Every day, we are faced with different challenges in the workplace, perhaps a difficult meeting, or a taxing task that we have tried to put off for as long as possible. As we outlined in last week’s article on Energy Management Habit 1: Managing Your Mindset, this is heightened by the ongoing pandemic and our unconscious’ preoccupation with the threat that COVID-19 poses to our physical wellbeing. Stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are continuously released into our blood stream, triggering an amygdala hijack (the body’s fight-or-flight response). From an evolutionary standpoint, our amygdala has thus evolved into our internal alarm system.But there is also a negative side effect to this life-saving mechanism. Because of this physical stress response, our brain has a negativity bias. Think back to the last time you received feedback: what do you remember most, the praise or the critique? It is because of our brain’s negativity bias that we are more likely to dwell on the critique, and react stronger to it.
This is applicable to any two events: the more negative of the two will always take center stage in our minds, and the more positive takes a backseat. While useful in life-threatening situations, our brains do us a disservice in modern-day work environments. Without our influence, our default way of thinking already leans towards a more negative outlook on work and life.
Our thoughts have a measurable impact on the make-up of our brain: some thoughts (for example a default negative outlook) are well-trodden neural paths. Positive thoughts, however, may not be thought as often: their neural pathways are smaller, and less pronounced. When faced with a new situation, our brain will lean towards taking the well-trodden path, in our case negativity and we are trapped in our old thinking habits.
The good news is that it is in our hands to change this negative thinking habit, and thus the make-up of the neural networks in our brain. This process is called neuroplasticity, the ability of our brain to form new neural connections and pathways and change how its circuits are wired (Bergland, Psychology Today).
We’ve all heard the phrase “use it or lose it”. If we do not control the way we think, we change the neural connections in our brains and might lose those wired to help us perceive positivity. Our brains are on autopilot and we need to take back control in order to manage our energy. One way to rewire our brains in that way is by practicing Flexible Thinking.
So what is Flexible Thinking? Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) argues that our thoughts have an effect on what we do (behavior) and how we feel (our emotions).
We become what we think, whether we want it or not! Be careful what you think because it will turn into your emotions, your behavior, and ultimately your personality.
So what can we do? Don’t believe everything we think! Easier said than done—so how can we practice Flexible Thinking? The key is to ask ourselves challenging questions when we notice that negativity takes hold of our thoughts. But what does that look like exactly?
Let’s take a look at an example: In a virtual meeting, one of our colleagues was in a bad mood and critiqued an idea that we spent a considerable amount of time developing, have grown attached to, and were confident that it will be a great addition to a project. Our immediate reaction might be that of hurt; next we question our ability to add value to the project—the well-known imposter syndrome. We might even take our colleague’s reaction personally: Did we do or say something to offend? We jump to conclusions, and get lost in all-or-nothing thinking.
Now, we are stuck in unhelpful thinking, and the negative cycle continues: what we think turns into what we feel. Following the meeting, we are anxious and worried. This translates into our behavior: because we feel worried and on edge, we become short-tempered and impatient. Our body’s stress response is triggered, and our amygdala hijacks our systems. We are stuck in a fight-or-flight response and phrase an email reply to our assistant more strongly than we normally would have. The anxiety and worry drain our energy, and we feel too preoccupied and less motivated to continue to work throughout the day.
This escalated quickly! So how can we keep ourselves from going down the well-trodden path of negativity, and rewire our brain to react more positively next time? The answer is to actively challenge our negative default assumptions (biases) about our colleague’s reaction with some challenging questions.
Let’s ask ourselves:
- What are the facts here (did our colleague really react as negatively as we initially thought)?
- Are you 100% sure about your conclusion (is our perception warped by imposter syndrome)?
- How did others or circumstances contribute (does our colleague have more going on and might have been preoccupied with another problem)?
These questions alone can interrupt the automated cycle of thinking – feeling – behaving. Taking a moment to reflect and see what really happened reframes the outcome of the situation. We might remember that our colleague has a tough time balancing work and home schooling, and appeared particularly stressed recently. His reaction might not have been caused by the idea we pitched, but by the stress caused by unsuccessfully trying to explain a math problem to their kids earlier that day. This puts us at ease: we make a note to revisit the pitch later, and check in with them to see how they feel. We are not anxious or worried, and have more mental space to work on other tasks more effectively. Instead of lashing out, we give productive and kindly-phrased feedback to our assistant because we turn off our survival-oriented behaviors.
A simple tool to implement flexible thinking into our everyday lives is the SUN model:
S: Suspend judgment.
U: Seek to understand the idea (be curious).
N: Nurture your idea.
In the end, we cannot change situations or other people’s behaviors. What we can change is the way we look at them: Interpreting a situation differently, and consciously counteracting our biases affects both our behavior (what we do), and how we feel (our emotions). Between the stimulus and our response, we have the ability to choose what this response will look like. As a result of this choice, we do not waste energy on negativity. Instead, we retrain our brains to pave the way for a more positive outlook on life, until the well-trodden neural paths in our brains are those of positivity and not negativity. Next time you catch yourself getting stuck in negativity, try Flexible Thinking, and challenge your biases!
Coaches Corner Action Steps:
Try Practicing Flexible Thinking now and implement the SUN model in your everyday life!
- How will you go about implementing flexible thinking?
- What will you do to intercept negative thoughts?
- When will you use the SUN model?
- How will your day-to-day life benefit from flexible thinking?
- Who can help you break out of your negative thought habits, and who can you help?
Reprinted with permission from Jay Chopra, PhD, co-founder and Managing Director of Making Shift Happen and a Herrmann Master Certified Facilitator. Articles written with help from Anne Mahler PhD & David O' Mahony: Read His Full Blog Here.
See prior related blog on Six Simple Habits To Manage Your Energy In A Rapidly Changing World
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