Taming the Lizard

Feb. 1, 2004
Since October, we've been exploring Emotional Intelligence. Seventy-five percent of star performers' success is the result of E.I., while just 25 percent comes from technical competency.

Bob Frazer Jr., DDS, FACD, FICD

Since October, we've been exploring Emotional Intelligence. Seventy-five percent of star performers' success is the result of E.I., while just 25 percent comes from technical competency.

"E.I. is our capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, for managing emotions well in ourselves and our relationships," according to Daniel Goleman in "Working With Emotional Intelligence."

Why did I entitle this issue "Taming the Lizard?" The previous two articles explained that the seat of emotions lies in the amygdala within the limbic system (old reptilian brain). An emotion begins first as a physiologic event, then flows over neural pathways to the pre-frontal cortex, where we interpret what we are feeling. How we interpret the emotion has more to do with our biography than the event that triggered it. During a recent "Building Emotional Intelligence in Leadership Workshop," my co-presenter, Bill Woodburn, MEd., LPC, described this whole system in a more memorable way — as the lizard and the filing clerk.

Our brains are extraordinary. They are divided in several compartments, each with special functions for everything from survival to the highest cognitive reasoning. A good way to understand this is to imagine you are driving down the highway at high speed and suddenly another car swerves in front of you. You instantly react by hitting your brakes and making a quick evasive maneuver. Not until moments later do you get angry or shaky and realize you could have been a victim in a serious auto collision. How were you able to do that without thinking? It was the amygdala responding instantly to the threat. This ancient structure is like a lizard sitting on a rock scanning its environment.

When the lizard is aroused, it asks only three questions: Can I eat it? Can I mate with it? Or will it eat (or hurt) me? And then it reacts instantly. Now, contrast that with the pre-frontal cortex that can be described best as a filing clerk — knowledgeable, but slow and deliberate. When the message or emotion arrives, the clerk says, "Oh yeah, I have dealt with this before. I know there is a file around here somewhere that can help with this!" And sooner or later, it finds what it needs in the memory files and more logically decides how to respond. Just imagine what would have happened in that auto collision if you had to rely on the filing clerkUcrash!

But what does this have to do with resonant (emotionally aware) leadership and the everyday practice of dentistry? Quite a lot. Think about the last time you treated a fearful or anxious patient. Nine times out of 10, the fearful patient's lizard has been aroused. The resonant dentist and team recognize this and respond appropriately; not through logic, because the lizard won't listen to logic. What the aroused lizard responds to is soothing music, slow reassuring gestures, a gentle touch, the smiling familiar face with understanding eyes (behind the mask and glasses), plus a soft voice of reassurance.

Even more interesting about brain research into E.I., is that we can have our lizard aroused by a more routine stimulus or event. A coaching client reported that he almost always felt anxiousness and anxiety as he began each work week. His growing up years had been difficult in an abusive relationship with his father. That caused him to decide when he was about 8 that no one would take care of him but himself. He could not depend on his parents. He was alone. And now, even though more than 30 years had passed and he had a solid dental team, he still thought he would be alone in dealing with the challenges of his practice that week. His lizard was hyper-vigilant and aroused. So he went in on guard. It required enormous emotional energy to simply get through the day.

Through personal counseling and coaching, he gradually uncovered the source of his distress. It was tough work, but he succeeded by first understanding the root cause and then taking deliberate actions such as soft music and meditation to begin his day. Through counseling he was able to heal, and through coaching he adopted new ways of interacting with staff and patients. He created a vision for his life and life's work, including a vision of his ideal self, if all were the best they could be. Two essentials of E.I. are self-awareness and self-management. We'll explore those further next month. In the meantime, beware the lizard.

Dr. Bob Frazer Jr. is founder of the strategic leadership firm R.L. Frazer & Assoc., whose custom programs help dentists achieve top 5 percent status in both financial achievement and life balance (fulfillment and significance). Superb communication skills 0have propelled Dr. Frazer to a 27-year international speaking career in dentistry. To receive "7 Ways To Grow Your EQ," contact him at (512) 346-0455, fax (512) 346-1071, or e-mail [email protected].

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