Get a grip on yourself! Managing your involuntary emotional reactions

Who doesn’t know the fear of “losing it” during a job interview or a presentation! Due to how the brain works, we have very little influence on when and how intensely an emotion will grip us. As a rule, in a stressful situation we are “attacked” by our emotions and the thoughts that accompany them. Especially intense feelings trigger involuntary reactions.

However, we can influence how we manage our responses: We can notice which thoughts, behaviors and conditions strengthen such involuntary emotions, making us weak and unready to deal with the situation, and which ones reduce those emotions to make us strong and ready.

Conscious self-regulation entails stopping ourselves for a moment to become aware of what is going on. This moment of mindful self-perception slows down our normal automatic reactions and opens up a variety of possible ways to respond. There are numerous techniques of self-regulation:

Physical strategies

  • Get fresh air, take a walk, get rid of excess energy before the encounter
  • Feel the floor/ground beneath your feet
  • Breathe in and out deeply
  • Do an inventory of your five senses: What do you see, hear, feel, smell, taste?
  • Change your posture, stand up straight with your head up and shoulders back
  • Change your body tension, consciously tighten or relax parts of your body
  • Change your voice volume or pace

Cognitive Strategies

  • Step aside and take a look at yourself and the situation from the outside
  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes
  • Create a positive image of the outcome, visualize it and anchor it with a gesture
  • Talk yourself into a good mood or outcome
  • Relate this experience to others (everything is relative)
  • Focus on your goals and visions rather than on yourself

Communicative strategies

  • Repeat and/or ask to check what you heard (clarifies and buys you thinking time)
  • Switch to the meta level (draw the other person’s attention to the process)
  • Express your feelings through I-messages if appropriate (draw the other person’s attention to your perspective)
  • Take a break
  • Cancel or cut short the exchange and reschedule for a later time

Soft skills for natural scientists

In January 2017 I had the pleasure of conducting a 2-day workshop at the Max-Planck-Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart. We focused on

  • becoming a better listener
  • storytelling across disciplines
  • dealing with and resolving conflict
  • recognizing and improving how you work in teams

I’d like to present to you how we explored the last of these points.

  1. Team poster

In a first exercise, teams had 20 minutes to create a poster on a subject of their choice using a limited set of materials. The aim was to reflect on the roles each group member tended to take in groupwork, and how each contributed to both the process and the outcome. One interesting result was that a group consisting of members who had identified as similar MBTI types operated almost seemlessly to come up with a neatly engineered result. They didn’t begin actually creating their poster until half-way through the alotted time. Meanwhile, a second group of highly diverse types went through a lively, laughter-driven process, got hands-on almost immediately, and came up with a colorful patchwork showcasing individual contributions. Both groups were quite satisfied with their product, but the distinction between their approaches was food for thought:

  • Similar types may work together and achieve results with little friction, but they will not have the opportunity to gain an understanding for the thoughts and work processes of those unlike them.
  • Diverse types may experience a great deal of friction (to the point of experiencing the process as ‘a waste of time’), and the group will be slowed down by the attempt to include all participants, but they will, on reflection, acquire insights to enable improved collaboration on later projects. For research suggests that “It’s group conflict that actually makes a team function with more of the razor’s edge it needs to be innovative.”

2. Team meeting

In a second exercise, teams convened to hold a meeting to solve an important issue of their choice. Again the format was highly stylized, using Edward de Bono’s Six Hats approach in a precisely timed game format. At the end, the groups presented their solutions. Key lessons from the exercise were:

  • Using a strict format creatively limiting talking time heightens focus and improves results. It avoids members blocking each other competitively by trying to outdo each other.
  • A key to useful outcomes is  to allow thoughts to blossom first before finding weaknesses in them, and then to go on to seek solutions to those weaknesses, rather than shooting them down in the bud.

Such reflective exercises are great at inviting colleagues to discuss what they need and don’t need from each other, and allows them to grow as a team.

Though the team poster exercise made for better pictures (see below), the team meeting exercise won greater praise.

A warm thank you to the participants from the Max-Planck-Institute for Intelligent Systems for permitting me to show you these photos.

Lessons learned

First, a warm thank you to Wera Schmidt for thinking through my concept with me and suggesting the poster exercise. And a heartfelt thank you to my coaching colleague Wolf Wagner, who went through the feedback and assessed it for me. Overall, the feedback was quite positive. What participants liked most was the day 1 opportunity to practice listening and speaking skills. They were keen to explore conflict resolution in the simulations they were invited to act out. However, some found it quite difficult to imagine what the other side might argue in concrete terms, and in general would have prefered greater guidance in a smaller number of role plays.  This suggests to me that more focused and generative group coaching might be called for. Overall, a reprise in a similar soft skills workshop will include:

  1. fewer items
  2. a greater focus on issues specific to each participant’s work/life reality
  3. more time for guided reflection after each exercise
  4. a crystal-clear summary of the intended lesson to be learned.

A Prezi to teach Cialdini’s principles of persuasion

In teaching communication skills, I’ve decided to experiment with Prezi as my presentation tool. I normally use Powerpoint to present Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion, but find that Prezi, which lets you zoom in and out, lets me put the task and reference material into one big picture. The template is one of the many very nice designs available. Prezi is free of charge if you don’t mind sharing your materials on line.

Better visuals for college presentations

Today I wrote an open letter to my Masters of Public Management students on how to improve their visuals. It included these points:

Better visuals:

To improve your design, especially your use of space on slides, select a theme that suits your purposes. Consider a clean color scheme with good contrast to suit the light conditions at the university. (I used a black gradient with white letters.) Then create a slide master, which stores information about the template (theme, a set of layouts, color scheme, fonts, placeholders for positioning). That creates harmonious slide variations on one theme, all saved in one master. When you make a new presentation, you build your slide deck by selecting from among the possible layouts, changing from slide to slide, and positioning your content in the given placeholders.

Use the graphic tools provided in your MS Office programs. Create visuals (graphic organizers, flowcharts…) using the tools in Powerpoint and Word called SmartArt. If you can’t find a chart that works for your purpose, tailor organizers using Diagrams and Tables. Save your own visuals and use them in your Prezis.

Use clipart provided by your program, if necessary, but reduce your use of clipart in your academic work. Replace those generic illustrations with authentic evidence (visualized calculations, documentation, photographs) to back up your assertions effectively.

If you need evocative photos for emotional impact or reference, use license-free photographs and document your sources to use them. I like eltpics, a searchable creative commons collection curated by English teachers around the world. https://www.flickr.com/photos/eltpics/tags/

Better use of text

I know that “Presentation Zen” author Garr Reynolds and Nancy Duarte advocate reducing text on slides. That works well for natural science presentations, which are best when you show just the evidence, and for marketing, which runs on emotions. However, in our international context, with so much potential for verbal misunderstanding, and in our academic tradition of analytical thinking, you do need some text! Include all relevant names, titles of works and conceptual keywords on your slide. Formulate your key thesis as a full sentence. Label your charts legibly, with 16 point lettering. Use the spaces suggested by your template to formulate a header for orientation, keep bullets points short (max. 6-7 lines x 6 words), or – better – label the containers you have created in your template to contrast or compare selected terms.

Present any quotes in full length and include the name of the author.

Your presentations are unique, and your teachers and peers respect and enjoy that variety. Use the ideas of Dan and Chip Heath in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (2007) to assess yourself:

Is what you present

simple – have you found the core of the idea?
unexpected – do you grab people’s attention?
concrete – can it be grasped and remembered?
credible – do you speak with authority on this subject, are your methods are sound?
emotional – do you share your sense of humanity with your audience?
stories – do you take your audience on an interesting journey?

Let’s Talk Business workshop

It was a good challenge to give a workshop on B1-C1 books to teachers whose mainstay are A1-2 learners. The teachers were great, and jumped into things.

It was very interesting to me to listen to the teachers talk about the unwillingness of their students to go along with activities, even to make the effort of getting up and walking around the room to change partners. I remember that well from my own classes at the VHS. I think the key is to introduce a certain culture in your classroom that feeds back to learners how they are actually making progress as a result of their increased efforts. We discussed writing reflections in class as a free writing activity, and I think that can be used very productively to get students to start thinking about what they are actually doing in class.

We did 4 activities that let them walk in their students’ shoes in terms of feeling what such activities are like. This is something I learned from Rolf Tynan at his dictogloss workshop for MELTA back in 2009. Jo Westcomb wrote it up in her great teacher’s column in Spotlight Online. His trick was to use a level of English in the dictogloss that was a bit challenging for us, too, and that was what I did yesterday, using a dialogue and playing it from a recording. I actually think we need to do that sort of thing more often, to better appreciate the effort our students are making, and to get a sense for what type of effort is actually worthwhile.

We discussed building memory as an integral part of language learning, and how to get learners to work harder by going from dictation to grammar dictation aka dictogloss, and going from role-play with a set of instructions to reading a description of a scenario, and relating that scenario to others in the first person without referring back to the text.

I recommended Nick Bilbrough’s wonderful resource book, Memory Activities for Language Learning, as well as Gillian Porter Ladousse’s classic Role Play Resource Book for Teachers.

Here’s the blurb for the event:

11 October 2014
Informationszentrum der Cornelsen Schulverlage, Friedrichstr. 149, 10117 Berlin
Let’s talk business – Building speaking and business skills from B1 to C1
These days even at lower language levels, our learners are expected to think on their feet and show skills in typical business situations. How can we get them a) to use the language of the workplace in the classroom setting, and as they progress, b) to think through how well they are communicating and where they can make improvements?
In part one of this Cornelsen Business English Day we’ll go through the approach taken and the role-plays and simulations developed in the Basis for Business series, which get learners to use the language they need at work in class. We’ll discuss the pros and cons of building on the units as input to create more personalized tasks, and present/practice numerous ways to personalize the material.
As learners progress to the higher language levels, they will be expected to handle more complex business situations. We will look at the language they need based on research into the real language of meetings, and explore communication frameworks recommended for difficult conversations. In part two of the Cornelsen Business English Day this will form the basis of simulations for C1 learners that will help them become more spontaneous in English. Trying these out in groups, we will look at each situation and the language that would be appropriate in it, and pool ideas on how to model the language and give related feedback.
Anne Hodgson, anne.hodgson@t-online.de

Basis for Business wins a bronze medal at the Best European Learning Materials Awards

Basis for Business wins bronze in secondary school /adult education materials at the Best BeBELMA 2014
Basis for Business wins bronze in secondary school materials at the Best European Learning Materials Awards (BELMA) 2014

Today at the Frankfurt Book Fair the Basis for Business series was awarded a bronze medal in the annual Best European Learning Materials Award (BELMA) competition.
We’re delighted the series has received this international recognition and would like to take the opportunity to thank you all once again for your excellent contributions to this highly successful coursebook series. We look forward to meeting as many of you as possible at BESIG in Bonn this November.
Best wishes from Berlin,
Sinéad Butler
Programm- und Marketingmanager Englisch in der Erwachsenenbildung”

The evaluation criteria make my heart sing.

Mike Hogan started this series so well, and then he and Carole Eilertson teamed up for B1 and B2. I did much of the writing for C1, and then there were all the great advisors and Janan Barksdale, the wonderful editor who held things together from B1 on. Overall, Cornelsen and the team did a great job. It’s a privilege to be part of this winning team.