Dr. Marcia Reynolds has trained and coached leaders in 36 countries. She spent 16 years working in large corporations, taking one company from near bankruptcy to top IPO in the US in 1993. She is a Master Certified Coach and teaches for coach training schools in the US, Europe, and Asia. With a doctorate in Organizational Psychology, Dr. Reynolds brings a valuable combination of neuroscience and psychology to her work. Her expert advice has been spotlighted in numerous publications, including Fast Company, Forbes.com, The Wall Street Journal, and she has spoken at high-profile venues and universities around the world.
In this conversation, Marcia talks about her book, Outsmart Your Brain: How to Master Your Mind When Emotions Take the Wheel.
Geetesh: In your book, Outsmart Your Brain: How to Master Your Mind When Emotions Take the Wheel, you mention that we cannot change our thoughts because our brain doesn’t allow us to do so. Can you provide info about the most important takeaway a reader of this book will receive?
Marcia: For years, “Change your thoughts, you change your behavior” was the mantra for life improvement. With the advances in neuroscience, we have since learned that telling yourself to think differently rarely changes behavior when emotions have taken the wheel. When your buttons get pushed into anger and your mind floods with fear, telling yourself to be calm or courageous won’t stand up to the voices in your head telling you to defend or shut up.
In the end, the “Just do it” mantra has created more guilt than success. People wonder why they are so weak they just can’t do it—change their diet, speak up to their boss, ask their spouse to be more supportive—and spend most of their days feeling angry or resign themselves to living unfulfilled lives.
Why is making the best choices for yourself so hard? You are under the spell of your emotions. When emotions take over, logic disappears and distorts your thinking.
You can take back control of your brain with self-awareness. You can’t stop your emotional reactions but if you learn how to recognize when they appear in your body, understand the reasons for their existence, and then shift your emotional state, you can master your brain before your emotions overpower your consciousness. With a little practice, you can do this fairly quickly.
If you don’t pay attention to and deal with your emotions, they will hold you in contempt, undermining your perspective, your decision-making, your relationships, and your happiness. If instead, you learn how to read the emotional states that naturally occur in your body, you are better able to connect with others, cope with daily stressors, and feel more peace and joy in your life.
Geetesh: In many ways, the brain is associated with intelligence. Intelligence can be a virtue but it can also be an impediment because it does not allow us to accept change, especially with issues we are very attached to. So, with outsmarting our brains, can we also become better listeners, and listen more to others?
Marcia: The first step to outsmart your brain, is to be willing to step back and examine your thoughts and reactions. Admitting to what isn’t working well for you, and then deciding to drop old ideas, take on a different perspective, and act differently is difficult to do on your own. You can get better at reflection and self-awareness with practice. The book, Outsmart Your Brain, will show you how.
Physicist David Bohm, author of On Dialogue, said willingness takes conscious effort and isn’t easy. All humans have the tendency to cling to how we see the world and our opinions. Your brain wants you to feel safe and comfortable in a known world.
Connecting with others happens when you have the courage to let go of assumptions and what you think you know so new perspectives and ideas can emerge. The three words, “I don’t know” are very powerful. They allow you to then say, “Let me think about this.” When you open yourself to examining and changing your reactions, thoughts, and behaviors, you are more open to listening, connecting, and creating with others. Your open mind allows your listening to open up. You better hear what people mean and need with their words and their emotions.
However, you probably weren’t taught in school how to be aware and understand your emotions. Then you grow up and lose touch with the emotion expressed in your bodies except in extreme cases of excitement or pain. You can’t listen well to yourself or others, and then miss important data you need to both feel good and understand others.
In the book, Outsmart Your Brain, you will learn how to develop your emotional awareness with regular exercises. After a few days, the exercise gets easier. Those who commit to the exercises notice distinctions and begin to identify patterns in their reactions. They feel more in control of their emotions simply by taking the time to check in with themselves. Then, they naturally start understanding the source of emotions they notice and hear in others.
Awareness is the first step. Once you can label the emotions you feel, you can more easily shift your emotional state if you choose to. Or, you can accept the emotion you are feeling as a relevant expression in your current situation. The power lies in making the conscious choice of how you want to feel, which is fully within your power to do. Then, your thoughts and your listening capacity will naturally change.