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June 2017
| Issue #8

Book review: Your Brain at Work

By Mara Svenne

I am in the midst of a career transition. As a busy mom, full-time employee, and IAF board member, it’s hard to find the focus needed for choosing my next path. My coach suggested I read: “Your Brain at Work”, by David Rock. It has helped me understand my reactions to daily frustrations and what to do about them, so that I can focus on what’s important to me.

The book also provides clues for facilitators like:

  • why what we do works
  • how to make it work
  • what is happening inside the brain.

It explains why people (and groups) behave the way they do and how we as facilitators help them. It also helps facilitators take care of ourselves, so that we can take care of the groups we serve. The connections I found were many - here are a few:

Prioritise prioritising

The most important mental processes, such as prioritising, often take the most effort. So, it’s important to do those things when your brain is fresh. What implications does this have when you are facilitating groups? Do you leave the tough decision-making conversations until the end of the day when the group is tired? Or, could you have them agree on their decision-making criteria early in the day, so the final decisions at the end of the session are easier to commit to?

Mental energy breaks

As group process facilitators, we know that it’s important to build in energy breaks during our sessions. The book provides brain research to show that taking a break to do something light and interesting can help you break through a mental wall. Yes, we know that getting the group to get up and move will bring new energy to their discussions. But research shows that it helps the brain too. When hitting a mental wall, we should get up and take a break and do something physical - even a 10-minute walk.

If the group is stuck in a thinking rut, we employ creative or lateral thinking techniques and games to help them get past it. The research in the book suggests as individuals, we should focus on connections between things when hitting a mental wall. I think this explains why games like ‘analogies’ or ‘the opposites’ help unlock a group’s creative ability.

Simplify information

Use the brain to interact with information, rather than storing information. This is why it’s important to:

  • simplify info
  • group things in chunks
  • provide visual aids
  • provide clear instructions.

Use clear, visual agendas. Making sure your process instructions are clear, visual and presented in chunks. This will allow the group to use their thinking energy on the problem, rather than trying to understand your process.

Peak mental performance requires just the right amount of stress

The book tells us that absence of stress is not the state we should be looking for. Have you ever found that time just lags and you aren’t able to put any energy into even the simplest of tasks, when you don’t have enough to do? Do you find that you’re most productive when you are busy? A bit of stress is helpful. For me, this explains why giving participants a short time limit for an exercise is important. It encourages creativity, reduces overthinking, and gets their adrenaline going to get the job done.

I’m always short on time at the end of the session, and I miss the chance to let the group reflect on their outcomes. If I shorten the time I give for those creative moments (or rather, if I resist the temptation to give them 5 minutes more, when they ask, I may get to the end of the session without feeling rushed!

To be clear - it’s good to be busy, but not too busy. Chunk your work to de-stress yourself when you have are feeling overwhelmed.

Taking care of ourselves

As facilitators, we are used to taking care of the groups we serve. Let’s remember that we can’t do so effectively if we aren’t taking care of ourselves first. The book explains why calming your brain - through activities such as yoga, breathing and exercise - is not only good for your physical health, but your mental agility and resilience too.

The book also talks about your ability to ‘observe your own thinking’, introducing the concept of a director. You can learn to observe your brain’s responses to what is happening and how to calm your brain. The practice helps you focus for an appropriate response, rather than reacting emotionally or ‘checking out’ in the classic flight response. Taking this idea further, facilitators are able to notice the reactions of members of the group. We are uniquely positioned to serve as the group’s director and ask a question or make an observation about the emotional state of the room.

There’s more!

The book has many more tips for peak individual performance, which I think we naturally use as facilitators to encourage peak group performance. Get the book to find out about:

  • the brain’s physical reaction to threats
  • the SCARF model (Security, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness)
  • the part social connections play on the brain
  • how to effectively create change

The ideas in this book are not necessarily all new, but the book combines a number of brain-related research topics and the impact they play on our responses to our working lives. It is written in an easy-to-read story, backed by scientific explanations that a layperson can understand.

The next time you are frustrated, stressed out, or wanting to learn how to stay focused to achieve your preferred outcomes, take a mental break, and read Your Brain at Work, by David Rock.