Awareness Enables us to Make Conscious Choices

After a day and a half of intense, “learning-full” conversations, 28 people struggle to determine what they want to do after the meeting to continue to carry out their mission. They are running late and several people have to leave to catch plane flights. As the facilitator, I feel anxious they will not be able to agree and the meeting will end in frustration. I make a process suggestion that they misunderstand and which seems to add to the tumult.

Unfortunately, in the press of the moment, I do not notice my growing dread. I start to function on autopilot and become less able to think clearly. In other words, the more primitive parts of my brain (mammalian brain and brain stem) are beginning to influence my behavior outside my awareness.

Why am I uneasy? There are no lions, tigers or bears in this meeting. Still, I feel “threatened.” First, although any meeting can get stressful when participants try to figure out next steps, this seems more fraught than usual. Second, because I have worked previously with this group and care a lot about them, I do not want to let them down. Many have traveled great distances and I want to make sure they feel good about their experience and the group as a whole. (And, of course, about me too!) Third, feeling misunderstood is one of the “buttons” in me that can be pushed at inopportune times.

Although my life certainly is not being threatened, my brain experiences these three triggers as real dangers. Because the brain evolved to keep us alive, it constantly scans for anything that it perceives might negatively affect our wellbeing. When it senses danger, it immediately goes into survival mode and prepares us to fight, flee, or freeze. Have you ever noticed that your breath and heart rate quicken when you get interrupted? Or, that your shoulders, legs or hands start to tighten when someone criticizes you, especially in front of others? If your ideas get dismissed as being not realistic or viable are you still able to think and speak clearly? All of these are your body’s defense mechanisms gearing up to protect you. Unless you are paying attention to your internal state, most of this happens outside your awareness and drives you to do and say things you often regret later.

In my experience, it takes practice to develop this kind of internal awareness, especially in confusing situations or conflict. Practicing mindful awareness helps me to avoid being completely hijacked by fear, and to maintain a connection to the part of my brain (the prefrontal cortex) that helps me notice that I am “losing it.” Then I can do something more helpful than getting angry, running out of the room, or going MIA. This is true whether I am in the role of facilitator or participant.

In this instance, I sit down for a few seconds and direct my attention to sense my feet on the floor, my seat on the chair, and the breath in my body. In a few seconds, this allows me to notice what is going on inside me, to calm my emotions, and to ask clearer questions that help the group successfully identify and document their next steps. Did my calm help them focus their interaction? I don’t know. Since emotions are contagious, it’s possible.

We do not have to be hijacked by the more primitive parts of the brain when we get into difficult spots in meetings. When we remember to direct our attention to our bodily sensations we can get off the train of habitual and often unhelpful thoughts (“Oh no! They are going to end this meeting on a sour note! They’ll decide not to come to the next meeting…and it will be my fault!”). This allows us to access the executive functions in the brain and make conscious choices about what to say or do to move a situation forward in a positive way.

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