Well-Being in Meetings #1: Resilience

Based on extensive research, neuroscientist Richie Davidson identified four constituents of well-being during a recent talk at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley: resilience, outlook, attention, and generosity.

Davidson, in addition to being one of my favorite neuroscientists, is the founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at University of Wisconsin-Madison where he and his colleagues are identifying the biological and behavioral underpinnings of well-being.

In this and the next three posts, I describe these four ingredients and their importance for our meetings; and provide tips on how to develop them. Let’s start with resilience.

Resilience refers to how long it takes us to recover from setbacks or meltdowns. How quickly can you bounce back, carry on, and turn adversity into advantage or benefit?  How rapidly are you able to move on after an argument with a co-worker or neighbor, or does a difficult meeting or interchange leave you out of sorts or irritable for hours or even days afterwards?

What triggers setbacks, upsets, or meltdowns in meetings? Lots of things: being talked over or interrupted by others, not knowing what a meeting is trying to accomplish, one or two dominating the conversation, one person getting angry and infecting others, being ignored or criticized personally, or adamantly communicated and conflicting notions about “the truth” or “right answers.”

To recover more quickly from bumps or altercations in meetings so we can participate constructively, we need to strengthen resilience. The good news is that each of the four elements of well-being—including resilience—is rooted in neural circuits. This means that, because of the plasticity of our brains, when we practice resilience we get better at it. We can promote higher levels of well-being in our lives and in our meetings.

Here are three tips on how to develop resilience and decrease the amount of time it takes to recover one’s equilibrium. First, strengthen the connections between the pre-frontal cortex and the older parts of the brain, especially the amygdala or alarm bell in the brain, by practicing mindfulness. This makes it less likely that we will get upset us in the first place. For example, one hot button for me has traditionally been getting interrupted. Now, more often than not, when interrupted I calmly ask the person to wait until I have finished my thought or I wait for the “interrupter” to stop and I simply continue on with what I want to say. Because I don’t get angry (or at least most of the time), I am able to remember what I want to say and say it effectively.

Second, notice and stop your spinning stories about those whose actions disturb you (“This person is so self-centered, does not care what anyone else thinks, etc.”) and shift your attention to your breathing and ground yourself in your body. Because the brain is an associative machine, we can spin negative stories about others until our hair is on fire. This makes it harder and more time-consuming to recover from difficult moments. Just because someone interrupts you or dominates a meeting does not mean you should bury them in criticisms, even if it is just in your own mind.

Third, check your negative expectations of a meeting or the people in the meeting at the door. Participate with either neutral or positive expectations. Remember the Pygmalion Effect? Our expectations can create self-fulfilling prophecies. If we have negative expectations, we can create the conditions that cause upset and strengthen those circuits instead of the resilient ones.

The tag line for Davidson’s center is “Change Your Mind, Change the World.” This blog adds an instrumental middle step: change your mind, change your conversations, change the world.

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