by Mike Gettel-Gilmartin
We were fortunate this Advent to have a wonderful speaker for a fascinating topic. Sarah Peyton (www.empathybrain.com) proved to be a fountain of knowledge on the working of the brain and a skilled facilitator on the subject of nonviolent communication. I learned three major things.
All about the amygdala: The amygdala is an almond-shaped mass of nuclei located deep within the temporal lobe of the brain. This limbic system structure is involved in many of our emotions and motivations, particularly those related to survival. The amygdala processes emotions such as fear, anger, and pleasure, and determines which memories are stored and where they are stored in our brains. When we feel threatened, the amygdala grabs control and we flip our lids. Sarah demonstrated this effectively by folding her fingers over her thumb in the middle of her open palm. When the amygdala feels threatened, the fingers fly open (the “flipped lid” effect) and no energy or information flows to or from the prefrontal cortex.
Feelings and needs: Sarah talked about the different feelings we have when our needs are not being met and how important it is to recognize these underlying needs. We practiced expressing these to each other in small groups. She also introduced us to the concept of faux feelings, which are evaluative words like ”rejected” or ”threatened.“ These types of words suggest that someone is doing something TO you, which can in turn create feelings of greater distance. Sarah then shared the concept of “giraffe words,” which connect back to the heart. For example, instead of blurting out, “I’m feeling rejected,” we would do well to rephrase this as “I’m feeling (hurt/scared/angry) because my need for (inclusion/acknowledgement/connection) is not being met.” Again, we practiced using these giraffe words instead of “jackal” (or alienating) words.
Hearing that someone was expressing an unmet need was an “Aha!” moment for me. It disengaged my fight-or-flight response, and got me thinking of ways in which I might help the person meet their needs.
Intentional listening: Finally, I saw the power of intentional listening in action, when one of our community members demonstrated movement along an “anger line.” When this person’s concerns were listened to without us giving her advice, we saw a visible change in her bearing and even her complexion. The flush that anger had produced in her disappeared, and she became calmer.
This article gives a good overview of much of what Sarah covered. Thanks to everyone involved in creating the Advent soup supper program. Not only did we receive delicious food for our bodies, we also received much food for thought and sustenance for our souls.