People are wired to fight or flee when they encounter what they perceive to be a threatening situation. In fact, our brains are designed to respond emotionally first -- and rationally only second -- when we step out of our comfort zone and experience stress.
The emotional part of our brain stores our history of emotions (bad as well as good) and almost automatically (within a few seconds) interprets whether a situation is a harmful threat or a good opportunity. It often evokes emotional thoughts, irrational words and actions and unacceptable results.
The rational part of our brain is not automatic and requires us to step back and take time to be rational in our thoughts, words, and actions. It leads to rational results.
With that understanding of the brain, we can use some practical strategies to help improve our behavior in difficult situations (and improve the outcome), according to Mani Bekkedal, Ph.D., a neuroscientist with expertise in brain chemistry and the processing of emotions. As vice president for Two Steps Forward, she provides workshops with science-based solutions to improve an individual’s ability to work with others, reach high levels of performance and achieve success in personal situations and at work.
I believe Bekkedal’s recommendations have important implications for those of us with a disability who are seeking a job. We can use her knowledge to our advantage in interview situations and in workplace settings to best manage our own emotions and give others a chance (and the time) to reset how they react to our disabilities.
Those of us with disabilities continually get a variety of strange initial vibes from people we meet for the first time. They are reacting emotionally and impulsively to our disability and making snap judgments based on outward appearances about who we are and on their own history of emotions about being disabled.
People are often uneasy about disability because it reminds them that they, too, can be vulnerable. And, disability often calls up fears and misconceptions about disability they may have felt and learned as a child.
Bekkedal says that’s understandable and completely human because we all tend to first react automatically with an irrational stress response (most often non-verbal) to an unusual situation, such as meeting someone who is “different.”
In fact, the more agitated the person is about meeting a person with a disability the more irrational he or she is likely to be. And, our own disabilities often reinforce (instead of mitigate) our most distracting automatic behaviors in times of stress. The occasion calls for simple (not complex), direct communication.
How we react to other people has a ripple effect in how others perceive us and how we perceive others. In other words, managing our emotions and giving others the space to manage their own are skills that are “critical to career and personal effectiveness,” Bekkedal points out. The stakes are high.
So, what can we do to best manage our emotions and give others time to reset their reactions upon meeting us for the first time? Here are some of Bekkedal’s suggestions.
Managing our Own Emotions
- Make sure we get enough sleep and relaxation time.
- Exercise regularly to burn up the excess sugar our bodies normally generate when our brains automatically call upon them to continually react to stressful situations.
- Keep score of what positives we can add, what negatives we can subtract and what annoyance we can overlook in our lives for bringing or stress levels down.
- Train ourselves to be better communicators both at home and at work, remembering that the meaning of our messages lies in the heads of the recipients -- not ours.
- Practice our non-verbal cues (such as our posture; the position of our arms and legs; our eye contact; the intonation, volume and tempo of our voice; and our facial expressions), realizing that others tend to use their emotional history when key non-verbal cues are missing.
Giving Others Time to Reset Their Reactions
- Remember that putting the rational part of brains into gear requires work on the part of the person receiving our message.
- Engage the rational part of the brain in others by first asking them a pertinent question.
- Keep in mind that the more we say the less others will listen and that, if we ignore others, they will ignore us.
- Decide what is imperative that others need to know about ourselves, what they need to do and what they need to understand in their heads about that imperative.
- Ask to meet at another time and in a less stressful situation if the other person is not understanding our imperative message.
Bekkedal reminds us of two concepts that I believe we always need to keep in mind. The first is that we cannot not communicate. We are communicating all the time, non-verbally if not verbally -- no matter how effective or ineffective that communication may be.
The second concept is that perfect communication with another person is not possible. We may be able to communicate with ourselves and understand ourselves quite nicely, but, once we try to communication with another person outside of ourselves, understanding, without some concerted effort, diminishes (often quite dramatically).
Managing our emotions and communicating from the rational part of our brain are skills that can be developed over time, Bekkedal explains.
She urges us to examine the hurdles that interfere with our ability to manage emotional situations, pinpoint the typical stressful situations in which we find it difficult to manage our emotions and identify the tools which can help us effectively manage those emotional situations.
Copyright © 2014. Hasse Communication Counseling, LLC. All rights reserved.
Jim Hasse, Global Career Development Facilitator (GCDF), (www.jimhasse.com) has compiled and edited the recommendations of HR experts and the personal observations of both jobseekers and hiring managers into Perfectly Able: How to Attract and Hire Talented People with Disabilities (www.perfectlyable.com/), a comprehensive disability recruitment guidebook for hiring managers published by AMACOM (September 2010), the publishing arm of the American Management Association. Lighthouse International (www.lighthouse.org/), New York City, is the author of the 272-page hard-cover book, which continues to evolve online on Hasse’s forum, Timely Tips for Retaining Employee Talent (forum.perfectlyable.com). He’s the founder of www.cerebral-palsy-career-builders.com, a comprehensive career coaching guide for parents of youngsters with cerebral palsy.