Emotion is Navigation

Michael Townsend Williams mentioned to me in a discussion about his app Breathe Sync that I might want to look at the work of Dr. Alan Watkins. I watched Dr. Watkins Tedx talk and perspective is very clear and explains a lot of the science behind coherence. I also popped his book on the Kindle and have been reading it. A lot in there, and the idea of the hierarchy of physiology, emotions, feeling and thinking brought a lot of clarity to the measurement work I have been doing with Upsets.

Watkins says, “Ask men how they feel and they tell you what they think.” That is precisely what has been happening in how I have been reporting my Upset reactions. And when I plough back through the data and look at the entries it is clear at the feeling level something else was happening entirely.

Looking at the frequency of the Upsets and their regularity, I could not imagine why I was getting Upset every two minutes. It was oddly regular. So much so, that it reminded me of my experiences doing open water swimming. The most efficient swim stroke is having your head in the water and keeping a horizontal position, but with open water swimming you have to break stride periodically and look up. It is inefficient because you disrupt your horizontal position but as a whole far more efficient than swimming smoothly and off the course. Are my “Upsets” really just a version of this navigation to ensure I am steering correctly?

I found that using work plans to focus on one thing for 25 minutes at a time removed a lot of Upsets. With that focus I did not have to question whether I was doing the most efficient activity or not. I was “in the right place” for that 25 minutes. I still was triggering based on elements of what I was doing but the entire set of questions regarding how I was using my time disappeared. I created a mental space of focus, and those navigational triggers around whether my activities were the best ones to be done at the time dropped.

I have started applying the structure to the trigger states, and sure enough each one has a feeling that can be described in roughly navigational terms. Sending a note to a friend I am judging whether it is “on the mark” or “off base,” following up on a new contact I feel that I am “moving too fast and getting too close” in the wording of the note. My hypothesis is we chunk relational information about people and how we are navigating relative to them and adjust our position accordingly using a feeling of steering to the right place. That will be the basis of my next set of measurements.

2 Comments

Interesting theory Paul. As a woman in usually a male dominated room we code switch (I think that’s what you’re talking about) all the time. How do I adjust how I “show up” to make the majority feel more comfortable when I am the minority? Am I then covering my emotional state and therefore immediately putting me at the disadvantage?

    Slightly different I think. At the emotional level (just above physiology) you might be assessing in your psychological distance and speed relative to your male counterparts in the room. Your encoded reaction sets are singing “too close to danger” or “move faster” or “cut left” that could trigger both feelings and potentially comments or interactions you may not think are optimal when the smoke clears. What is happening is the your reactions are buried deep and they are sending your physiology into a bit of chaos which reinforces quick reactions as the prefrontal cortex is taken offline. You are’t aware of the shift and it happens faster then conscious thought.

    To show up with as your high performance self and help your colleagues remain comfortable you start with physiology, breathing at 6 breaths per minute to bring yourself to coherence. This keeps your faculties engaged (your prefrontal cortex isn’t taken offline). With faculties available you can walk through your feelings and reverse them with a silver-lining approach. That means you sit with the feeling, describe it then state its opposite. The truth of both sides will dissolve the thought, the feeling and you will come into your zone and be ready to kick some backside.

    What that looks like in real time: Enter room of male colleagues, feel the danger, understand this a navigational adjustment point, breathe in a constant rhythm to bring the physiology online, sit with the feeling, think the thought that arises – “These guys are after me”, move to the opposite “I am after these guys”, giggle at the truth of that, then feel both statements dissolve. What emerges is the understanding that you are right where you need to be. Emotions calm, thought levels, you are in the Zone will all faculties firing.

    In my experience this process can take from 15 to 40 seconds depending on how well I pop the reversal. If I don’t pop the reversal or fail to get into coherence I’ll sit hung there for up to 90 seconds during which time I’m probably saying something I’ll regret later. Takes practice. And while you are popping into the zone in 40 seconds your colleagues are in and out of chaos because they are less aware of this process so you will then have the advantage if you so choose to have it.

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