The Supersonic Sub-second

February 14th, 2012

You have less than a second—a quarter of a second, to be precise. That’s about how long it takes to sneeze, clap, or snap.

It’s also how long you have to engage people.

Imagine waiting to get your eyes examined. Whether you are conscious of it or not, you will asses whether or not to engage with your eye doctor within the first quarter-second of her entering the room.

According to Dr. Bonnie Badenoch, an expert on Interpersonal Neurobiology, our brains constantly monitor inputs from our environments, and file them as either “safe” or “unsafe.” In a similar way, our brains scan human interactions, though instead of filing inputs as “safe” or “unsafe,” it files interactions with other people as, “with me” or “not with me.”

Like the long arm of a radar, our brains sweep over interactions with others and intuitively know whether or not someone gets us. If your eye doctor enters the room and greets you with a smile, makes eye contact with you, and pulls up a chair and leans forward, your brain will likely conclude she’s engaged with you. You feel seen, and sense you’re not just another patient. Your brain then grants permission to engage with her. You can be with her because she is “with” you.

A primary source of data for this process is what Dr. Paul Ekman calls micro-expressions. These tiny facial movements flash across our faces at blurring speeds—less than a 15th of a second! Our brains detect these expressions, gather them as clues, and determine the true emotional state of others, and whether or not others are with us.

So, instead of singing, If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands, you can sing:

If you’re engaged and you know it, they can tell.

If you’re engaged and you know it, they can tell.

If you’re engaged and you know it, then your face will truly show it.

If you’re engaged and you know it, they can tell… (In a quarter of a second.)

This reminds us that clapping our hands and engaging people take about the same amount of time.

The call to action is for us to take seriously the discipline of being present, mindful, and engaged. As this research indicates, others will know when we are truly with them. We will recognize if they are with us, and all in a fraction of a second.

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    Empathy’s 3 Enemies

    February 9th, 2012

    A group of researchers in the mid-1990s used electrodes to monitor individual neurons in a monkey’s brain. They were able to identify precisely which neurons in the monkey’s brain fired when the monkey ate a peanut. What happened next led to a new understanding of the brain and empathy. When the monkey watched a researcher eat a peanut, the exact same neuron fired within its brain as when it ate it. Noting the reflective nature of the neurons, researchers coined them mirror neurons. Later studies revealed the same neurons in humans.

    These neurons within our brains not only mirror actions, they mirror others emotional states. Think of an experience when someone seemed to truly empathize with your emotional experience, whether it was one of joy or sorrow. If we could peak into both of your brains in that moment, we would see that the brain sequences in your brain synced with the sequences in the other person’s brain. One is a mirror of the other.

    The good news is that our brains empathize naturally, but only when we’re truly focussed and engaged. My mirror neurons won’t fire, for example, if I’m composing an email while my child shares a story with me. She will rightly conclude I lacked empathy for her story and, to some degree, for her.

    Increase focus by warding off distractions—Empathy’s Enemies. There are, of course, many I could list. Here are three common ones:

    1. Infatuation with my agenda.

    2. Preoccupation with extrinsic pressures: follow protocol, get through the material, preserve fidelity.

    3. Anything with a screen.

    Make it easier for your mirror neurons to glow. Fend off the Empathy’s Enemies. Only then will others recognize that you see them.

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      A concrete pie: empathy’s handprint

      January 25th, 2012

      Next to my desk sits a pie-size piece of concrete. An impression of my daughter’s hand is in the middle of the pie. The concrete, when it was wet, embodied empathy. It molded perfectly to shape and size of my daughter’s hand.

      Empathy is our commitment to accurately comprehend another’s inner, unseen reality. Our authentic curiosity and inquiry make it possible for people to impress upon us their ideas, feelings, perspectives, and experiences. As we listen and seek to understand, we create models in our minds that represent another person’s inner world. Our models can mirror this reality with remarkable accuracy.

      Empathy promotes exceptional and effective work—it infuses what we do with unmistakable human-centered elements. This kind of work combats our inclination to relate with others, even the people we serve, on terms that meet our needs.

      Much like the handprint, empathic work molds to the needs of others. This is why, for example, the relative comfort of your chair is a direct commentary on the chair manufacturer’s degree of empathy for its customers. If you’re not comfortable, they clearly didn’t prioritize you in their design process. Avoid this mistake in your projects.

      Make sure your 3Ms—messages, materials, and messengers—represent the actual needs of the people you serve. People intuitively respond to empathy. Projects that embody empathy cultivate engaging environments that change lives. They prioritize the needs of the people they’re intended to serve, not its practitioners.

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