I am a recovering drama queen.
It’s not that I loved drama; it’s just that I didn’t know any other way. As a sensitive person, I would feel all the emotions around me, and either numb and stuff my own, or — after holding an internal poker face for too long — explode. I felt sorry for myself. I felt too much for others. I ran away, clung, blamed, rescued, took too much responsibility, ignored and manipulated. Alas.
It makes me tired just thinking of it all.
Maybe it comes with age, and maybe (probably) I’ve grown tired of the collateral damage. But at some point I had to throw in my tiara, and get real about how to have sane, safe, secure, mature and mutually supportive relationships. It’s a lot of hard work. And anyone who tells you otherwise is a queen (or king) in sheep’s clothing. To be a student in the Art of Relationship, is to come face to face with one’s own family legacy, arrogance, ignorance and fear.
Our ability to show up authentically, skillfully and compassionately with others is a skill that not only benefits our personal life, but our professional one as well. Many of my clients, in spite of being high achievers and influencers, are surprised to discover that what potentiates their ability to succeed, is not due to their education, their acumen, their confidence, or their intelligence, but two things: their ability to relate authentically with others, and their ability to deal with emotions (their own and everyone else’s).
Yet this is where they find themselves most challenged. Like many of us, they suffer from a lack of education around skillfully navigating relationships and emotions. And as a result, ‘tune out’ all that difficult stuff, while remaining on task, yet never really fully being present with anyone, let alone themselves.
We certainly never learned this in school. And I’m surprised that we still do not teach ‘relationship literacy’ in the classroom. It’s one of the single most important skillsets. My guess is that most of the bullying that happens in the school yards would disappear if we taught our children how to relate authentically to themselves first, and through that, to others. But I’m not sure how many adults would be qualified to teach this art form.
Jeremie Kubicek, author of the new book 5 Gears: How to Be Present and Productive When There Is Never Enough Time, calls relational intelligence the future competitive advantage for leaders. Relational intelligence, he writes, is about influence. "It increases your influence, your likeability, the desire for people to want to be around you," he says. I would add that it increases people’s trust of you.
When embarking on relational intelligence, it is essential to understand one basic principle behind how our brain works in relation to the external world. That principle is that we are wired for love, and war, and it's important to know which track we are on in any given moment. To oversimplify, there are two parts of the brain. The limbic, reptilian, reactionary brain. We’ll call that our ‘war brain’. And the relational and rational brain. We’ll call that our ‘wise brain’.
Our war brain keeps us from danger. It keeps us from being eaten. The first and oldest brain in our evolutionary hierarchy, it has the ability to hijack our newer, smarter brain, in order to keep us from being someone else’s lunch. Because when a tiger is pouncing at you, you don’t care what color it is, or if it’s male or female, or what particular variety of tiger it is. Nope, that war brain is designed to get you out of danger and quick.
We get into trouble when we perceive threat – through all sorts of verbal and non-verbal cues – and our war brain takes the steering wheel. Notice I say ‘perceive’ threat. We are not walking around with tigers in our midst. But the war brain doesn’t know that. Constantly scanning the environment for threat, this brain only knows danger and does not discriminate between real threat and that which is just imagined. The war brain shoots first and asks questions later. And it is absolutely not optimal as your leadership ally.
Reasoning with the war brain when it ignites is not only impossible, but just gives it more ammunition. Even reason itself can be perceived as a threat (who cares if the tiger is charging at us at only 35 miles per hour, stop wasting my time!). So reasoning with yourself — or someone else — when you or they are triggered, is a really bad idea.
The key is to learn how to regulate yourself and others, so that you become a ninja at supporting everyone to get back into the wise brain, and as quickly as possible. Regulation attends not to facts and reason, but to the fear itself. Listening without interrupting, keeping eye contact, breathing deeply and validating feelings are all part of the regulation arsenal you’ll want to create.
Knowing the difference between the two brains, and how to move from war brain to wise brain, will take you a long way towards relational intelligence. The following skills also help you and those you work and live with to stay in the wise brain, so you can cultivate more time being a rock star and bringing out the rock star in others.
Notes from the front lines of a recovering queen:
• Recognize and deal with triggers – How do you know a trigger? Your heart is racing, you want to cry or rage, you start compulsively cleaning pantry…these are just a few signs. Think of triggers like lightening quick reflexes that react upon perceived threat. They put you in war brain. Triggers were hardwired into your brain when you were a child. Virtually every trigger you experience in real time traces back to something formative when you were small. Learn to interrupt yourself when you are triggered. Pause and breathe, and wait for your wise brain to get online again before you react.
• Learn how to receive – Receiving care, respect and support from others, from a neurological point of view, floods your nervous system with oxytocin and other anti-stress feel-good hormones. This makes your brain operate more coherently, and wisely. And it gives others an oxytocin boost too. Learn how to be vulnerable enough to recognize what you need and want, and then ask for it.
• Build capacity to feel (especially the hard stuff) – We are taught at an early age to feel the good stuff and avoid the ‘bad’ stuff. Our avoidance brings us stress, anxiety, depression, addiction and an ‘emotion averse’ culture that has a pill for every sensation we experience. Slow down, breathe, and just allow what is arising to arise, and feel it purely as sensation, while avoiding all the mental narrative that the sensation wants to drive. As Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön instructs, let the ‘weather pattern’ — the pure energy of it — just flow through you, like wind flows through the trees.
• Own your projections, assumptions and inferences – There is a lot of material about projections and how to deal with them. Watch how your mind will witness a fact, and then run up an entire ladder of inference and assumptions to come to some final story about a person or a circumstance. That final story seldom bears any resemblance to truth, and has a whole lot more to do with our own projected lens.
• Welcome relationship pain – If you are in relationship with anyone – your partner, your coworker, your boss, your team, then you probably experience pain through those relationships from time to time. Someone hurts or disappoints you. Someone is unskillful. Let the pain point you to places in yourself that are unresolved, need healing and need attention, growth and learning.
• Practice generosity – Give what you want to get. If you want to be understood, then seek to understand. If you want to be seen, endeavor to really see others. Generosity not only comes through gifts, but through actions and a graciousness of heart.
• Slow down – Slowing down allows for you to spot those primitive receptors that want to throw you into a limbic hijack. It allows you to more precisely attend to others when they are in war brain too. And it gives you the space needed to become more self-reflective, listen to others more closely, and spend time being a bit more curious.
• Learn the art of a ‘true’ apology - I’m sorry that you are feeling that way – is NOT an apology. Apologies require that you clearly understand the impact you had on another. You may never have intended harm, but your impact on them is also real. So here are the three steps to a real apology:
- State your feelings, besides the apology — ie, ‘I feel sad that my lack of communication caused you to worry.’
- Admit your mistake and the negative impact it had on the other — ie, ‘I was inattentive and it caused you to be late and miss an appointment.’
- Make the situation right. Even if you don’t know how, you can ask them what you can do to remedy the situation.
• Make clear boundaries – Boundaries are not solid, immovable places that keep people away. They are dynamic and porous. They invite people to authenticity. I define a boundary as the line where I begin to lose myself, or trade something, or bend too much. So, payingattention to that line, and stating where it is to others, is a constant practice.
• Be present – First, be present with yourself. Make it a priority to take several moments throughout the day to pause and pull yourself into the present moment. Then, use that skill to be really present with others. Do you stop what you are doing to listen, or just really be with another?
* Practice active listening – Listen without thinking about your response. Validate the other’s feeling. Repeat back what you’ve heard. Make sure you really understand. Use eye contact and body posture to reflect your interest.
We can never fulfill our greatest dreams without the goodwill and support of others. And being a part of the human community means that all kinds of opportunities to relate well, or badly, will present themselves all the time. Being relationally literate allows you to reduce the stress of unspoken and unresolved issues, and have more energy for creativity and innovation. And it’s a lot more fun than being a drama royal.