Understanding Our Brains – Episode 25

In this episode, Beth Cougler Blom talks with Dr. Marcia Goddard about how our brains work and some of the things that can happen with our brains – as facilitators or participants – in learning environments.

Beth and Marcia also talk about:

  • creating psychological safety
  • neuroscience’s alignments with diversity, equity and inclusion
  • recognizing and overcoming different types of biases
  • why our brains get tired in virtual sessions

Engage with Dr. Marcia Goddard

Other Links from the Episode

Connect with the Facilitating on Purpose Podcast

Connect with Beth Cougler Blom

Podcast production services by Mary Chan of Organized Sound Productions

Show Transcript

[Upbeat music playing]

[Show intro]
Beth
Welcome, to Facilitating on Purpose, where we explore ideas together about designing and facilitating learning. Join me to get inspired on your journey to becoming and being a great facilitator wherever you work. I’m your host, Beth Cougler Blom.

[Episode intro]
Beth Cougler Blom
Hello, thank you so much for being here and choosing to listen to this episode today. This is Episode 25 and this episode is going to be all about understanding how our brain works. My guest today is Dr. Marcia Goddard. Marcia was introduced to me by Romy Alexandra, who was a previous guest on the podcast and Romy said, Oh, you really should talk to Marcia, because if you want to learn about neuroscience and how the brain works and how that relates to diversity, equity and inclusion, particularly, Marcia is the one for you. So that’s what I did. This conversation coming up is Marcia and I talking about how if we understand our brains better, we can be more effective as facilitators and designers of learning. Marcia is a neuroscientist. She says actually, she’s a neuroscientist on a mission. She has a PhD in the field. She left academia a number of years ago, and now she is this bridge between science and business. She is a facilitator herself and our conversation really delves around diversity, equity and inclusion and bias and all of the things, the awareness that we have to bring into our facilitated environments. And a lot of that has to do with how we understand how our brain is working, and how the brains of our participants are working, and maybe some of the things that we can do as facilitators to calm our participants brains. To calm them down, to make them feel safe – psychologically safe – and enable them to be able to learn more effectively. Create an environment so that they can learn more effectively. So if you think you could use a little bit more information about how to understand your brain and the brains of your participants, stick around. I hope you enjoy the show.

Beth Cougler Blom
Marcia, it’s so nice to see you. Thanks for being on the podcast today.

Marcia Goddard
Thanks for having me.

Beth
Tell me a little bit about your journey through neuroscience, getting interested and passionate about diversity, equity, inclusion – just a little bit about your background and how you got to where you are today.

Marcia
Sure. You got a minute? [laughter] It’s been quite a journey. I started out in academia. When I was doing my master’s degree – actually during my bachelor’s degree – I got to – it’s going to sound a little bit morbid, but I got to cut up a brain because I was doing a minor in medicine and we got to just – we had our own brain for an entire weekend. And I got to cut up the different areas of the brain. I just fell in love with neuroscience right then and there. Because I had actually planned on being a psychologist. But I fell in love with neuroscience and I decided to obtain a PhD in neuroscience. I was an assistant professor, and then I realized that academia was not for me, mainly because of the culture, and how we have to navigate the corporate politics of the university in order to advance your career, which is definitely not me.

So I decided to go into the business world, into corporate consulting, and use neuroscience to help organizations. I figured we all have a brain and most of us work with our brains. So I thought if people can understand their brains a little bit better and how their brains impact their behaviour and their convictions, then maybe I can help people just thrive on the work floor. That’s what I wanted to do. I just wanted to help.

I did that for a number of years as an employee in an organization – within an organization – helping build their culture. And then company started asking me, “Can you help us too? Can help us too?” I started my own business and ended up with a non-profit where I founded a corporate consulting business within the organization. Now I help businesses all over the world build what I call ‘sustainable, high performance cultures’, which includes a lot of mental well-being and DEI work, really help them to get their people to thrive.

Beth
That sounds so amazing. And I love it’s been sort of a – I don’t know – wending journey from one place to another. I’m sure you’ve picked up so much expertise in these topics along the way in those different types of environments as well.

Marcia
Absolutely. Yeah, it was great. It’s very difficult – like, my husband can’t explain what I do. He cannot. He says I tried, but I just, I get lost because you do something different every year. And he’s not wrong [laughter]. He’s not wrong. I’ve stopped predicting what my career will look like, because if you had asked me 10 years ago, I would say “I want to be a professor.” And if you’d asked me two years before that I would have said “I want to be a clinical psychologist.” I’m neither of those but I’m very happy with what I do.

Beth
My husband also – I think it’s taken him a long time to be able to describe what I do too [they both laugh] as a learning designer and facilitator. I think he’s finally gotten it right! But we definitely are in those kind of fields where it is hard for our friends or family to explain or really realize what we do.

Marcia
Absolutely.

Beth
So maybe tell me if, as you’re working with companies and individuals within companies and, you know, we’ll couch our whole conversation in the training and facilitation fields and so on and how it relates back to the work – and I know you do that as well, of course, as part of your work – what are some of the top things that you can bring to companies around how the brain works that they really don’t know until you get there and start sharing some of these elemental and more facts about the brain? What’s been the impact there?

Marcia
Many different types of insights, but I think it’s mainly getting them to understand how we really don’t know why we do what we do. [chuckles] So much of our behaviour is unconscious. I can’t make that conscious. What happens in our brains stays in our brains and there are a lot of unconscious processes involved in learning and in behavioural change. But if I can get them to understand why that happens and how that happens, they’re able to reflect on it and it just makes it easier to learn. And it makes it easier to build new habits, which when it comes to well-being, when it comes to DEI, is a lot of the work that I do is around learning new behaviours and learning new skills and learning how to behave differently than you’ve been behaving for maybe decades before. So bringing the unconscious processes to the surface, I think, is the main thing that has helped me do what I do.

Beth
In our work as facilitators of learning or facilitators of groups and meetings, there’s a lot of unconscious stuff going on there in our brains. (Yes.) And then there are pieces we’re very conscious about as the world changes around us, and we want to be more inclusive and so on. Can you talk a little bit about what you think the main issues are that we face as people who come in and work with groups and facilitate, in terms of those unconscious/conscious pieces?

Marcia
As a facilitator, you bring yourself into the conversation as well. I think that’s one thing to be – on an individual level I think it’s important to be aware of the fact that you have your own biases. You have your own background. You have your own unconscious processes that play a role. But I think because of the work that we do, we’re probably more aware of it and able to reflect on it a little bit to make sure that it doesn’t impact the conversation too much. But that’s what you deal with when you go into these sessions as well. When I do sessions – when I facilitate sessions with organizations, with teams, a lot of people don’t want to hear what I’ve come to tell them [laughs]. Nobody wants to hear that they have biases. Nobody wants to hear that maybe the environments that you think you have is a little bit different. Like I do – for example, psychological safety is a big part of learning, right? Not just in the session itself, but also in the cultures in which these people work. Quite often I notice that people like to think that there is a lot of psychological safety, but then when push comes to shove, it’s not as high as they think it is, which impacts the learning experience and that’s difficult for them to hear.

So I have to be really sensitive to that because you kind of have to tell them something they don’t want to hear while maintaining their psychological safety as well. So it’s layers upon layers of difficulty, and unconscious processes, and dynamics happening in the room that can be tricky to navigate. But it’s also I think what makes the work so much fun.

Beth
Yeah, it makes me think that we all have different impressions about what it means to be psychologically safe in a room. So if I were a participant and I’m a white woman, I might be thinking, “yeah, this is really great.” But I have a lot of privilege in that situation, don’t I? And then there are other people going, “this is not safe for me at all.” Can you talk about the range and what do we do about that? And how do we uncover some of those pieces in our role as trainers and facilitators?

Marcia
Yeah. If I had the answer to that question, I think I’d be rich! [Beth laughs.] Because it’s what everyone is looking for right now. “How do you create that really safe environment where everybody can be themselves?” I don’t think that’s possible. So I think the solution is in acknowledging it. Specifically when it comes to leadership teams who sometimes tend to be like, “No, we’re all good and everyone feels safe here.” But then you see the dynamics between the leadership teams and maybe the level below that you’re like, “yeah, that’s definitely a little bit different than they’d like to think it is.” So I think the solution is in addressing it in a way that is kind and in a way that’s empathic so that they understand you’re not coming to judge them. You’re not coming from a place of attack. You’re coming from a place of “I want everybody here to learn.” But it’s tricky, it’s really tricky to do that in practice and it takes time. I’ve never had one single session where I’ve been able to accomplish that. It always builds over time where they start to trust you. It’s in the way you ask questions. Just the question, “What do you mean by that?” It’s a very good question to ask, right? When someone says something that could be hurtful to someone who might be in the room and you see that happening as a facilitator, you’d want to know “what do you mean by that?” But there are different ways of asking that question. You can ask “what do you mean by that? Or “what do you mean by that?’ [attacking tone]. Very different impact. So it’s using all the tools that you have at your disposal: who you are, your background, your own biases, your knowledge or expertise, and the tone of voice, the words that you choose, to create that environment.

Beth
Yeah. Yeah. Tone of voice. You’re right, I was going in that direction in my mind thinking, “there are different ways we can ask that question and they would have different results the way we asked it.” Absolutely. Yeah. What’s going on in people’s brains when they feel safe or unsafe psychologically? Can you explain more about that?

Marcia
Yeah, so psychological safety is a really interesting thing from a neuroscience perspective. Because our brain has one goal and that goal is to keep you alive. That’s what your brain wants to do. Just when you really look at the evolution of it, that’s what – your brain is there to keep you safe. So we often think about safety from the perspective of physical safety. When I say that we have a brain area called the amygdala which regulates our fight or flight response, it’s very normal to think about that from the perspective of if you’re a woman and you’re walking down a dark alley at night your amygdala will be on high alert because it’s scanning the environment and it will know – “OK, definitely not a safe place to be.” Something could happen to you physically here. So, it activates that fight or flight response.

But your amygdala does the same thing for psychological safety. When you start a new job, or when you’re going to a team meeting, when you’re going to a one-on-one with your manager, your amygdala will still scan the environment to determine, is it safe for me to speak up? Is it safe for me to give my opinion here? And if it is then, well, really not much happens, like everything is OK, your body and your brain are balanced and you can be the best that you can be. But if there’s a lack of psychological safety, then a whole bunch of stuff happens that isn’t particularly great – not for the interaction and not for any learning that might need to happen. Because the first thing that happens is that your prefrontal cortex – the front part of our brains right behind our foreheads –  it becomes less effective. I tend to say it shuts down – it doesn’t completely shut down, obviously, but it becomes less effective, and it’s the part of our brain that regulates things like problem-solving and critical thinking and impulse control. Those are all things that, when you look at our jobs, are so important in order to just do what we need to do. Right? So having those skills be impaired is not great for the performance of what you’re doing.

But what also happens – and this one I find fascinating because we live in a hybrid world these days, is that our brain activates its negativity bias. So when you look at a neutral face, when there’s low psychological safety, you’re amygdala is on high alert, a neutral face will be interpreted as an angry face or a disappointed face, or a face that’s not agreeing with what you’re saying. And now put that in the context of a team meeting that is online and you’re talking on Microsoft Teams or Zoom or whatever your tool is, and you’re in that – you have that lack of psychological safety and you see all these neutral faces looking at you. It’s not great.

Beth
Yeah. And you can make up stories maybe in your head that actually aren’t happening, but there was that early trigger to kind of lead them down that direction.

Marcia
Yes, exactly. [Beth: Wow.] And having that stress response on all the time, it’s one of the causes of burnout. It’s one of the causes of anxiety and depression. Nothing good happens when there’s low psychological safety and definitely no learning happens because one of the most important brain areas for learning is the hippocampus and that’s also impacted by low psychological safety. It becomes less functional, less effective in what it does.

Beth
It’s making me think about how much you tell your groups and your clients when you work with them about what is happening in their brain when they’re in community with each other, when they’re in learning situations with each other, or just working with each other in the office. Like how much do you tell them? And how do you tell it to them so that they actually understand? Because we don’t have PhDs in neuroscience [laughs] Marcia. I’m sure you have a way to kind of give some of these things – and you’re talking in a very plain language here, but what do you tell them and does it help for them to know more about what’s happening in the brain? Boy I asked you a lot of questions there. [laughter]

Marcia
Yeah but I think I get where you’re going with it. Like how do you use that knowledge in practice, right? Well one thing that I do is with our Foundation of Psychological Safety Certification Program. So that is just teaching them everything there is to know about the psychology and the neuroscience behind it. But even when we’re not doing specifically that program, when I’m not working on that program, I kind of try to do everything that you’re supposed to do when it comes to safety. It’s setting the stage, it’s inviting participation, making sure that you create an environment in which their amygdala is fine. It’s like, “yeah we’re all good here. We can trust her. She’s good people. We can give our opinion.” And if you do that then that’s contagious, right? Creating an environment like that. Because it creates a certain intimacy. I’ve seen wonderful things happening in groups where there was a lot of safety, where people became really, really vulnerable. And they remember that. They remember that emotion and they bring that into their team. So I think sometimes it’s good to just explain it to them, you know, “this is what’s happening in your brain,” but it doesn’t always have to be explained. You can also just do the right thing and just let it happen.

Beth
Yeah, exactly. So you don’t have to say, “Oh this is why I’m doing this thing.” Because if I were teaching facilitators, I call it dropping the curtain and tell them sometimes why I do the things I do because they’re learning facilitation and that’s really useful to know – but if you’re working with – I don’t want to say ‘just participants’, but people who aren’t learning facilitation, then yeah just create the environment that you want to create where people feel safe. Yeah. You don’t have to say “this is why I’m doing this.”

Marcia
Yeah. They don’t need to know ‘the amygdala’, ‘hippocampus’. It’s all sometimes just confuses them. You don’t have to share any of that but do make sure that you create that environment in kind of like the warm, fuzzy feeling where you feel comfortable sharing. That’s kind of the environment, particularly – not always – it doesn’t always have to be warm and fuzzy, but in the beginning, I think particularly with DEI work, if you’re facilitating in that area then at the beginning it has to be positive. It becomes tricky and it becomes – it’s a difficult topic to discuss because they’re difficult things that you need to acknowledge, but you can’t go straight to that. You cannot go straight to “we have systemic biases in our organization …”

Beth
Yeah, and “some people have more privilege than others.” [talking together]

Marcia
Yeah, “you’re all privileged!” If you go there, then it’s like “OK goodbye” and they will shut down and nothing will happen. So it has to start from a warm, fuzzy feeling place where everyone is like, “OK I can be vulnerable here.”

Beth
Yeah. A lot of us facilitate workshops or courses that are about topics other than DEI topics, of course, but we’re bringing some of those elements into our work, aren’t we, anyway, because we’re learning about it and growing in our own practice. How does learning more about neuroscience and how the brain works basically help us promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in all of our environments? Can you make the connection for us there?

Marcia
Yeah, what we just talked about – because I feel like DEI – it says ‘diversity, equity, inclusion’ but below that you have to put ‘psychological safety’. That’s really what it starts with. So I think just knowing what I just shared, how our brains work, and if we don’t feel safe we won’t learn, and what happens in our brains and how we tend to process information differently, more of the negativity bias, I think if you understand all of that then that’s enough. You don’t need to get a PhD in neuroscience to do it. It’s not that deep. It’s not that difficult. But I think it’s important to do it consistently and that requires work. Especially when you’re facilitating virtually or when you’re facilitating for a large group of people, to make everyone feel that safety, to put everyone in that learning mode, to make sure that they’re in the learning zone and not in the anxiety zone, that requires a lot of work. To do that well I think it helps to understand what happens in the anxiety zone and why it’s good to be in the learning zone. It’s not crucial. It really isn’t.

Beth
You said something about consistency. What does it look like to bring that to our work? I mean we don’t just show up into courses and classrooms and facilitate, do we? There’s preparation there involved. Tell me more about what it looks like to be consistent in this work to create these kinds of environments that we want for our groups?

Marcia
It’s difficult to speak for everyone of course because I have a very specific expertise in facilitating around psychological safety and DEI. But even if you’re teaching about something else, don’t start straight away with the teaching process. Start first with making everyone comfortable. Start first with saying “these are our ground rules. This is how we communicate with each other. This is what we accept. This is what we don’t. No talking over each other,” just as an example. It doesn’t matter what you’re teaching. You want people to be respectful of each other’s opinions. It’s a checklist that you can make for yourself before you go into a session and at some point it will become a habit and you don’t need the list anymore. But to do it consistently means in the beginning it’s a conscious process and it kind of distracts you from what you’re there to teach. But once it is a habit it’s going to exponentially improve the learning outcomes of anything that you’re trying to teach them.

Beth
Yeah absolutely. I like how you said that in the beginning it’s conscious and then presumably as you go along it’s unconscious and that’s the way you just naturally do things in your rooms.

Marcia
Exactly.

Beth
You mentioned negativity bias, is that how you call it? (Yeah.) I know there are a lot of different types of bias too. Are there other kind of big ones that you think are really relevant to this conversation that you think particularly facilitators should be on the lookout for?

Marcia
For facilitators themselves, a bunch of biases play a role because negativity bias will be in the room with the people, if there’s low psychological safety. But if you walk into a session, you’re a person – again – you have your own background, you have your own biases, and one of them is in-group/out-group bias. As soon as you walk into the room, or you enter the Zoom room, however we facilitate, you will be drawn towards certain people and you will feel a distance with others. That’s your brain saying “this is your in-group. This is your out-group.” It is incredibly important to be aware of that, because it impacts everything you do afterwards. It makes you pay more attention to the people who are in your in-group because you like what they’re saying, you feel connected to them – and the people in your out-group, well you’re just going to –  literally your brain wants you to stay away from them, because out-group means from an evolutionary perspective they could be dangerous. It’s not the case anymore. The world looks very different from – when our brains developed we still live in tribes and we don’t live in those tribes anymore but your brain still operates that way. So if you bring that into a session with you, it can lead to you unfairly dividing your attention between the people in the room.

I find that the most difficult part of facilitating. Even if you don’t like someone they still deserve to learn. Right?

Beth
Yeah, and be listened to, and to be drawn into the conversation.

Marcia
Exactly. We ask a lot of facilitators in that sense. And it’s a big responsibility to have because if you don’t do it, you’re not doing your job the right way. It is as simple as that. Everybody deserves the same attention. So understanding what biases you have – in-group bias is one. The confirmation bias is another one because once you’ve decided that someone is in your out-group, everything that that person says will be interpreted from the perspective of “they’re not part of my group,” which can enhance the effect that’s already there.

Another one – this is an interesting one actually for facilitators who do hybrid sessions. There is a bias called distance bias. Distance bias means that we tend to be more drawn to things that are closer to us and that’s both physically and closer to us in time. So if you facilitate a hybrid session some of the people will be in the room and the other people will be on the screen. I’m sure that for every single facilitator it would be very recognizable when I say that it’s very difficult to include the people who are virtual, to really include them. That’s distance bias. I’ve taught myself – and again this was a conscious process – that when I do hybrid sessions I sometimes consciously look at the camera, I ignore everyone who’s in the room – because the camera is usually like somewhere on the left or the right or above the group – I will ignore the group that’s in front of me and I will for 10, 20, 30 seconds I will talk only to the camera because that’s the only way you can look them in the eye.

Beth
That’s right. Yeah. And it’s very uncomfortable. I mean I have to do it here with you because we’re in Zoom and I’m trying to kind of circle back and forth, or go back and forth between looking at – having you feel I’m looking at you and then me looking at your face talking, which is in my window. Yeah absolutely. Uncomfortable, but we have to get over it, don’t we? Because it’s for our participants’ benefit.

Marcia
Yeah it’s what they deserve. You mentioned Zoom, that we’re on Zoom. I don’t know – before Covid virtual sessions were there but there were a lot less prevalent than they are now. This is an insane thing that we’re doing here. We’re having a conversation with each other but it is impossible for us to make eye contact. You can look at me and I can look at you but we cannot look each other in the eye because if I’m looking you in the eye I’m not looking at you. And if I’m looking at you I’m not looking you in the eye, because I’m looking above at my camera. Our brains are so confused right now! [laughs] This is not normal. This is not a normal situation for our brains to be in. And then on top of that there is a slight delay in audio. We’ve gotten used to it so it feels less uncomfortable now than it did when we just started out, depending on the Internet connection of course. But that slight delay that there is an audio impacts our perception of people. There was a really interesting study that I read that showed that if there is like a two-tenths or one-tenth of a second of delay in audio, it impacts how you evaluate that other person, in a negative way, because the conversation starts to feel uncomfortable. So you’re not able to look each other in the eye and you can’t have a proper conversation. Good luck facilitating! It’s really strange. That’s where Zoom fatigue comes from.

Beth
Yeah you think, when we’re in person there’s a lot of stuff going on in that room too that we have to pay attention – our brains have to pay attention to all that too, but this is adding that extra layer of technology-mediated communication – or whatever those old words were – that we really don’t have in person. Our brain has to work really hard, it sounds like, to kind of just – and again it’s a lot of it’s happening unconsciously that you don’t know what’s happening but it’s in there in the background ticking along working and trying to figure out what the heck to do with all this extra stuff that’s going on in these environments.

Marcia
It’s a completely new skill set, because you’re right – when you’re in a room you have to pay attention to everything that’s going on so you’re kind of multitasking as well, but it’s – for lack of a better word – natural. It’s natural. If you’re a good facilitator you probably have a high level of empathy, which means you’re quite good at sensing what is going on in the room. If you do that virtually you have to teach yourself a completely new skill and that is to have that same radar for “oh that person is probably not comfortable” in that artificial and really, really confusing situation for your brain where you cannot make eye contact and you only have half of the information, because people are just faces on the screen in a rectangle.

Beth
Do our brains get used to that? I mean yeah you’re right. A lot of us were online in virtual spaces long before Covid hit and I count myself in that category, but it just became so much more so when Covid hit and beyond. But now it’s been a few years, is it easier for us now? Or is our brain basically always going to have that work? Like we never really get over that in our brains.

Marcia
I can only theorize. I have not studied this but my theory is that our brains do not get used to it. We are very good at doing things that we’re not supposed to be doing because we all have smartphones and that’s not good for our brains either [laughter]. So evolution is a slow process. I don’t think our brains can evolve quickly enough to keep up with what’s going on here. We have to create an environment for ourselves in which it’s doable and that will differ between people. Some people are perfectly comfortable doing two-, three-hour sessions virtually in one day. I can’t do that. If I do one, I’m done. I need a break. I need to be away from my screen or talk to someone in person, or maybe just sit and write. I can be on a computer but I just cannot be in another Zoom call because it wears you out. So I don’t think our brains adapt. I think we do. And if we don’t, then we burn out and then we do anyway.

Beth
Yeah, yeah, so we have to kind of pay attention and give ourselves breaks and so on. You’re making me think I need to ask you more about how we take care of our brains, whether we’re online or in person, because as facilitators there always is something else going on in our brains than what is happening in the actual room, no matter whether we’re in Zoom or whatever it is, or in person. So how do we take care of ourselves? How do we take care of our brains so that we can, I don’t know, keep them in top functioning condition or something?

Marcia
Well there are the usual suspects: sleep, nutrition, rest, all of that. I can’t tell you “this is how many meetings you have to do,” or “this is how often you need to take a break.” You need to listen to your body. Your body will tell you and at first it’ll whisper and if you don’t listen it’ll speak up, and then it will start screaming, and then it will just be like “yeah you’re not getting out of bed today.” So from this perspective, taking care of your brain is not doing too many of those virtual meetings because they are unnatural. To just be out among people – Covid is – I think it’s over. I think we all sort of assume that it’s gone. I haven’t heard anything about it for a while [laughs]. So we’ll say it’s over, so we can be around people again, so try to really vary between when you do virtual sessions, when you do in-person sessions, when you go out for a walk, when you do focussed work. If you go straight from doing a two- or three-hour Zoom session into developing a new training program, that’s a lot of mental weight for your brain to bear. So like I said listen to your body. Your brain will tell you.

Beth
It makes me think of this thing I saw on – I don’t know Instagram or something the other week – which was a visual of what productivity looks like. And it makes me think about maybe how our brain is working. What we think productivity looks like is always like a line on the high part of the chart, going straight across, it’s like “Oh yeah we’ll just keep working and working and working and working really hard, complex tasks and blah, blah, blah” – and it would just be a straight line across the top. But real productivity and maybe real ways to keep our brains safe or healthy is more of a up and down sort of thing. Like we go up and we kind of give it a break and then we do some more complex work and then we go back down again. Even that visual, when I looked at it I thought “yeah, so often I can be really high up and just going, going, going, going, going, and not taking those breaks,” but then to be shown a visual that says “uh no this is actually healthy, this up and down sort of piece and going back and forth.” Have you seen that kind of thing?

Marcia
I’ve seen that kind of thing a lot and I fully agree with it. We tend to think that productivity means doing stuff. But productivity is also resting. It’s also not doing stuff. Recharging is crucial for productivity, because otherwise literally your battery runs out and you’re done. As an example right now I’m really, really busy. My calendar is full. So a couple of days ago, I went downstairs I think it was like 4:30 in the afternoon and my husband was like, “hello why are you here?” I was like, “I’m so busy I need to stop working.” And he got really confused. [laughs] “You need to what? Don’t you have stuff to finish?” “Yeah so I need to take a break now.” It took me a long time to get there because I’m like many people who are ambitious, I tend to go, go, go and put more – more, more, more, I can do it. But I’ve learned that I can do that for a while and then I just need some downtime and that’s why I say you need to listen to your own brain. This will look different for everyone. I do very well when there’s a lot of pressure on me, when I have deadlines coming up. For example I do keynote sessions and I tend to prepare them maybe two days in advance, something like that. That’s when I’m at my best. If I have two weeks, I will not do anything for 12 out of those 14 days. [laugh together] I’ll do all the work on the last … so I like deadlines.

That’s not for everyone. Some people are more comfortable with a more regular schedule with sort of predictable ups and downs. So you need to listen to how your body works, how your brain works and make sure that – especially if you have your own business, if you’re a learning designer or a facilitator, you have your own business. It’s tempting to say yes to everything. Please don’t. Please do not. Be selective about what you say yes and no to. It’s good marketing for one. And secondly it’s better for your body. You will be better at what you do if you sometimes say no.

Beth
Absolutely. I’ve found that when I’m overworked, I don’t feel as creative. I don’t feel like I’m serving my clients as well. Yeah. Because we just can’t, we don’t have that white space we need to be better. I’ve definitely learned that the hard way sometimes [laughs].

Marcia
Yeah, don’t we all? And it’s such a responsibility as well. Like I said empathy, I sort of casually mentioned that people who are in this line of work have a lot of empathy. It means that you take on other people’s emotions and other people’s thought processes and other people’s feelings. That’s hard work. No matter how – actually the more empathy you have the more difficult that is, and the better you will be at your job. But respect that. Respect the responsibility that you have and respect your body and respect your brain. Because again if you don’t recharge you’ll run on fumes and you won’t be able to serve anyone including yourself.

Beth
We have this program here called Art of Hosting and I can’t tell you all the ins and outs of it but one of the pieces when I went to take the training was this concept of hosting self. And I thought, “oh that’s so golden to really remember. We can’t host others, we can’t facilitate with others, serve others, if we’re not hosting ourselves.” And there are probably a million ways to say that concept, just things like that help us.

Marcia
I love that. The foundation that I work for – The Contentment Foundation – we do a lot of work in schools where we focus – we have a school program for mental well-being in children. People are often surprised to hear that we work with teachers first and that is because, similar to what you’re saying about hosting the self, our motto is you cannot give what you don’t have. So if we ask overworked, burned out teachers to teach well-being to children, that is not going to work. So they go through the program first so that they understand who they are on the inside. They have reflected. They’re mindful. And then they can bring it to the kids. The same goes for anyone who’s trying to teach, facilitate. You need to understand yourself and you need to take care of yourself. Otherwise you cannot serve anyone.

Beth
It’s so much about awareness isn’t it? And maybe newer facilitators or people who haven’t thought about these kinds of things yet they might think, “Oh it’s awareness about my group, what’s going on with the group.” And yes that is true. But there’s that awareness of ourselves that has to come into play, absolutely, too.

Marcia
Yeah. Like I said in the beginning, you bring yourself into the session. Just to showcase the actual impact that it can have, if we’re kind of overworked, maybe bordering on a burnout, what happens in our brain is that our stress response has just been active for too long. We’ve had cortisol and all the stress hormones in our blood for too long. That’s horrible to your body. Well that impacts – it impacts many things but one of the things that it impacts is your emotion regulation. So if someone says something in a session that you’re like, “this is rude, it’s hurtful, whatever,” if you don’t have the emotion regulation to navigate that the right way, then you’re going to ruin the session for everyone. Which again – if you don’t care about your own body and your brain, but you do care about your performance, it’s not good for your performance either, because you cannot have an emotional meltdown, or you cannot be rude to your clients when they’re in the room. And if you don’t take care of yourself it becomes more difficult to control that.

Beth
You wouldn’t have clients for very long [laughter] if that’s what you did in a facilitated situation. Absolutely. For people that want to stay abreast or in the know of neuroscience concepts and, and we haven’t been highly trained in neuroscience like you, Marcia, where do you think we go to get this information? Are there places that you follow for – I hate to say tips and I will never say – you know what I mean? I’m not going to say that word! [laugh together] But how do we, when we’re not trained at a high level in neuroscience, how did we keep having some strategies to be…

Marcia
Stimulated.

Beth
Yeah. Thanks for helping me out there. [They laugh.]

Marcia
So obviously podcasts are a great way to do it. I’m not a big podcast listener, if I’m completely honest with you, the only podcast I really listen to is the Gilmore Girls Rewatch Podcast.

Beth
Oh my god I would love that. [laughs]

Marcia
But there’s a book and the book is called Behave. And the writer of the book is called Robert Sapolsky. He’s a neurobiologist. He is legendary. He works at – if I’m not mistaken he works at Stanford. He is a renowned scientist but he is also a rock star in explaining things in a way that’s relatable. If you read Behave by Robert Sapolsky, you will understand where our behaviour comes from. Again, you don’t need that PhD because he will explain everything to you in a way that’s relatable with real world examples. The only caveat that I have to mention is that it’s a very big book. The audio book is 27 hours (oh my gosh!) So it’ll take some time. But that’s OK, you can take that time. You don’t have to read it all at once. It’s not dry. It’s not academic. There’s a lot of science in there but explained in a way that’s so relatable. That’s definitely one. He has also written a book called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, which is about the science of stress. And I love, I love, love, love how he explains how our brains work. I had to read that book for my bachelor’s degree and it’s the only book that I remember that I actually loved reading. So if you like reading, get the book. If you want to listen, get the audio book. It’s definitely worth it.

Beth
Oh thanks for that recommendation. And it feels like something that you could grab a bunch of facilitators and do a little book club around it or split out chapters, or especially if it’s kind of hard to – I know a lot of us talk about how we wish we had time to read more. We always buy books and then trying to finish them [they laugh] is another story. But I do love it when it’s a scientific book and it’s written in a way that we can actually engage with. And it’s interesting and not dry. That sounds like a great recommendation. Thank you.

Marcia
It is. I think he has some online classes as well on YouTube. He doesn’t give classes but recorded classes that you can watch. He has really long – he literally looks like a rock star. He has long curly hair and he doesn’t look like the stereotypical image of a scientist that you might have in your brain when I said his name. He’s not grey and old [laughter]. I honestly don’t know how old he is but he’s fantastic. So find him and listen to what he says. He talks about behaviour and I think as a facilitator, if you want to be good at facilitation it helps to understand where behaviour comes from. I think maybe that’s the answer to the question that you asked before. Why is neuroscience important? I think it helps as a facilitator if you understand why people behave the way they do, because it makes it easier to align with what they’re doing, to adapt to what they’re doing, to make sure that you get the optimal situation in whatever session it is that you’re facilitating.

Beth
Yeah. And raise our own empathy towards others and ourselves like you were saying, too. Empathy really does come into it then because if we understand more about what’s going on we can be more empathetic with our groups. (Yeah.) Absolutely. Yeah. Is there anything that you want to add in here that you haven’t had a chance to talk about that you really think we need to know or anything that you want to reinforce for us as we head to our close?

Marcia
We did address it, but I would like to sort of emphasize that people should be kind to themselves. I work with a lot of different types of facilitators. I want to name drop one of them: Romy Alexandra. She is my favourite facilitator in the whole wide world. She’s fantastic. But if I see how hard she works, I just want to tell everyone – all of you guys – you do amazing work but be kind to yourselves. Even if you are like “It doesn’t matter. I can take it. I can do it.” Be kind to yourselves because you will be better at what you do. Be kind to yourself. Be mindful of your brain. Treat your brain the way you’d want to treat other people’s brains with all the empathy that you have. Then the results will be better and you’ll be able to do this for many, many years to come. So kindness.

Beth
Oh thanks for bringing it back to that. And thanks for mentioning Romy because she did introduce me to you. And for that I am grateful to her. She was a prior guest on the podcast. And also I agree, she does fantastic work. So I’m loving this community of facilitators – that we’re all kind of this web that we’re pulling – you’re in the Netherlands, we haven’t said that yet. And she’s in Germany. I’m in Canada. We’re all over the place but yet we’ve been able to make these connections. I’m very grateful for that. (Yeah.) Thank you so much Marcia. It’s been a pleasure. I feel like we’re just scratching the surface about our brains and how we can learn more about them as facilitators to help ourselves and our participants. Thanks for being here with me today and sharing a little of what you know. It’s been a pleasure.

Marcia
You’re very welcome. Happy to have been here. Happy to have been able to share some of my knowledge. I wasn’t really sure because sometimes I’m like, I don’t know if I’m a facilitator, a trainer, a scientist, a speaker. I get confused about what I am. So it’s really – it’s comforting to hear that I have some value to bring here as well. So thank you for that.

Beth
Absolutely. We can’t put ourselves in that kind of a box anymore. You can have five roles and that’s just fine! [laughter]

Marcia
Yeah. Thank you.

[Episode outro]
Beth
I’d really like to thank Marcia for being on the show. I so enjoyed our conversation. And when I listened back to it, I realized, Oh, we laughed so much! It was so fun to talk with her about neuroscience. And who would have thought, right? I’m kind of fascinated by how the brain works, it’s always nice to learn a little bit more and also to be able to have such a great conversation where we laugh so much about it, even though some of it is a serious topic. I really appreciate learning that way myself in this podcast.

So many things resonated with me that I’m still thinking about around our conversation. But, one of the things that she said is how businesses or you know, certain types of environments, they sometimes think that what they are creating is a psychologically safe environment. And she knows and we know that that isn’t always the case. Because often there may be people who don’t feel represented, who don’t feel like they belong, because the environment around them and the people creating that environment or that culture, aren’t doing the things to help them feel like they belong. And so that’s our job, isn’t it, as facilitators of learning, facilitators of group process, that we need to first raise our awareness to, I guess, experiences outside of our own experience so that we can be empathetic with our participants no matter who they are. And then we need to figure out how to design well and effectively so that we create psychologically safe environments. So that we can calm people’s brains right from the get go. So that, you know, they won’t even know that this is happening within themselves. But their brain is basically saying, Okay, I feel safe here, I think I can learn now.

So just that whole concept of what we think is psychologically safe for ourselves, it might not be for another person, it just reminds me and I hope all of us to keep going back to the drawing board and keep learning about this and realizing that there’s so much more we each individually have to learn about what a safe or safer environment looks like for someone else in our facilitated situations. So we have our own experience. And then it’s just a great reminder to keep learning about others’ experiences as well. And to be able to design as effectively as we can so that people can learn, and they can feel comfortable to do that and safe.

As Marcia said, I, you know, we wish we had the one answer that’s going to do that. There’s so many things that go into creating those types of environments. And it is a lifelong learning kind of piece that we will just hopefully keep get getting better at it as we grow in our practices. So thanks again to Marcia for being with me and taking time to have the conversation. I so appreciated learning with her today.

On the next episode of the podcast I talk with Mirjam Leunissen. Mirjam is an embodiment coach and creator of workshops that inspire new ways of seeing, thinking, acting and connecting. I met Mirjam through the NeverDoneBefore conference last year, at the end of 2022. And actually Mirjam’s workshops were some of the most creative sessions of that entire conference. And I thought, Oh, I really have to talk with Mirjam on the podcast at some point because she was so innovative in her approach. So our topic for the next episode coming up is Tapping into the Mind and Body. I hope you join Mirjam and I together on the next episode. We’ll see you then.

[Show outro]
Beth
Thank you for listening to Facilitating on Purpose. If you were inspired by something in this episode, please share it with a friend or a colleague to help them expand their facilitation practice too. To find the show notes, give me feedback, or submit ideas for future episodes visit facilitatingonpurpose.com. Special thanks to Mary Chan at Organized Sound Productions for producing this episode. Happy facilitating!

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