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The Neuroscience of Resilience

Article Contributed by Guest Author Sandra E. Clifton, M.Ed., PCC, CEP, ET/P

This past summer, in order to earn “core competency” hours to renew my ICF-credential as a Professionally Certified Coach (PCC), I attended a seminar at the Cape Cod Institute called “Bouncing Back:  Rewiring the Brain for Resilience and Well-being,” taught by Linda Graham, MFT.  Linda has been a marriage and family therapist for 25 years, and specializes in attachment, trauma, and mindfulness.  This five-day seminar was full of rich research that Linda embedded with personal anecdotes and practical exercises for professionals in the field of mental health, from states as far away as Texas.

One of the themes running throughout the course was the idea that, “You can’t stop the waves—but you can learn to surf,” a quote from Jon Kabat-Zinn and an apt visual for our location by the sea.  Participants in this workshop learned that resilience requires embracing upheaval as a catalyst for growth and that we can learn new ways to ‘ride the wave of change’ for optimal personal and professional progress.  Linda explained that the brain learns best “little and often”—in baby steps.  For example, research indicates that just five minutes of meditation a day is more effective that an hour once a week.

Each section of this course was framed with the “Six C’s of Coping”:  Calm, Compassion, Clarity, Connections, Competence, and Courage—with the idea that flexibility and neuroplasticity invigorate these coping skills.  In fact, the brain can actually encode new wiring and neural pathways to trump negative experiences with positive ones, when we work with a practiced therapist to help rewire trauma with new and positive experiences.  The goal of our work with clients is always integration, and Linda highlighted that, through positive attunement with our clients, a single dose of the “happy chemical,” oxytocin, can improve the entire chemistry of the brain.

If you are interested in learning more about resilience, you can find Linda Graham at  As well, the Institute for Social + Emotional Intelligence has an upcoming 6-week online course entitled The Resilient Leader:  Instilling Grit beginning October 20th.  Click here for more details:


Sandra E. Clifton, M.Ed., PCC, CEP, ET/P

Change Your Habits. Change Your Life.

Article Contributed by Guest Author Doreen Lima, MBA, EIC

If I had to choose one word that has the power to transform lives in meaningful and substantive ways I would choose the word habits.

I have an incredibly talented client who is recognized as an emerging star in his field. He’s never held a 9 to 5 job, punched a clock other than his own, or depended on a corporate salary. Grateful to have found his calling early in life, he’s enjoyed great success doing what he loves and has a natural aptitude for. In fact, in the early days of his career everything seemed to happen effortlessly. However, years of coping with last minute changes in the scope of work, client expectations, and deadlines led him to develop some self-defeating habits that affected his work and personal life. As a result his creative output became rushed, predictable and joyless. He said to me, “My muse used to kick in and inspire me to create. Where has she gone? Why isn’t she doing her job?”

Distraction Limbo

While his muse had not abandoned him there’s no question that it was difficult for her to be heard over the din of the distractions he had built into his life. Habits of thought and action were keeping him trapped inside a perpetual mind and behavioral loop, one I choose to call distraction limbo.

A typical morning would find him sipping a cup of coffee while reading the morning papers. Then he would get online to check his emails, but he wouldn’t respond to them, preferring to deal with them later in the day. Next he would check social media sites, online magazines, newspapers, and forums. Then some of the postings or information he read would lead him to look up word definitions, viral videos, trending topics, or an article that caught his attention. This would last for hours or once in a while, an entire day. In between there would be long winded phone calls or the occasional extended lunch. Engaging in these time wasters resulted in being last on the conference call, late to a meeting or forgoing trips to the gym and social engagements. Suddenly many of his projects were getting done in reaction mode, with little planning or scheduling taking place. Only when he was really pressed by a request or a deadline would he get down to execution, usually sometime late into the evening.

How Habits Are Formed

Helping people like my client overcome self-sabotaging habits requires some understanding of how habits become habits in the first place. We know that repetition plays a role but science and study have shown forming a habit is more complicated than just repeating something over and over again. There’s a lot going on behind the mental screen. Some of the keys to habit formation are emotional intelligence skills such as self-awareness and self-regulation, coupled with a dose of brain chemicals that make us feel pleasure or avoid pain.

An excellent book that clearly lays out the science behind the formation of habits is The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg. In his book, Duhigg, an investigative journalist and New York Times reporter makes the case that habits are the brain’s way of taking a break.

Duhigg’s assertion makes sense. A habit is basically an automated action that allows the brain to get on with the higher level business of dealing with more complicated and intricate endeavors like making a decision, doing math or thinking about how to solve a problem. And because they are automated, once we ingrain a habit, it’s with us for life whether we engage in it or not. The saying “falling into old habits” is not just a cliché. It takes vigilance and commitment to maintain new ways of doing especially if we’re looking to replace disempowering habits like the type my client had grooved.

Cue. Routine. Reward.

As discussed by Duhigg, there are three parts to a habit; a cue, a routine and a reward (positive or negative). For example, your dog wakes you up every morning at the same time with a bark. That’s a cue. His bark signals you to take him out for a walk. Pulling on your sweats, looking for the leash and walking over to the dog park for 30 minutes of playtime is a routine. The reward for practicing the routine might be that you meet other dog owners with similar interests. When your brain receives the realization of the reward, for example the possibility of expanding your social circle, your brain releases chemicals that make you feel good, which in turn reinforce the routine. The upshot is that the next day you will gladly get up to take the dog out for his walk.

Positive & Negative Rewards

As we know not all habits are derived from positive stimuli. This was true of the habits my client employed to enable and reinforce procrastination. Distracting himself by engaging in mindless activities helped him avoid feelings of anxiety and stress but also shut down his access to higher level thinking. Unfortunately the quality of his work suffered because he was paying less attention to it and this in turn fed the fear that he’d lost his talent. He hadn’t. His feelings of stress were further compounded when he had to argue with himself to get work completed. The inner dialogue that resulted from this self-argument began to blanket his life with a sense of malaise and futility. He was doubting his abilities because he couldn’t get on with the job of creating.

It’s to be noted that overriding a habit formed by negative stimuli is a little more difficult because of the way our brains have evolved over time.

Choice: The Midbrain or Prefrontal Cortex

To further understand the formation of habits it’s helpful to know that the midbrain, the epicenter of the rewards circuit, and the pre-frontal cortex, the place where reasoning lives, are often at odds with each other when we’re determining what course of action to take.

The midbrain is the place that drives us to search for things like food and shelter. This is where fear and anxiety hang out. The midbrain is older than the pre-frontal cortex and as a result, thanks to its more established circuitry, will often (but not always) triumph over reason.

For my client, the first step toward disabling his habits of procrastination was to pose and answer the question “what is the real cost of frittering away my time?”

Based on the overwhelming feelings of anxiety and fear he was experiencing, his immediate in-denial answer was, none. His choice to engage in mind numbing distractions like watching YouTube videos was deemed necessary to keep his anxiety at bay whether he was conscious of his decision or not.

The rational viewpoint on the other hand held that my client’s relationships, earning power, client base and creative projects were left wanting due to his increasingly time consuming habits of procrastination. He also suffered from insomnia because all of the feelings he was trying to tamp down during the day occupied his thoughts when he tried to sleep. In addition, opting to spend time on the internet in lieu of exercising had begun to impact his health. The consequences of his actions were measurable.

Answering the question about the real cost of his habits led him to fully understand and acknowledge the impact of his choices, but interestingly didn’t incite him to take action or make changes. If anything, it caused more anxiety because he wasn’t taking action.

When he explored a second question “what are you really searching for” he realized something he hadn’t considered. He was living a lonely professional life. There was no one to bounce ideas off of; no one to help sharpen his thinking. Although he employed a virtual assistant as well as the occasional personal assistant, they weren’t enough to amp up his game where projects were concerned, and because he passed some of his days without an in-person interaction of any kind, spending time commenting on blog posts, chatting in forums, and tweeting gave him a sense of belonging and connection. What he hadn’t counted on, what he hadn’t realized, was just how much he needed regular real-time, in-person connections with his peers to challenge and inspire him.

Learning of this need was the reason his pre-frontal cortex won the day. He made a deliberate and conscious choice to stop feeding the habits of procrastination. He sensibly concluded that if he found ways to increase moments of face-to-face contact with peers in his industry he could replace his “time frittering” habits with new ones that would empower him and bring him back to a more productive way of being.

New Habits

The key to establishing these new habits began with a support group. He brought together local professionals he knew or had heard of, working under similar circumstances. Since its inception, this group meets once a week for breakfast to discuss issues, workloads, ideas, and opportunities. The goals of the group are similar in some measure to the intentions and structure of a well-run mastermind group. In addition, every month two members pair off as accountability partners. They trade off calling each other on weekday mornings and speak for a total of 15 minutes (they set a timer) to review their daily agendas and share the previous day’s accomplishments. The buddy pairings have positively influenced and reinforced one of my client’s new productivity focused habits. The cue is the phone call. The routine is the daily agenda review. And, the reward is the ability to connect positively and constructively with another person every day. Good friendships and award-winning work collaborations have resulted.

Today my client still does some meandering on the net but it’s driven by professional need or scheduled as a reward break. Another new habit: twice a week he meets up with friends or participates in social, professional or community based events. Although this sounds like a relatively easy transition from one habit to another, it was not. His new habits are reinforced by a continued willingness to self-examine and remain self-aware, to look for solutions appropriate to the situation at hand, to engage the help of a support system, and to demonstrate a continued commitment to the routines required by his new habits of productivity. His rewards have been many and the voice of his muse has returned but my client is clear that his old habits survive in the crevices of his brain waiting to be called into action again if he so chooses.



The Resilient Leader: Building Strength Through Adversity

We are offering an exciting specialty course in Social + Emotional Awareness starting May 6th entitled The Resilient Leader:  Building Strength Through Adversity and would love for you to join us!

In today’s world, fundamental change occurs in seconds, whereas twenty years ago it took months.  Resilient leaders are now a necessity and the demand for them is exploding.  Human capital challenges were the #1 CEO concern in 2013 and most are associated with employee and manager capabilities.  Companies are searching for ways to lower employee stress and stop the accompanying decline in individual performance.  This is our “new normal.”

Be on the leading edge and be able to develop your own proprietary model for Resilience Coaching.  The course content for The Resilient Leader:  Building Strength Through Adversity is founded upon the works of Drs. Seligman, Reivich, Schatte, and Seigler, and the U.S. Army’s extensive work with the University of Pennsylvania.

Here’s how this course differs from others you have taken elsewhere:

  • There is abundant theory matched with both application and the opportunity to practice in a learning environment
  • You will create your own “Resiliency Coaching Framework” and have the chance to employ it
  • If you put your “all” into this program you will finish with a high degree of confidence in your ability to help clients build their resilience
  • You will have the tools and the resources to grow in this critical coaching focus area
John MooreThis exciting class will be facilitated by Colonel (Retired) John Moore, CEO of Moore Strength Executive Leadership and Business Advisors.  John is an ICF Credentialed Professional Certified Coach (PCC) and an ACTP Certified Executive Leadership, Business, and Marketing Coach (John Moore Bio).   The cost for the class is $795 and you can earn 6 CCEUs from ICF or 6 re-certification credits from HRCI.
Register today for The Resilient Leader:  Building Strength Through Adversity
Tuesdays, May 6-June 10, 3 PM ET  
We hope to ‘see’ you in class!

Assessment Skills – One Key to Effective Leadership

Article Contributed by Guest Author John Drury

As someone involved in people development, you probably know that leaders need to have well-developed assessment skills.

They have to know how to assess an environment, talent, people, products, the market and more. It’s no longer OK to guess. There is too much information available today to wing it. Leaders have to know what’s going on and when to move.

They have to know how to make decisions and what criteria to use. They have to be able to sift through the noise and get to the heart of the matter – and the only way to do this is to learn how to assess.

Assessing is often the big gap in leadership. No one ever teaches you, yet it’s an expected skill. No one hires for it, yet they expect you to be good at it. Being really good at assessing is a must if you’re a leader.

Leaders who have developed their Social + Emotional Intelligence will become good at assessing everything around them, starting with people. The truth is that the better they get at it the further they are likely to go.

Learning Assessment Skills starts with honest self assessment. Usually those who have an accurate assessment of themselves are also those who have become secure enough to invite constructive feedback. And then act on that feedback by making appropriate adjustments to their behavior. This inevitably leads to becoming more adept at building real and open relationships.

Social + Emotional Intelligence development will impact positively on your capacity to accurately assess yourself, your relationships and your environment. In this way, S+EI will make you a more effective leader.


How Do You Recover From Emotional Hijacking?

Article Contributed by Guest Author Betty Mahalik

You’ve most likely heard the term “emotional hijacking” (or “amygdala hijacking”), coined by Dr. Daniel Goleman to describe what happens when a person’s emotions become overwhelming, causing them to “flip out.”  Such an episode can result in physical, mental and emotional damage to both the person experiencing the hijacking, and others who might be watching or be the victim(s) of such an episode.

It starts with a triggering incident, often something relatively minor in the grand scheme of things:  a driver that cuts you off in traffic, a petulant teenager, or an employee who fails to follow directions.  The incident sets in motion an emotional and physiological “runaway train” that can cause serious damage to your health and relationships.

The thoughtless words, the negative comments, the temper tantrum may produce emotional scars that never go away.  Virtually everyone has had one of these adrenaline-fueled fits where we feel powerless to control the emotional tidal wave.

But we aren’t powerless!  We can learn to circumvent our emotional outbursts and safely “dispose” of the negative emotions in healthier ways.  Here are seven ways to recover from an emotional hijacking:

1)    When your emotional trigger gets tripped, stop as soon as possible.  That’s right stop!  Stop your rant, stop your mental terrorist attack on the situation. Stop!  I don’t mean to stop driving if you happen to be.   But if your meltdown is happening in the car, stop focusing on anything but the matter at hand—driving.

2)    Take some deep breaths.  Breathing calms the emotions and simultaneously the mind.  Deep breathing is a known antidote to the adrenalized, heart-pumping fight-or-flight response brought on by an emotional hijacking.  Practice it often and always when the rush of emotions threatens to overtake you.

3)    Count to 6.  Growing up you probably heard the old adage to count to is 10.  Turns out there’s a lot of truth in that. Researchers have discovered it takes about 6 seconds for the response to a triggering event to move from the fight or flight center in the brain to the pre-frontal area where rational thought takes place.  Count to at least 6 before saying a word or taking an action and you may just save yourself from going over the edge.

4)    Put yourself in “time out.” If possible change your physical location.  Go someplace quiet where you can down-shift and work through some of the other steps.

5)    Ask yourself what the real problem is, or how best to solve or address the issue you’re facing.  You may realize it’s only a problem because you’re making it one.  Trying to “prove” that another driver is a jerk, for example, will be a futile and possibly dangerous endeavor.  Besides, allowing the stress-induced fit to continue robs you of brain power. According to one research study, allowing your emotional reactions to run rampant can cause you to temporarily lose up to 15% of your cognitive thinking ability!

6)    After the incident, concentrate on calming down even further.  If possible stop your activity completely and repeat numbers 2, 3, and 4 until calm and reason return.  You’ll be doing others as well as your nervous system a huge favor by taking the time to physically, mentally and emotionally regain your balance.  The stress from an emotional hijacking can have a serious effect on your physical health so taking the time to “de-tox” is well worth it!

7)    Finally, have a short internal command you can issue when you feel yourself losing it.  Good possibilities are “Calm down!” or “Pause!”  Silly and simple as it sounds, just telling yourself mentally to calm down or pause can interrupt the emotional flood long enough to regain your composure.

Now take a deep breath and reflect on the words of this Chinese proverb: “If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow.”

How is S+EI being used in European Institutions?

From ISEI: Please meet Macarena Ybarra Coello de Portugal. She is one of our certified coaches and currently doing social + emotional intelligence work with in the European Union, with the EU Parliament, Commission and Council.

From Macarena: I am Spanish and I arrived in Brussels in 1990 to do a specialization in European Law. I worked in the European Parliament as well as in the Department of European Affairs of a Chamber of Lawyers. Two years later, I created my own company, European Development Projects (EDP), a company which trains clients in the development of international proposals and implementing European projects.

More recently, my career has brought me into the world of coaching. I have received my coaching training from Spanish, French and English coaching schools, and received my Professional Certified Coach (PCC) designation from the International Coach Federation (ICF). I am also certified as a Master in Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), and most recently I have become certified as an ISEI™ Social and Emotional Intelligence Coach.

I am also accredited as a Coach by the European Commission and therefore on the list of Official Coaches of the European Institutions. Only the 26 coaches on this list are authorized to work with European Institutions.

Working with European Institutions (Council, Parliament and European Commission) is an exciting challenge because of the incredible diversity of cultures, languages, nationalities and religions represented in the EU. For example, when I am doing Group Coaching, there can be 11 people and 9 different nationalities, all with different cultures and communications methods that must be expressed, heard, understood and communicated to all in the two primary languages (French and English). And sometimes these two primary languages are not even used by anyone in the group!

Since I’ve become certified as a Social and Emotional Intelligence (S+EI) Coach by the Institute for Social + Emotional Intelligence™, I am using all the S+EI tools, especially to bring very high-level and very diverse individuals together and create opportunities for teamwork, collaboration and progress. Sometimes the tone, the conversations, indeed the ambiance of the meetings can be difficult and awkward, and in my experience, the language of emotions, being very human and common to all, create a universal language of common understanding and help us move toward common ground. Different cultures communicate differently, and this can serve as the basis of a lot of conflict, and yet I am extraordinarily grateful for the Social + Emotional Intelligence certification which has given me the opportunity to offer customized learning opportunities, unique interventions, and specific workshops in a variety of topics relevant to our work in the EU, including for example, ‘Conflict Management’ and ‘Intentionality’ and ‘Building Bonds’ and many others based on the S+EI competencies. Thank you for hearing my story.

Macarena Ybarra Coello de Portugal
Professional Certified Coach (PCC)
Master Practitioner PNL
Social + Emotional Intelligence Certified Coach
European Development Projects – EDP Coaching Director
Brussels / Belgium

4 Practical Tips to Manage Conflict in Your Organization & Life

“I’m just going to fire the cleaning lady!” This is how my friend responded to my greeting as I picked up the phone. “What happened?” I asked. Flustered and breathless she says, “She flushed a toothbrush down the toilet, didn’t tell us and now we have had to drain the septic system, snake all the drains, and finally replace the toilet! I’m talkin’ $800 bucks worth of service and repair to find a toothbrush!” I cautiously allow the next question to leave my lips, “Have you talked to her about it?” Silence.

How many times have you, as an HR professional, had someone burst into your office or call you on the phone with their own version of “firing the cleaning lady,” and you discover no attempt has been made to discuss the issue with the employee or co-worker? Probably more often than you would like.

Learning to respond appropriately, manage conflict and handle uncomfortable conversations is so important in leadership and in life that entire books (Crucial Conversations, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan & Al Switzler) and businesses (trained mediators, etc.) have been built around the topic.

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