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‘What Are You Feeling?’ ‘What Am I Feeling?’ These Questions Are Tools For Brain Taming

From Stephanie Allen West’s blog on Neuroscience and conflict resolution .

A flurry of articles appeared this week about the neuroscience research showing that labeling your feelings can quiet your brain and increase impulse control, including

Of course, a quiet and controlled brain is often an asset in the resolution of conflict, whether that brain belongs to the neutral, advocate, or party. However, when a discussion is hot and contentious, labeling your feelings may be difficult or nearly impossible. We have recommended a way to make it easier, a way to strengthen your labeling skills and labeling synapses.

In our recent article “Lead Your Brain Instead Of Letting It Lead You,” we talk about the practice of making mental notes (first described by Jeff in his book Dear Patrick: Life is Tough – Here’s Some Good Advice). Developing your skill in making mental notes can bring relief when high conflict occurs. We wrote . . .

Sometimes we become distracted from the direction in which we want to be going.  Our purpose may become clouded by anger, annoyance, confusion, jealousy, fear, or other feelings that knock us off balance and take us off the path.  Brain research has provided a handy way to deal with the distraction.

We label the feeling, saying in our mind or, if appropriate, aloud, statements such as “I am angry” or “I am nervous.”  When we make statements like this, that part of the brain feeling the distracting emotion is calmed.  We can then return to clarity and purpose.  The neuroscience literature calls this “labeling the affect.”

Sometimes in the heat of the moment this labeling is not easy to do. One way to make it easier is to practice it throughout the day when you are not feeling distracted.  You can practice by labeling behaviors as well as feelings.  Here’s how.

During the day make mental notes such as “I am eating,” or “I am pleased,” or “I am thinking about the deposition.”  If you practice daily, your skill in mental note taking will grow and you will be able to engage in it, no matter what is happening.  By labeling the affect, by taking mental notes, a self-leader can become calm in the middle of a storm.

Making mental notes are not just advantageous in times of conflict. The more skilled you get at labeling, the more quickly — no matter the situation — you can return to equanimity and composure. Let us know how it works.

Note: Here’s a PDF of the research article “Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling Disrupts Amygdala Activity in Response to Affective Stimuli.”


Stephanie West Allen

Stephanie West Allen, JD, practiced law in California for several years, held offices in local bar associations, and wrote chapters for California Continuing Education of the Bar. While in CA, Stephanie completed several five-day mediation training programs with the Center for Mediation in Law, as well as a two-year intensive… MORE >

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