How to help others do a mental reboot
When we experience acute stress, our brains prepare to fight, flight or freeze, not to ponder possibilities. Cognitive abilities are limited when the brain is emotionally overwhelmed. We need a mental reboot to activate our thinking.
How do you reboot someone’s brain? Instead of trying to paint a positive future, start by helping them feel safe in the moment.
Acute stress is triggered when we lose a sense of control in the present and predictability about the future. We then spend our mental energy conjuring worse-case scenarios. We are frustrated by the endless swirl of “what ifs.” We ridicule bright visions of a future some leaders are inventing.
I remember experiencing this mental mud pit when I worked for a company that had been sold twice in two years and was on the block again. Most people spent their days in rooms whispering the latest rumours. No work got done. Defeatism spread like the coronavirus.
Feeling safe right now
People need to feel seen, heard and reminded that their existence matters no matter what they are experiencing. They need their raging emotions acknowledged as real and expected. Then they may feel safe enough to explore their thinking and possible actions going forward.
Start by asking them how they are coping with the challenges. You don’t need to solve their problems; just say you understand why they are thinking and feeling the way they do. This acceptance lays the foundation to look more deeply into how their thoughts are affecting their actions.
Use reflective inquiry to sort what’s real from imagined
As they talk, listen for what they are believing about the present moment and assuming about the future. When you help them put their beliefs and assumptions on the table, they begin to see the gaps in logic and inherited beliefs that no longer serve them.
Share statements like, “Sounds like you believe (this) is happening.” Or “You said you assume (this) is how your life and work will be affected.”
Fill in “(this)” with specific phrases they shared, using their words so they can examine their thinking with you.
Educational reformer John Dewey said provoking people to think about their thinking is the “single most powerful antidote to erroneous beliefs and autopilot.” Reflecting to people what they are saying helps them become objective observers of their stories. They understand the meaning they are assigning to situations and may then see a new way forward. They will act with a stronger commitment than if told what to do.
Our brains resist self-exploration. We navigate dilemmas better when others use reflective inquiry to help us think more broadly for ourselves.
Simple steps for using reflective inquiry
You don’t need to be a trained coach to help people break out of their mental paralysis. If you believe in their ability to think through their dilemmas and then you stay patient and curious, and you sincerely care about them, they will find value in the conversation.
- Set the expectation. Let them know you aren’t going to give them answers. You want to be their thinking partner to explore the situation together.
- Determine what they most want to create right now. If they could improve the current situation, what would it look like? What do they hope to achieve? You need a destination for your conversation to make sure there is progress.
- Explore the story to uncover the blocks to getting what they want. Summarise what you hear. Share emotional shifts you notice, like when they get excited or doubtful. Mention anytime they say “should.” Is there a fear or obligation that is holding them back? Reflect the assumptions they are making that may or may not happen. Once the blocks are revealed, ask what step they want to take.
Above all, believe in them. They can figure this out. When you coach people, not their problems, you help reboot their minds and empower their will to move forward.
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