By Merrick Rosenberg
Our brains are creatures of habit. The wiring that carries information seeks to sustain consistent patterns and guides us to make similar decisions to those made in the past. In fact, most of our decisions aren’t decisions at all, but rather instinctive reactions to external stimuli.
So what does all this have to do with training? When participants sit in a classroom to learn new skills, the brain is active and engaged. The brain is excited to learn new things. Yet, there’s a strong and competing part of the brain that seeks to maintain its existing wiring. Can you hear the two competing voices? “This behavior will help me achieve better results. I need to change the way I’ve been acting. Change the way I’ve been acting? I got to this level in my career because of these behaviors. If I change something now, it can damage my effectiveness.”
If individuals are going to change behaviors, they need to change their instinctive responses to the situations in which those behaviors are exhibited. This means that within one to two seconds, the individual must consciously make the decision to exhibit new behaviors. Once an old behavior becomes active and online, information starts flowing through long-established hard-wiring, it is difficult to exhibit new behaviors, even if the individual truly believes that the new behaviors will yield better results.
The Trigger Response in Action
Let’s consider an example. Since childhood, Maria has had what she likes to call, “A low tolerance for indecisiveness.” She can assess a situation very quickly and prides herself on her ability to make effective decisions with very little data. She has no patience for people who, in her opinion, “need too much time and information before they can act.”
Recently, in the presence of a senior manager, Maria lost her cool and berated one of her team members for not being able to make a quick decision. Citing the lack of adherence to the corporate value of respect, the senior manager strongly suggested that Maria attend a training program to work on her communication skills.
Maria attended the session and learned all about the importance of paying attention to words, tone, and body language. She learned the skills needed to be a better listener and even learned a thing or two about conflict management. Armed with this new knowledge, Maria was determined to a better, more respectful communicator.
So did it work? Was this training program a turning point in Maria’s career that allowed her to achieve greater levels of success? The sad answer was, no.
The problem was that Maria learned the skills, but she did not change her trigger response. In other words, in the first two seconds, Maria’s instinctive programming of impatience still came online. And once this happened, her new skills could not be applied.
For Maria to change her reactions, she needed to change her state of mind for just a few seconds. We’ve all heard this advice before regarding dealing with conflict. We’ve all been told something like, “Take a deep breath before responding.” Or, “Count to five before you say anything.” This is truly brain-friendly advice.
Once old behaviors are activated and come online, it’s very difficult to take them offline and change our behavioral patterns. And while we cannot necessarily control the initial thought that arises, such as, “This person is indecisive,” we can control what we do with that thought.
In Maria’s case, she feeds and enhances the thought. Within three seconds, her emotions were so activated, that any new behaviors that she learned in training are simply distant concepts learned in classroom that in that moment, do not reflect the real world.
Fortunately, just as it is possible to strengthen a muscle by subjecting it to stress and then recovering, it is also possible to strategically build the muscle of self-control. And it is this ability to restrain our old patterns and consciously direct new behaviors that allow us to apply the skills learned in a training program. For Maria, exercising patience past normal limits will strengthen the ability to be patient in the future.
Emotionally Intelligent Training
At the heart of learning self-control is Emotional Intelligence (EQ). Daniel Goleman, the father of Emotional Intelligence, explained that EQ includes the following competencies:
Self-Awareness: Capacity for understanding one's emotions, one's strengths, and one's weaknesses.
Self-Management: Capacity for effectively managing one's intentions and regulating one's behavior.
Social Awareness: Capacity for understanding what others are saying and feeling and why they feel and act as they do.
Relationship Management: Capacity for acting in such a way that one is able to get desired results from others and reach personal goals.
Note that the second competency, Self-Management, is based on emotional control and self-regulation. This ability is the key to controlling our instinctive responses to situations that cause us to continue to exhibit old patterns of behavior, instead of new patterns learned in training programs or during coaching interactions.
Emotionally intelligent training teaches people to understand the initial thoughts that arise when individuals are about to exhibit specific behaviors. Participants that can identify negative thought patterns and learn how to replace those patterns with more productive thoughts are much more likely to change their trigger response and apply new skills.
Our brains are creatures of habit that like to exhibit behaviors that are consistent with existing patterns. However, with practice, people can develop the ability to control instinctive reactions to situations and exhibit new and more productive behaviors that ultimately, yield better results.