You are making a presentation to your team and your colleague checks her phone. Once, twice, three times. Your mind starts buzzing – she’s bored, I can’t hold her attention, the presentation isn’t interesting enough, perhaps everyone else is bored too… You pull through the session feeling irritated and nervous.
Until you step outside the meeting room and she comes near, looking worried, “My daughter messages me daily after returning from school. Today, she hasn’t. Hope she hasn’t missed the bus.” And you thought it was the presentation!
Narrative trap: it happens to all of us
Our mind tends to weave stories and we get caught in the narratives, until forced to do a reality check. Blame it on the brain. Particularly the left hemisphere, which has the ability to take in a piece of information (colleague checking phone) and deliver a coherent tale (failure of the presentation) to our consciousness.
As Dr Michael Gazzaniga, cognitive neuroscientist and author of ‘Who’s In Charge’, showed, the left brain could even concoct an explanation to fit a situation. The explanation didn’t have to be factually accurate, it just had to be coherent. Why the need for coherence? Because it holds stories together, and we human beings are hard wired to love stories. Think of how we catch a few words in a conversation and imagine a story around it, or how we picture entire sequence of events based on a single photograph.
One of the things we do constantly is tell ourselves stories about our own actions and of the others too. And if we are not sure of the details, our brain makes it up. That’s why the colleague could be bored or the presentation uninteresting, though it may be far from being true.
Often, the anxiety we experience stems from such self-fabricated stories. How to keep it at bay?
For each negative tale your brain suggests, imagine happy alternatives. Make positive, kind assumptions about the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of a situation, which in turn helps you reduce the stress and unhappiness associated with it. Let us use the instance of your making a presentation.
You thought: “Colleague is bored, I can’t hold her attention, the presentation isn’t interesting enough, perhaps everyone else is bored too…”
Assumption: Your presentation is bad.
A positive alternative: “That’s unusual behavior from her. Is she tired and distracted? Let me focus on XYZ who seems very clued-in.”
Assumption: Your presentation is working, and she’s usually professional.
Which version is likely to spare you anxiety and let you complete your task successfully?
The kind of story you imagine determines your reactions and behavior. In the words of psychologist Shawn Achor, “90% of your happiness is not predicted by the external world, but by the way your brain processes the world.” Let us add some happiness and positivity to that process.