I was in a fabulous mood the day my husband, A.J., and I went in search of Christmas lights. The weather was beautiful. I was hanging out with my best friend. Life was good.
Everything changed for me when we made it inside the store and turned our cart onto the lights aisle. The stock was depleted and shoppers who stood before the near-empty shelves looked tense, like they were searching for life-saving drugs.
Indeed, the aisle had all the spirit of an intensive care unit. I was harshly judging everyone in my high and mighty way when I noticed I was experiencing tension and anxiety. There were serious discussions happening on my right concerning novelty lights and frustration brewing on my left in the icicle section. My seriousness and frustration began to grow.
And then something wonderful happened. A mother and daughter made their way toward us with smiles that could light up an Alaskan winter. They were lighthearted and laughing, commenting on the silly decorations. One look at their faces made me smile. And then my spirits lifted.
Emotions are contagious. Anyone who has suffered through an unpleasant meeting or family gathering knows this. But did you know there is a physiological mechanism for this phenomenon? When I began to study this subject, I realized the extent to which emotional contagion (or primal empathy, as it is sometimes called) could affect the collaborative process for better or for worse.
How (we think) it works
According to Daniel Goleman in his book Social Intelligence: The Revolutionary New Science of Human Relationships, mirror neurons are responsible for feelings like mine in the lights aisle. These neurons “reflect back an action we observe in someone else, making us mimic that action or have the impulse to do so.”
Researcher and social psychologist, Elaine Hatfield, and her colleagues say that mimicry is the start of a process that ends in shared feelings. According to Hatfield, we not only “automatically and continuously mimic and synchronize” facial expressions, but also vocal intonations, movements, body posture, and behaviors. A considerable body of evidence supports the proposition that people tend to “feel emotions consistent with the facial, vocal, and postural expressions they adopt.” It then follows that through this mechanism we “catch” each other’s emotions. And the research supports the proposition that our feelings are quite accurate. When we mimic expressions, we aren’t just catching a positive or negative feeling. We experience a “pale reflection of the specific emotions we have mirrored.”
Daniel Stern, an American psychiatrist, who explores adult interactions and those between mothers and infants, says that “we can no longer see our minds as so independent, separate and isolated.” We are invisibly linked because at an unconscious level, “we are in constant dialogue with anyone we interact with, our every feeling and very way of moving attuned to theirs.”
So, what does this science-heavy information mean for the collaborative process? It means that emotions in our meetings ricochet around the room like a ball in a pinball machine. It also means that when feelings in the room go “south” we can turn things around. We can start a new contagion.
What we can do
As a 24-year yoga practitioner and instructor, I cannot overstate the importance of self-awareness in navigating emotional contagion. If we aren’t aware of what is happening inside – both physically and mentally – we can’t create a shift outside of us. We hone our mindfulness muscles through the ongoing practice of meditation.
You may think you don’t have the time. Start with one minute a day. Sit down in a quiet place free from interruption. Set a timer for one minute and give yourself the gift of breathing. Attune to the breath as it moves in and out. And when the thoughts come in, as they always do, gently and without judgment bring yourself back to focusing on the breath. Through this practice we become aware of what is happening in our minds and hearts. Through this awareness we can create a shift in our mental state and theoretically, our physical state will fall in line with our mental state. Voila! We now become a positive contagion.
Another practice I recommend is the body scan. This helps bring awareness to what is happening within our bodies. Close your eyes and bring your mind’s eye to the top of your head. Sense the quality of that space. Is it tense? Is it calm? As you breathe deeply, allow that space to relax. We use this technique to scan the whole length of the body, stopping at points such as the forehead, temples, jaw, throat, neck, shoulders, down through the arms into the hands, chest, belly, hips, legs, and feet. The whole shebang. When we become attuned to what is happening in our bodies, we realize where we are holding stress. And then as we relax around the tension, our relaxation, as the theory goes, will become contagious and infect the room in a good way.
It is through the previous practices/abilities that we become great models for the attributes we want to see in others. We lift our spirits to lift those around us. We practice deep breathing, relax our bodies, and allow our calm to spread.
Compassionately acknowledge the feelings and challenges you are seeing in the group.
For example, you could say the following to address the group: “I am sensing that we have some challenging feelings/fear/anger arising in the group. Am I right? Can we talk about these feelings and thoughts before moving forward?” Sometimes shining a light on negative contagion has a neutralizing affect. We take its power away through acknowledgment.
Take a break
Sometimes a breathing or walking break is the best thing for everyone. If you feel it’s right for your particular collaborative team, lead everyone in a breathing break, meditation, or body scan. I have seen stressed-out professionals and students melt when I lead them in these practices. They serve as a “reset” or “refresh” button.
I encourage you to try these techniques not only in your collaborative meetings, but also with your other clients, and family members. I feel this is one very direct way we can begin to improve the world one smile, one kind gesture, one breath at a time.