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Mirror, Mirror

As my client appeared on Zoom, I was happy she looked relaxed and upbeat. My shoulders softened, and my mood lightened. She has a challenging role that often leaves her stressed and overwhelmed – the familiar dance of more #1 priorities than she and her team have the capacity to address.

She began to update me on the significant events since our last session. As she recounted challenge after challenge, the lightness in the room started to dissipate. Her mood began to shift, her pace of speaking quickened, and her frustration grew. I, too, felt my heart begin to race and a tightness in my chest. The energy was palpable, and it was affecting both of us.

As this continued, I chose to intervene. I slowed my breathing, attempting to project calm. I noted how the energy had shifted since the start of our call. I asked her to pause and sit with her experience. We sat in silence as she released the emotional energy that was pent up inside of her. Gradually, calmness returned for both of us, allowing us to continue the session at a more centered pace.

We had an unmistakable connection throughout this exchange – each person’s emotional state feeding off the other as it rose and fell.

If you feel uncomfortable about the seemingly mystical nature of that connection, I am happy to share that science is beginning to explain what is transpiring through mirror neurons.

Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons, a fascinating discovery by scientists at the University of Parma in Italy, are special brain cells that become active both when a person performs an action and when they observe someone else doing the same thing. This was first observed when a monkey’s neurons fired in the same way as when it picked up food, just by watching a researcher do the same. This groundbreaking discovery suggests that mirror neurons could be the key to learning through observation and imitation, as well as understanding the actions of others.

Much of the research in this area is still emergent, but scientists theorize that mirror neurons may play a role in empathy. Understanding mirror neurons’ role can help us increase our awareness of how the external world affects us and provide clues on how we can shape that world.

Leaders Control The Weather

In his book, The Next Level, Scott Eblin describes how leaders control the weather.

Consider an executive team’s strategic offsite meeting. Everyone gathers for the first day, not sure what to expect. The CEO shows up late. He is visibly frustrated with something. His motions are frantic. He is short with others as they greet him. This casts a shroud over the entire team. They dread the day and whatever put this CEO in a bad mood.

Now consider another team’s offsite. As the CEO enters the room, she has a warm smile. She looks well-rested and energetic. She has warm exchanges with several team members, connecting and showing her genuine care. The team is energized, inspired, and ready for a productive day.

This is mirror neurons at work. When you engage someone, their mirror neurons react to you. If you show up angry, the other person is also likely to experience anger. If you can bring a calm, grounding presence, you may be able to help the other person become more centered.

Leveraging Our Mirror Neurons

How can we apply what we’ve learned about mirror neurons?

It begins, as so much learning does, with awareness. If you’ve been reading along for a while, you’re likely building your emotional awareness, recognizing when you get a tell-tale sign from your body that something has shifted. A flushed face. Tightness in your chest. A quickening of your pulse. As you recognize these shifts and attempt to identify the cause, extend your awareness to others. When my client began to wind herself up, I recognized my emotional shift. I connected that to her energy and realized my mirror neurons created an emotional state within me that my brain predicted she was experiencing.

You can also use this awareness to be a weather forecaster. Pay attention when you feel a shift in energy as someone enters a room. What signals do you think your mirror neurons are picking up? Most of us have used this form of intuition at some point in our lives without recognizing mirror neurons were at play. I certainly recall wanting to ask my father for something, reading the room, recognizing the dark cloud over his head, and deciding today wasn’t the right day to make my request.

On the other side of the coin, we can apply what we’ve learned to affect the weather positively. When emotions are high, we may be able to help everyone involved settle if we can lead by example. Consider a heated argument where both parties are angry. It’s human nature to get ramped up and reflect that anger back (mirror neurons at work). However, there is an opportunity to leverage mirror neurons to diffuse the situation. Negotiators know this. They gradually shift their energy, tone, and volume down to provide an outlet for the other person to release their anger and get back to a calmer place.

Working with my client, I got her to pause and then focused on calming myself and projecting that calm for her. This enabled us both to reset. I regularly hear my clients appreciate my calm, grounding presence. One client recently posted her gratitude on social media, saying she “loved my mirror neurons!” This warmed my heart.

Putting It Into Practice

Here’s how to apply what we’ve learned about mirror neurons:

  • Increase awareness of shifts in your emotional state that appear connected to someone else.
  • Be a weather forecaster, allowing your mirror neurons to offer intuitive insights.
  • Experiment with shifting your energy to help positively impact the energy of those around you.
  • Recognize how a leader can control the weather, and consider this when you engage with your team.

I am an executive coach and life coach with software executive roots in higher education and EdTech. I coach because I love to help others accelerate their growth as leaders and humans. I frequently write about #management, #leadership, #coaching, #neuroscience, and #arete.

If you would like to learn more, schedule time with me.

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