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This is Your Brain on Power

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Brain science is now confirming what people have known throughout history: power changes us in profound ways. Studies show that when we feel powerful our neural processing is altered such that our ability to "mirror" others is impaired. Mirroring is what our brain does as we subconsciously take in the gestures, speech patterns, attitudes, etc. of others, and by so doing share their experiences. This is how we are able to relate to people different from ourselves and build rapport with them. Without this mirroring, we lose one of our most critical capabilities—empathy.

Psychologist Dacher Keltner has reached similar conclusions during his twenty year study of power and its impact on human behavior. He describes its affects as similar to those of a traumatic brain injury. People experiencing power tend to be more impulsive, more tolerant of risk, and—surprise, surprise—less able to see things from another's perspective. Keltner has also noted what he calls the "power paradox." The abilities people rely on to become powerful—thinking strategically, being conscientious and acting cooperatively—often recede once they have gained that power. You may have experienced this as a colleague, friend, or even a spouse moves up the ladder only to begin acting like a jerk (to use the polite technical term).

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There are advantages to these power-based brain shifts which explain why humans have evolved this way. As we screen out information from outside ourselves, we are able to become very focused, and to move forward with greater confidence. These are important attributes for making big decisions, overcoming challenges, and dealing with the unknown.

The issue then is one of developing a healthy sense of power, which means balancing the mental benefits like confidence with the ability to empathize. As you can imagine, this is not easy, but ultimately it is essential for the well-being of all of us as we experience power and are affected by the powerful.

What can we do to maintain our empathy?

There are myriad tales of kings, princes, and other powerful beings going out amongst the hoi polloi and rediscovering their humanity as they connect with their fellow man and woman. By stepping out of power from time to time, and re-experiencing what it is like to not feel powerful, to feel ordinary, we can flex our mirror neurons and again see the world as others see it.

Finding situations in which we care for others—family, friends, and even strangers—can also help to reinvigorate empathy. It sounds like a clich√©, but volunteering at the local soup kitchen (or equivalent) and literally facing the reality of those in circumstances very different from our own develops compassion and perspective. Mandatory community service for abusers of power? You betcha!

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Partners, friends, and trusted colleagues (and advisors!) can be another source of perspective for those in positions of power. Behind every powerful man and woman is—hopefully—someone reminding them they are human after all. If they don't have people with whom they can confide, share their vulnerabilities, and listen to, they run the risk of becoming further and further out of touch.

Another way to develop empathy is by learning about others through books and films. (How fun is that!) By reading fiction and biographies, and watching films about the lives of others, we are able to broaden our experience of the world vicariously. (See below for one of our favorites.)

Not surprisingly, simply looking at people as we talk—versus looking at a screen—offers the perfect workout for our mirror neurons. Once someone has accomplished that, they can then move on to more advanced skills like listening, being curious, asking questions, and reflecting back what they have heard. When we can easily and regularly practice these skills, we are truly back in the empathy saddle, and on our way to embodying healthy power.

Explore

We love using film to develop empathy. A great series for this is 30 Days by documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock. In each episode someone steps into the life of a person very different from themselves for one month. The understandings and the transformations that emerge are wonderful to witness. If you see only one, check out Season 2, Episode 1 on immigration. (Available on Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube.)

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Experiment

Spend this month looking at the world through the power-empathy lens. Where do you see people with a healthy balance of power and empathy, and how do they do it? How can you develop a greater balance within yourself and/or support the development of a healthy power in people you know?

Power and Empathy to the People!

Beth and Eric

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