We’ve all heard the saying “You could cut the tension in the room with a knife”. But what’s really going on when we sense an emotion like tension? Are we actually able to influence others with our emotions? Can you train your nervous system to be calm in the face of chaos? What does this have to do with leadership skills?
We all have had the experience of knowing a person who makes us feel calm and safe, and others who make us feel agitated. This is our nervous system at work - specifically, the limbic system. Our limbic system is a complex system of nerves and networks in the brain and is concerned with instinct and mood. It controls our basic emotions (fear, pleasure, anger) and drives (hunger, sex, dominance, care of offspring). It’s where our emotional life is largely housed and is an important part of our emotional experience. It’s an “open” system, which means it can be changed by emotional influence around us, and the strongest emotional influence comes from other people. So, when you feel tension in a room, it means that your limbic system is picking up the tension from one or several other people. “Cutting the tension with a knife” is describing a real, physiological response your limbic system is having to another person’s limbic system.
We can learn how to control our limbic systems, which in turn will control how people experience us. If you are always in a stressed and tense “state”, other’s will pick up your mood through their limbic systems. If you can learn how to control your “state” by calming your limbic system, the way you show up for people is going to drastically change. Practicing this quality is known as emotional self-management, which is a critical leadership skill. Leaders set the tone of their teams and a positive, calm, and focused leader is going to be able to influence and motivate their teams at a much higher rate than those who are stressed, unfocused, and negative. Peter Drucker once said, “You cannot manage other people unless you can manage yourself first.” Being self-aware of your emotions and how they influence others is the foundation of self-management.
Self-awareness cultivated through mindfulness is the best way to train your brain and nervous systems. Self-awareness provides you with the capacity to notice your biological and emotional responses to circumstances. Usually these responses have been honed over time and embedded into the consciousness of our nervous systems. When our nervous system starts to experience a sensation such as fear triggered by yelling, you may respond the same way you did when you were a child. If you have awareness of your emotional responses, you’ll be able to change your response and reaction.
In essence, you will be choosing a different outcome for yourself, which will impact your future. Think of your life as a series of moments: the present, past, and future moments of each day. By practicing self-awareness, you will become cognizant of how you can change your future by making mindful choices about your reactions in each moment. This will drastically change how you are showing up for people and how you lead. It will change your limbic response to circumstances, which will shift your emotional imprint on people around you. This response is called limbic revision and can be cultivated through guided practices and coaching support. It doesn’t happen overnight and takes focus and intention. But by building this capacity in yourself, you will become a stronger and more skillful leader who can influence people and results.
In my coaching practice I focus on self-awareness as the cornerstone for all of my work with clients. It’s the foundation of all lasting and sustainable behavior change. I work with my clients to revise their emotional responses to their triggers through self-awareness which frees them up to make mindful choices and future they choose.
Virginia Dean is a Leadership & Executive Coach at Ace-up. Over the last 25 years, she has worked with C-suite executives and entrepreneurs in life sciences, professional services, high technology, and non-profit organizations leading HR departments, building companies and developing leaders. Virginia has worked in and coached leaders at The Bridgespan Group (spin off of Bain & Co.), Macromedia (now Adobe), FleetBoston (now Bank of America), Ariad Pharmaceuticals, TESARO, Acronis, The MA Medical Society, BeiGene and the Mobius Bias project.