It’s 1998. I’m standing at the microphone at the raised podium in front of a crowd of about 150 at the church I attend at the time. I think I have prepared enough, but halfway through my remarks, I freeze. This isn’t just speaking anxiety. I had been a comfortable public speaker in past competitions and hadn’t been bothered by my nervous system activation when I started speaking just minutes earlier. This was something different. Even with my careful notes in front of me, I can’t find my place and don’t know what to say next. It feels like my brain is locked shut.
I had recently moved to the area, and it was traditional to have newcomers introduce themselves and give a short talk to the congregation. I tell a bit about my history, my studies, and where I’ve lived. But as I tell of my time living in the Sonoran Desert in Tucson, Arizona, I am surprisingly overcome with grief. I start weeping as I tell of a hundred-year-old saguaro cactus being bulldozed to make way for strip malls.
The problem isn’t the crying itself. The problem for me is straying outside the expected norm of topics from the pulpit. My own mind catastrophizes about what the listeners will think of me. I’m scared. Sharing sadness about environmental loss is a sharp deviation from the topics of faith, obedience, and charity that I think this audience expects to hear. Especially in the ‘90s. Am I going to be treated now as an outsider? Have I just ensured awkward social exchanges for months? I freeze. I get stuck in a rut of fear and can’t make my way out.
I stumble through my last not-quite coherent sentences and sit down feeling bewildered about what just happened. Not so much the crying, but the can’t-think-my-way-out-of-a-paper-bag sensation.
Today, I understand that this is what our brain does when we feel our social connections are threatened. The mind can’t think. It can’t create or see multiple options. As one of my clients said, “When I’m scared or angry, I feel stupid.”
In my training with the NeuroLeadership Institute, I learned about the very different ways our brains function when they are in a “threat” state and when they are in a “reward” state. I learned they can’t be in both states at the same time. I think of it like a seesaw or a teeter-totter: if one side is up, the other is down. If we are activating the creative, expansive, loving, hopeful, abundant, connecting reward state of our mind, then the fearful, angry, frozen, tight, worrying threat state of our brain is offline. And vice versa.
In his talk for TEDxSaltLakeCity, Lee Smith, MD, said, “We all have two different minds. One of them tends to cause most of our difficulties and the other usually has wise solutions to those difficulties.” He goes on to describe a bit of the neurobiological science behind it.
Essentially, in the center of our brain, the amygdala’s job is to scan for danger and find threats in the environment around us. Fortunately or unfortunately, it is really good at this. We actually have a larger portion of our brain focused on sensing threats than we do on seeking and experiencing rewards. Though this isn’t fun, it kept our species alive through millennia even though we are relatively weak and soft compared to the environment that threatened us. When the amygdala senses a threat, it is not time to create, communicate, or connect. It’s time to fight or fly or freeze.
As the NeuroLeadership Institute states, “When the brain’s in a threat state it shuts down to new ideas and thinking becomes hard. In a reward state, it can think clearly which is the first step toward having more effective conversations.” This is exactly what happened to me when I was at the podium frozen and unable to think. I got caught in a threat state, only focused on what people would think of me. I was unable to think clearly about what I had planned on saying next or to imagine a different outcome where my words actually opened more doors to connection.
These are the skills we need as leaders. The leaders not just with large titles sitting alone in a corner office, but the leaders saying something on a stage, or in a meeting, or even in an individual conversation. With a title or without. We need a literacy of our own minds. We need an understanding of our own threat and reward state to see where we are on our own seesaw. We need habits to get ourselves back into our reward state to speak clearly, hear each other’s words, have a foundation of safety from which to ask hard questions, and then think creatively.
Recently as I’ve worked with speakers, I’ve incorporated this threat-reward seesaw literacy into our work together. Yes, it’s useful to navigate the ever-present speaking nerves, but even beyond the spotlight, it is essential in leaders’ daily speaking. We couple that mind-literacy with their own personalized practices to develop more consistent reward states over time. We gather tools to use on the spot when suddenly the conversation reaches a boiling point.
What are the results? Sometimes this looks like knocking a presentation out of the park when there were only 30 minutes to prepare. Sometimes it looks like saying the hard thing with control and patience even through an elevated heart rate. Sometimes it looks like finally realizing what needs to be said to get through a recurring threatening situation. Sometimes it looks like simply keeping your cool when the stakes are high and tempers rise.
When we develop our own practices of mindfulness and reward-state-inducing habits, we can show up as our best selves in whatever conversations or speakership moments are in front of us.
We could even stay connected to our audience and recover quickly if we find ourselves surprisingly crying about the fate of a saguaro cactus.