Author, Consultant, Executive Coach - Helping people and organizations grow into desired results

Saturday, 15 November 2008

SFC Day Two, plus: "Lord of the Skies"

It's struck me over the two days I spent at the Singapore Facilitators Conference (SFC) 2008 that the theme neuroscience everywhere continues.

Several of the sessions talked about tapping into people's different functional styles in order to facilitate the energy of divergent worldviews and perspectives in (sometimes quite large) group settings - helping to achieve strength from diversity and a rich tapestry of thought and opinion rather then a shouting match of adversarial position-defending. Two of the process tools - Open Space Technology (OST) and the World Cafe - are designed in particular to foster the cross-pollination of ideas across large numbers of people in a moderately structured format.

A few sessions spoke specifically about brain function and how the rich interplay of nurture/nature shapes how our minds make meaning and sense of the world around us. The focus was largely on getting people into a functional, rational space (their NeuroRational Type as I would term it) so they can access the best in themselves and be more open to the opinions of others. Interestingly, I gained further insight into human emotional, limbic responses from quite another quarter on my trip home.

Social Behaviour under Stress

On my way back to Sydney I was unexpectedly part of what I thought was an interesting experiment in social behaviour under stress.

My 7.5 hour flight from Singapore was on board the Qantas "flying art" aircraft Wunala Dreaming, a beautifully decorated 747 with Aboriginal depictions of Australia's best-known icon, the kangaroo.

The flight was tracking for early arrival in Sydney, but due to bad weather was diverted to land in Canberra. There for a variety of reasons we proceeded to spend a further 7 hours sitting on the plane parked next to a disused RAAF hangar, finally being evacuated to hotels at 3AM.

To say the process was chaotic would be to engage in mild understatement, but that's not what I found most interesting. First, some context: there were people on the plane who had come from various places in Europe, which meant flying via London-Singapore and had already been in planes and airports for upwards of 30+ hours before finding themselves locked in a 747 in Canberra.

Nerves were on edge.

Lord of the Skies

What ensued was a small-scale version of Lord of the an airplane setting. By this I mean that an already long journey, made longer and more stressful by this diversion, provoked a variety of responses from people.

Stripped of comforting social and cultural conventions and further stressed by fatigue and environmental factors, people's behaviour began to revert to quite an emotional (limbic), even primitive state of being.

While our lives were cleary not in jeopardy - quite the opposite - our brains could not tell that was the case. For tired people in a harrowing situation, the limbic reaction was one of life-or-death. The focus was on survival and people's behaviours began increasingly to reflect their Core Belief Types.

As I've written previously, there are nine Core Belief Types, or basic survival strategies. They consist of three different groups; each group includes the three modes: fight-flight-freeze. So that as the night wore on to become early morning and different versions of a solution were mooted, only to be found impractial, I watched with fascination as people in the plane (including yours truly!) freely shifted gears between the three modes of fight-flight-freeze or, to put it another way, their forward-reverse-neutral gears.

Spiralling down, climbing back up again

Within each of our Core Belief triads, each of us has a default mode. On the plane, some people's initial response was flight (reverse gear) not in that they tried to break out of the plane, but they simply put in their headphones, nodded off or passively watched the situation unfold. Others were in freeze (neutral gear) or compliant mode: although they may have been increasingly annoyed by the mounting inconvenience, they did not act - choosing instead to have a whinge about it to their neighbours or sigh heavily in frustration. Still others were in fight mode quite early on, taking action by using their mobiles to inform local journalists about the situation, speaking directly the the chef de cabine, even demanding answers from the beleaguered cabin crew members.

So what kept us from savaging the crew and one another like the ill-fated boys on Golding's island? A couple of things.

We were given semi-regular updates on the progress that had been made thus far, which lessened the sense of helplessness that we felt in a situation whose solution lay quite outside our control. This, in turn, helped people to better manage the things that were in their control and develop a useful explanatory style based less on emotionally-reactive views and more on a rational (cognitive) view of the situation.

As often in these situations, I observed a sense of community form within the plane. There is nothing like a shared crisis to get strangers talking to one another. People shared stories of the destinations they had hoped to reach, the obligations or opportunities that await them when they finally arrived and generally expressed themselves. A sense of "making the best of a bad situation" arose which I think people found quite hopeful and suggested that there was a way through, it remain just to get it identified and carried out.

After a nosedive (or two) into survival-based and reactive Core Belief (or NeuroLimbic) types of the so-called "lizard brain," I credit the majority of people on that flight with climbing back up into their more powerful rational brain and accessing the particular gifts and talents of their NeuroRational profiles to foster a sense of community and personal connection that saw us all through. It also beats being emotionally jangled and miserable for 7 hours - with negative long-term effects on your health in the that entails.

And so it was that this Dreamtime journey on the Flying Kangaroo had many lessons for us all...

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