Information is addictive. Yes, constant information – e.g. your work email always up and running, FaceBook or Twitter notifications beeping on your phone every 5 seconds, and 24×7 news available everywhere you look – can have the same impact on your brain as caffeine. Like caffeine, the right amount can get you going and make you productive. But also like caffeine, too much information and you could fly through life like a hyperactive ferret unable to focus and retain what is important.
What happens to your brain with Facebook notifications, your boss’ constant emails, or the countdown-to-election-day timers in the corner of the news screen? The bright flashing light, scrolling feeds on a screen, and constant pings on a phone will create a short, but immediate high. The brain is excited. But too much of a high is not a good thing and can lead to an inability to bring clarity or focus to life or work.
With a constant stream of information available we aren’t able to focus on any one thing. Instead we try to pay attention to many things at once (tweets from who we are following, the bright blinking lights on a TV or computer), but in doing so we could be reacting and missing the opportunity to learn from events around us and make decisions from it.
How can we slow down enough to absorb, process, and respond to information, instead of just reacting to it? For those who practice it, mindfulness can help. If you are the type who responds to every FB post or email, try turning off your notification function and blocking out time to respond once a day (I promise you won’t miss anything). And when it comes to how we get our news, try mixing it up a bit. For example, if you watch your news, try mixing it up and just listening to a podcast (rather than watch it) without any visual stimulation or distraction. I do not want to go back to the days when we all gathered around the television and watched the evening news, but there is merit in finding a brain-friendly midpoint of news and information.
I have heard from a number of colleagues that this presidential election just does not excite them and they are beginning to tune it all out. While someone could blame the candidates’ personalities or constant fighting, there could be a more simple answer: our brains are tired. Even for the smartest and savvy citizen, there is just too much information for the brain to handle. And having too much information does not just apply to elections, it applies to almost every area of our life.
Since disengaging from important decision-making or the political process is not an ideal solution in our society, the alternative is to get better at blocking out irrelevant information or stimuli and focus on what is important. Blocking out irrelevant information is harder than it may sound since we have been distracted for so long. How often have you been in the middle of writing an email when a co-worker pings you about lunch plans and you get distracted? But we cannot blame modern technology too much – our brains were distracted way before email and texts. Remember back in grade school when your teacher would say, “let’s focus” when another class walked by your classroom? Those kids walking outside the door were irrelevant to the day’s lessons, but nonetheless, we turned our heads to see if anyone in the class were our friends and wondered where they were going.
Getting information about current events can be just as challenging as it was to maintain focus back in grade school or to pay attention to work when lunch plans are being made. Today, new tweets come as quickly as you can read 140 characters. If you still get your news on television, especially cable television, multiple screens are streaming information while a reporter debates with 4 guests, each talking over one another (sound familiar presidential candidates?). And for those that read their news online, a flashing advertisement makes its way across your screen, or email and text alerts pop-up as your brain is trying to focus on the words on the screen.
How do you focus? When it comes to news, some people shut the door and turn off their phones while they listen or read to the news. At work, many executives download their emails and read them without being online to avoid distractions. Whatever your strategy, when you find your brain just can’t take it anymore, give it a break. Sleep, exercise, and fresh air all can help our brains process information more efficiently.
Here is the conundrum: If I am completely focused, other data coming in will not impact my ability to focus on the task at hand. If I am not engaged in what I am reading or listening to, I can easily get distracted by any other source of information. If you find yourself unengaged from decisions that impact your work and life, it may have nothing to do with the topic but rather the amount of information. As important as it is to tune into what is happening in the world, remember to also tune out to keep your brain happy.
Do your feel like your office should be on a reality show? 3 things reality shows may just teach us about inter-personal communications in the workplace.
You may not believe me, but there are a few things to be learned from reality show communications – as long you temper them down to face reality and not a camera.
Express your emotions
If someone is raising their voice or saying things that perhaps only pirates should say, it is fine to counter the negative attack by letting them know how you feel in a more professional and collaborative manner. While you may be feeling that someone is a complete ogre, you know saying that out loud is not a good idea (unless of course you are trying to get the ratings for your show up). But you can express how you are feeling about the other person’s behavior. Start with saying I feel or I am statements, rather than you are statements. Saying I feel I can’t communicate my message effectively when you say my ideas are all rubbish, or I feel uncomfortable with you raising your voice is a rational way to express how you feel without accusing the other person of anything. And then leave it at that for a moment.
State the obvious
Stating the obvious sometimes is the only way to help curb your own emotions and get a conversation back on track. I am not talking about asking why the person is so difficult to work with, but perhaps something a bit more professional and empathetic. You may simply say: Gretchen you’re yelling at me and I’m wondering what you’re trying to achieve with this behavior. Is this harsh? It could be. But if you are genuine and really want to make a positive impact (again we are talking about building long term work relationships, not television audiences), the message will get across without sarcasm or anger.
Know when to walk away
When your own emotions are about ready to boil over, sometimes it is best to walk away from the situation. On TV you may see doors slamming or walls being punched on a reality show, and I would not recommend that approach. Instead, before you do walk away (and this is the big difference in reality shows and reality), close the conversation with an agreement: the agreement to walk away and not make things worse. This means saying: It seems like we are having a hard time agreeing to work together. Are you willing to make an agreement to take a break for a little while? Leaving the conversation with the agreement to at least agree to disagree and work civilly with one another is sometimes the only agreement two people with vastly different views can agree too. Remember that it may be better to stop a conversation than blow your top during a conversation.
Technology gives us the ability to easily find time on calendars to meet, chat virtually with someone many time zones away, or visually share information in real time. Technology can also help communication happen more quickly and efficiently. However, technology still can’t do one thing quite yet — it can’t think for you. Sure Siri can find the closest sushi restaurant, but she can’t build relationships or resolve conflicts.
With texting, chatting, e-mailing, and all the other tools at business leaders’ fingertips, sometimes getting up and having a face-to-face conversation just doesn’t happen, or at least doesn’t happen as frequently as it did before. By no means should organizations go back to interoffice mail and logistically challenging meetings, but critical communication can’t be done in an e-mail. There’s no way around it. Sending a note in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS TO GET YOUR POINT ACROSS does little to build relationships in the face of conflict.
Leadership and time management guru Stephen Covey stated that slowing down in relationships is the only way to move fast -critical conversations helps you to do just that. Sending off an email, typing a text, or dictating orders may seem like a fast way to get your point across, but when you try to hurry up in relationships it almost always results costing more time in the end. Often impatience is returned with an equally hasty response, and sometimes hostility. It may take about 30 seconds to send a colleague a note to let them know you are frustrated, but it could potentially take years to repair the relationship if the other person takes offense.
Dr. Christina Schlachter, PhD, is the author of Critical Conversations for Dummies and Leading Business Change for Dummies, part of the New York Times bestselling For Dummies series. Christina works with leaders to motivate and engage their employees through positive conversations and performance leadership.
What to do and say when a co-worker or boss undermines you?
Can you recall a time where your boss or coworker undermined what you had to say? Here are 3 steps to calm any would-be regretful emails letting them know how mad you are and be heard in the work place.
Being angry, perhaps even furious, is normal when you feel someone has undermined you at work, but in order for the situation to have a positive result, you have to keep your emotions under control. When you are getting ready to have a critical conversation with someone who may have undercut you, here are three ways to get a grip on your emotions and find a positive solution:
- Don’t assume the undermining was intentional. When someone undermines your work you may assume that she’s either just a horrible person or thinks your work or efforts don’t matter. But perhaps she’s just had a bad day, or she has a million other things on her plate. Start a conversation with a genuine desire to help make things better, and the emotions of anger will fade away.
- Start with facts. Identifying feelings, even your own feelings, can be a challenge. Yes you are mad, but a conversation will go nowhere if you start it with accusations. And if the other person is a bit abrupt or aggressive to begin with, you may be accused of being too sensitive. If emotions are getting the best of you or the situation, say what you see. You may start by asking the other individual whether she was aware of the impact of what she said or did. “Awareness” is a safe word that helps the other party to save face, and it provides a great opportunity to give critical information or education.
- Start breathing. No, I won’t ask you to do yoga or meditate before a conversation (although the results may surprise you!), but slowing down and breathing helps you keep all your emotions in check before a conversation. Being present and focusing solving the issue and moving on (rather than how mad you are) can do wonders for keeping your own emotions in check and creating an environment that fosters positive results.
Dr. Christina Schlachter, PhD, is the author of Critical Conversations for Dummies and Leading Business Change for Dummies, part of the New York Times bestselling For Dummies series. Christina works with leaders on how to motivate and engage their employees and break free from the chaos cycle to achieve extraordinary results – fast.