Expert Interview Series: Dr. Marcia Reynold of Outsmart Your Brain

Dr. Marcia Reynolds, president of Covisioning, is a behavioral scientist who helps organizations uplift their cultures and increase results through connections and conversations.

We recently checked in with Marcia to learn about the role emotional intelligence (EI) plays in your professional and personal lives and how you can harness it to go further in your career. Here’s what she had to say:

Can you tell us about your professional background? How did you become interested in helping people connect?

I have always been fascinated by how people learn and grow, which is why I continue to get degrees and consume the latest research on neuroscience and behavioral change. We now know that people learn best in conversation, especially ones facilitated by someone who is genuinely interested in their challenges, needs and goals. Also, people need to feel valued and safe in these conversations. So how we connect is as important as how we carry out the conversation when helping others expand what they know and grow. I love learning about what it takes for people to change and grow, and then translating it into actionable techniques that leaders can use right away to get results.

Your site is called Outsmart Your Brain. What made you choose that name? Why should we be trying to outsmart our brains?

When I first started my business, very few people knew what having emotional intelligence meant. I was one of the first people to teach EI in organizations in many countries around the world as well as in the U.S. The foundational concept I taught was that EI starts with self-awareness. You need to know what your reactive brain is doing so you can choose to feel, think and do something else if you want to. My first book is titled Outsmart Your Brain so I used it to attract people to my website to see what I can do for them to be more effective in all of their conversations and relationships.

In your experience what are the steps to “outsmarting your brain?” How do we do it?

First, you need to step into the moment and become very present to how you feel. Although there are many techniques for becoming mindful of your thoughts and emotions, I teach people a four-step process:

Relax – breathe in, exhale and come back to normal breathing. Then do a quick body scan to release any tension you are holding.

Detach – clear your mind of all thoughts. Visualize an open elevator in your mind, and then see all your thoughts float into the elevator before the door closes. Then say the word “curious” to yourself to keep your mind open.

Center – place your awareness in the center of your body, at your point of strength just below your navel. Recall what it feels like to have courage, when you did something in spite of your fears. Then breathe in and feel the courage from this warm, strong space in your body.

Focus – choose one emotion to feel. You can choose to feel confident, calm, compassion, love, or even anger, but choose how you want to feel in this moment instead of letting your brain choose for you. This emotion becomes your anchor for when you start to react. You can quickly relax, detach, center and recall the emotion you want to feel. What you then say and do will be from choice, not reaction.

Then, if you have a difficult time detaching from your thoughts and emotions, I would teach you how to identify your emotional triggers. What does your brain fear is going to be taken from you (such as control, predictability, respect, being liked, credibility or significance) or what does your brain think you have already lost? There is a lot of rich work I do with my clients helping them understand and unhook from their triggers. Once you do this, you are the masters of your brain instead of being the victim.

Where do you find people most often get stuck when it comes to their careers? What do we need to do to break free of those ruts?

Generally, I find people more willing to test out career paths early before they have accumulated things and begin raising a family. Though sometimes they choose a professional path in school and then march down it without knowing what staying on this path for 30 or 40 years will be like.

Either way, around 10 to 15 years into their careers many people start to question if their path is truly fulfilling, if it honors their best self, and do they have anywhere to grow from where they are. Then they feel stuck, but also afraid they can’t change because of the time they have already put into their career and the financial obligations they have assumed. Their fears then override their ability to see possibilities and opportunities. They don’t realize they can begin to plan for something different at any time. Even if they can’t make a change right away, just having a vision for what is next and the plan to realize the vision will help lift their spirits.

I think this is a great opportunity for coaching. Coaches help people see beyond their fears and then help them discover what steps are possible to take right now.

How would you define emotional intelligence?

As described above, emotional intelligence is about choosing how we want to feel instead of just reacting. This gives you more control over what you say and do as well as the impact of your words and behaviors.

EI is the ability to know you are having an emotional reaction, understand what triggered the reaction and then choose to get your need met or release it because you want something more important in the moment. Since your brain has a negative bias – it is always looking out for what could hurt you – your reactions and decisions are not always based on good logic. When you are able to notice what your brain is doing to protect you, you can choose what to do next, which might include thanking your brain for protecting you but then making another choice for how you want to react to the situation you are facing.

The root of the word “intelligence” means to choose. Emotional intelligence means you are able to choose your emotions, which will then override and direct your thoughts and behaviors.

Then when you become adept at understanding yourself, you develop your empathy for others. You better understand why they do what they do and what they might need from you to help meet their challenges, though they may not be able to articulate this themselves. Your empathy will help them make better choices for themselves.

Why is emotional intelligence an important component of professional growth?

EI is important for professional growth and success. You not only better manage your emotions, but you also make better decisions for yourself. You not only understand what motivates others to think and act the way they do, but you also know better how to connect with them and talk them through their challenges. You not only grow as a professional and human, but your relationships also are much more meaningful, satisfying and memorable. EI not only helps people grow, but it also helps them have fulfilling lives.

Why is continuing education and training so important to career growth?

Actually, I don’t think continuing education and skills training works on its own. Yes, the world is changing, leadership is evolving, and no one can stay in one place without falling behind. However, you need to also do things that will shift and expand your mindset, perspective and work values in order to implement any skills you learn. You have to feel something is important to you before you will make the time to implement and learn new skills. That is why I think working with a coach or attending training that focuses on mindset as well as skills is crucial to keep moving and succeeding at what you choose to do.

How can aspiring leaders put themselves in a better position to take on leadership roles?

Always be curious about what challenges your leaders are facing. How can you help them with their challenges, needs and goals? When you ask to take on more responsibilities, put your request in the context of helping your leader and you are more likely to be recognized as a possible leader.

Also, seek to help your peers with their challenges. Having strong peer relationships is a good indicator of leadership potential. Your willingness to help them will both help your boss and place you one step above the others. Helping others achieve their goals more than just looking out for yourself is a great strength.

You do want to be able to articulate what character strengths you have to be a leader (for example, you might be courageous, decisive, loyal, caring, determined, passionate and creative). Being able to define your character is as important as pointing to your accomplishments when asked why you should be considered for a leadership position.

Combining your character strengths and your accomplishments with your willingness to help others, including your boss, will give you the visibility you need to be considered for a leadership role.

What are the most important leadership lessons you’ve found new leaders need to learn early on?

  • Respect everyone you meet.
  • Listen with curiosity and care.
  • Try out different roles to get a broader perspective of business – and don’t be afraid to take risks.
  • Choose to be present instead of perfect.
  • You don’t have to know it all, asking for help and advice is a strength and can be a gift to others.
  • Keep asking yourself what you want from your life and what legacy you want to leave behind. It will change. You don’t want to regret noticing your dreams and desires have shifted. Then plan your life to maintain your happiness so you can be present and helpful to others.

What should today’s leaders be doing to improve their leadership skills?

The most important thing for leaders today is to learn how to see and value people. Seeing people goes beyond just listening to their words. People need to feel as if the leader understands them and values what they say and offer. They need to feel important as well as heard.

If leaders learn advanced coaching skills where they go beyond problem solving to helping others think for themselves, they can learn the skills of presence and “seeing people.” Then add emotional intelligence to coaching and they will be the leaders who expand the minds and engages the hearts of their employees.

Leaders also need skills in business acumen, organizational development, people and resource allocation, embracing ambiguity, calculated risk taking, and team facilitation, but I believe strong coaching skills and emotional intelligence will help them build the high-trust work environment they need to stay agile and successful in today’s quickly changing, unpredictable world.

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