of not understanding our own feelings is attributing them to others. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “Projection is a form of defense in which unwanted feelings are displaced onto another person, where they then appear as a threat from the external world. A common form of projection occurs when an individual, threatened by his own angry feelings, accuses another of harboring hostile thoughts.”

I saw this definition play out at work, yesterday.

My boss, Jan, asked Kathy about a recent sales call. I watched as my colleague’s face turned red. Kathy sputtered, “What do you mean? I just said that…..” Kathy outlined the basic features of our product and ended with “I don’t know! What do you want me to say?”

“No, that sounded good,” Jan replied coolly. Kathy’s eyes narrowed. Did she realize she was scowling? “I don’t know what you expect me to say,” she repeated. Her gestures were sharp, pointed. I had never seen Kathy so angry in a meeting. Jan ignored the episode and continued with her agenda.

Afterwards, Kathy came into my office. “Did you see how angry, Jan was?” I gave a vague, noncommittal answer. Jan had looked annoyed but it was Kathy who had seemed enraged.

In this case, Kathy was “projecting” her own anger onto Jan. Now, instead of understanding her own experience, Kathy has the added difficulty of fighting with her manager.

Emotional Intelligence begins with understanding (and accepting) our own emotions. If we can look honestly at ourselves, we can learn much about our desires, our fears, and our wounds. We may not always like what we see but such self-knowledge is the beginning of wisdom, and internal peace.