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Can we increase our empathy and emotional intelligence by understanding our brains better?

Learning Scientist Lauren Waldman explains how joining forces with our brains can help us to be more emotionally intelligent and empathetic to our colleagues, friends, and family.  
Lauren Waldman - Guest Contributor
2021-11-04

Written by Lauren Waldman, founder of Learning Pirate, and a revolutionary in the discipline of organisational learning and development. With nearly 20 years of experience as a learning professional, complemented by qualifications in neuroscience, Lauren is driving the evolution of the way individuals and organisations learn, approach learning, and join forces with their brains!

How are you? 

A seemingly simple question, but one that can hold great weight when it comes to connecting with ourselves and with others.  

Take a moment now before you continue reading this and ask yourself that question “How am I?”  

What answer immediately comes up? 

Now ask yourself a follow up question. 

“How am I really?” Maybe the answer is the first one that originally came up, but maybe it’s not and that’s ok too. As a matter of fact, that could be better.

Having moments of present self-awareness (like the one you just experienced) are not always easy to do. Things move so fast and can happen before we realise what’s going on at times. It’s a great reason for learning to cultivate the skills of being more self aware - and we have science on our side to help us understand why.

Naming our feelings and emotional responses has been proven to calm us down and reduce stress. In science it’s known as “affect labelling,” and the process of labelling or naming what we’re feeling allows us to dampen it, and in the case of negative feelings, reduce its saliency. 

Also, taking the time to be present in our self-awareness (like we do when we bother to stop and ask ourselves “how am I?”) allows us to learn to better monitor and regulate ourselves. This can be a huge help in both emotional regulation and response inhibition, which are two of our executive function skills. 

Improving these skills can mean the difference between someone asking you how you are and you instantly falling apart (or exploding!) as all your internal drama pours out unexpectedly, versus you recognising that you’re feeling a little off and doing something about it before you get to that moment.  

During the recent Humanising the Workplace event with myself, Go1, LPI and Thrive, someone in the audience asked this question:

“Can we increase our empathy and emotional intelligence by understanding our brains better?”

The answer is resoundingly, YES! And the benefits of having that understanding, and building those skills, extend well past what we do in the workplace. After all, we’re humans both in and out of our working environments, right?  

So, let’s explore the brain for a moment and begin to build that understanding both of our own behaviours and of others.

Nestled deep in the middle of your brain on both sides, you have two tiny almond shaped pieces called the Amygdala, lovingly nicknamed Amy. Amy is the brain’s alarm system and her primary role is to act as the emotional processing centre in your brain, and sound the alarm when she perceives danger.

Her distress signal is picked up by the command centre, which then communicates with the rest of the body through the nervous system preparing you for the fight, flight or freeze response. As well as being our danger spotting guard dog, Amy is also involved in the formation, storage, and consolidation of memory.  

Then we have the prefrontal cortex, let’s name it Corey, which governs our executive function. This area of the brain is responsible for things like decision making, problem solving, focusing attention, reasoning, and judgement. In addition to all of that, Corey also has a pretty important role to play when it comes to interacting with Amy - and that’s to regulate her when she gets fired up. 

Here’s the thing; Amy is way quicker off the mark than Corey - four times faster in fact. So if you had to guess, which do you think responds faster to that question we asked earlier, “how are you?”

Answer: Amy, of course. Which means we’re more likely to let our unconscious responses guide our answers, particularly in times of stress or upset.

But how does having this understanding help us? For one, if we know that taking a moment to ask the follow up question (how am I really?) will allow our conscious (Corey) route to engage, we’re more likely to get a clearer sense of what’s going on for us. And this can help us cultivate the skills to be more emotionally intelligent and empathetic to our colleagues, friends, and family.  

When we’re in conversation with one another and we know how to recognise the moments when Amy may be starting to get a bit reactive (in whatever capacity that may be at the time) we can practice techniques that are proven to calm her down before responding in a way that we may regret or feel bad about later. 

In the workplace this could look like conversations about your personal boundaries or where you’re at in terms of feeling safe. For many of us, emerging from the last 19 months of pandemic life has created a burst of new and unexpected emotion. Understanding how and why we react, along with cultivating the skills of self-monitoring and regulating, can even help us in knowing whether or not it’s even a good time to be having those conversations with someone else. Or whether we have the capacity to listen to another share theirs without being emotionally reactive in a way that could upset yourself or the other person.

If we’re going to be looking for ways to humanise the workplace, having an understanding of how humans and our amazing brains operate seems like a good place to start. 

We can’t control our brains per se, but as I like to say, we can join forces with them and build a better working relationship with Amy, Corey and the gang!

So bearing all that in mind, I have to ask... how are you, really?

Keen to hear more insights from Lauren about neuroscience and learning? Watch the full Humanising the Workplace webinar.

Lauren also appeared recently on the Go1 podcast, diving into how neuroscience can be translated into practical application within L&D, to positively change the way we experience and feel learning. 

Go1 helps millions of people in thousands of organizations engage in learning that is relevant, effective and inspiring.
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