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Brain Science, Collaboration & a Little Tibetan Word

The meeting would have gone swimmingly if not for that one nagging question. My client asked for the umpteenth time if I’d done a critical task for our collaborative project… and I felt myself become rigid inside. As my body tensed, my brain raced: “Of course I did it: I said I would, I do what I say, and I don’t need to be micro-managed!” Luckily for this particular meeting these thoughts stayed inside my head; but for a second (which felt like an eternity), I was ambushed by a hot flush of frustration that seemed ready to erupt. What was happening to me?!

Once I cooled off, I realized I’d experienced a prime example of shenpa. (“Shenp-who?” you say.) Prolific author and Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, explains the Tibetan concept of shenpa as the knee-jerk pattern of moving away from being present. Different triggers unleash the mood of shenpa throughout our minds and bodies. Perhaps a colleague criticized a project you’ve tirelessly worked on (“What does she know?!”). Or a boss left you a voicemail in a cryptic tone suggesting you work longer hours (“Is he challenging my integrity?!?”). Whatever the trigger, the effect is generally the same: instead of responding to the situation with balance and perspective, you counter it with aggravation and stress.

In his brain-based model of collaboration, David Rock (author of Your Brain at Work), shows that these stress-filled situations put our brains on threat alert, literally making less oxygen and glucose available. That means our memory gets cloudy, we have trouble thinking non-linearly and our capacity to solve complex challenges is jeopardized. In Rock’s terms, the additional neural energy required to deal with our periods of shenpa clearly produces negative consequences; it “diminishes memory, undermines performance, and disengages people from the present.”

Rock goes on to illustrate that this “threat alert” occurs whether the stress is physical (e.g., chronic backache) or social (e.g., feeling excluded). That is to say physical pain and social distress produce similar deleterious effects on our brains’ capacity to think — and thus to choose actions in response. It isn’t surprising, then, that our experience of shenpa often forces a wedge between us and others; left unattended, its emotional zap sets off a flurry of physiological reactions which can cripple the trust, intimacy, and mutual respect needed for successful cooperation.

So, what can we do? A step in the right direction is to recognize and learn more about our own shenpa patterns. Doing so helps us to: (A) avoid unnecessary or unjustified knee-jerks, (B) improve our response when shenpa is unavoidable, and (C) develop our potential to transform such defensive reactions into a productive ingredient of our personality as leaders… and as humans.

Productive knee-jerk reactions? Well, for one thing, without the fire of shenpa we might lose some of the spark and passion that is part of the gift of being human. Additionally, our defensive strategies (each of us has our own unique set) are generally decent for shielding ourselves from immediate harm, whether imagined or real. They play a valuable role of a healthy ego. But to create collaborative relationships with others, we must face the dark side of shenpa: it takes us out of the realities of the present… and into the realm of past pains, stockpiled defense mechanisms, old arguments, and stubborn presumptions.

To counteract some of these deeply ingrained — but often unhelpful — reactions, remember that what’s going on is part of your brain’s function. A technique as simple as deep breathing may be all that’s needed to cool the fires of shenpa and get back to effective teamwork without the knee-jerks. It isn’t brain surgery, but there is brain science at work here.

Photo by Andrew Mason