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This article is based on a lecture at BMI Brussels by Steve Neale, an executive coach, business psychologist and emotional intelligence practitioner. It centres on how personal beliefs can control how we see reality and limit us, and on how we can change them to improve performance and results.
Knowing your subconscious
A useful framework for emotional intelligence strategies is the Limbic Performance System Model of Leadership and Team Effectiveness. Drawing on the science of the human brain, the LPS Model notes that our subconscious directs over 95% of our daily decisions and actions. The part of our brain that makes conscious choices is responsible for less than 5%.
So it is wise to know how our subconscious brain works.
At the centre of our subconscious brain is something called the amygdala, whose function is to protect us. The amygdala is perhaps the most powerful part of our brain – often saving and helping us, but also often causing problems, stress and ineffective leadership. Frequently, especially when challenges arise, that ‘security guard’ takes over with emotional responses of fear or negativity which keep us from reasoning or seeing things differently and lead us to take black and white decisions.
The subconscious brain reacts instantly to everything we see, hear, smell, taste and feel, deciding within milliseconds whether it is good or bad. Our body then has positive or negative emotional responses: stress, anxiety, worry and fear, or happiness, joy, relaxation and calm.
The influence of beliefs
Beliefs we have influence how we see and react to the world. They are at the centre of our thinking, feeling, and doing. We have beliefs about ourselves: ‘I am ineffective in the morning.’ ‘I will never be a good public speaker.’ ‘I have a talent for marketing.’ And we have beliefs about others and about the world: ‘Wealthy people are greedy.’ ‘Diversity leads to better decisions.’ And so on.
Such beliefs inform how our subconscious brain reacts: how we think, feel and behave regarding ourselves and everything else. In this way, the world mirrors back to us what we believe it to be.
Beliefs are pathways in the brain. But they are pathways that can be reprogrammed. Beliefs can hold us back from attempting and achieving, they can hurt our performance and results and relationships. But they can also empower and support us. Making our beliefs more positive can lead to more opportunities, more positive people, and more growth.
The question then is how to change our beliefs.
Change based on evidence
What is the first and most important advice for someone who wants to change their beliefs? Gather evidence that your old beliefs are wrong. You can challenge a belief, based on your own experience, with examples which show it is not true. You should actively seek out such evidence.
If you believe that you are ineffective in the mornings, then challenge yourself on that, test it and get evidence that you can be effective in the morning. If you believe you can never be a good swimmer, then go and set yourself the challenge and produce evidence that you can.
When we get evidence of something that is contrary to a belief we have held, we can experience what psychologists call a paradigm shift. Think of your own examples. You might have had one belief for many years and then suddenly you experience a shift.
How long does it take to change one’s beliefs? According to Steve Neale, it might only take an hour, or it might take six months to a year. That depends on how deeply embedded the belief is: how closely it is tied to strong emotional experiences, how many years you have been reinforcing it.
Beliefs more closely related to one’s self-identity and self-value often take longer, but still, Steve notes based on his experience, you can make a massive shift in a period of six months. Other more superficial beliefs (like “I’m just not good at this” or “I could never do that”) can be changed relatively quickly: through changing the way you think and feel about it and/or changing your actual actions.
Focus on yourself
What about changing others, like a boss or co-working who is too negative or pessimistic about everything? Can you change someone else? No. You can never change another person unless they themselves want to change and they ask you to help. But you can change the way you work with them.
If your boss is negative and pessimistic, he or she has their reasons – in involves their background, childhood, life experiences. What you can do is show them, in a constructive way and without criticizing, how you feel about that and how it impacts you. You can talk about the impact on you. You can give them facts.
So, for example, saying “God, you're always so negative” does not help. That will just spark negative emotions. Instead you can say things like: “I'm not sure if you're aware, Peter, but in the last meeting you said we're never going to get around this problem, the world is in a really bad state and I don't even have time to make myself a cup of coffee. These days life is impossible.” These are facts. Then you say: “When you do things like that I find it quite hard because it triggers me and I get a little bit frustrated and also a little bit demotivated. What would really help me when I'm working with you is, if we could look at these things from a more positive perspective, such as ….”
Peter might run away from such an open level of conversation, or he might attack you since, even though it is not threatening, what you just did was very emotionally intelligent. He might not like it. Or he may go away and reflect on it and change. But you should not focus on changing him. You should focus on the impact he's having on you, and what you can do to change yourself – either to protect yourself from it, run away from it, or face up to it directly in a constructive way as just discussed.