Brand building through storytelling

Greening my emotional ecosystem

I like to think I do my part for this pollution-choked world we all share. I’d sooner cross the street naked than sully it with used styrofoam. I’ve turned down the A/C, sworn off overfished species and just about broken my plastic bag habit. Oh, and here’s the kicker: I don’t drive—although, to be perfectly honest, I’m not really walking for the ecosystem. I’m walking to spare myself the sweaty-palmed agony of driving while those stuck behind me honk in frustration.

So I’d better not give myself airs. Especially since, metaphorically speaking, there’s a whole other ecosystem needing my attention—and yours, and everyone’s. It’s the emotional space between any two people, be they spouses, colleagues or harried strangers in a checkout line. With every gesture and expression, every word and tone of voice, we unconsciously shape the emotional ecosystem. The vast majority of us don’t even know that it exists, yet we all hold the power to make this infinitely malleable space more toxic or more nurturing, minute by minute.

That’s the message I’ve drawn from psychologist Daniel Goleman’s mind-bender of a book, Social Intelligence: the New Science of Human Relationships. Goleman’s previous tour de force, Emotional Intelligence, launched a campaign to humanize the rigid face of corporate leadership—and, not incidentally, had me and all my friends taking quizzes to rate our E.Q. This time out, Goleman shows that it’s nowhere near enough to out-empathize the win-at-all costs striver in the next cubicle. With emotions, as with the environment, our actions and inactions have more profound, farther reaching consequences than most of us ever imagined. Although Goleman doesn’t use the term “emotional ecosystem,” he got me thinking about the social equivalents to trees and greenhouse gases.

We humans are wired for connection, he says. Our brains contain cells whose sole task it is to sense another person’s feelings, then prime us to mirror them. They get hostile, we up the ante. They smile, so do we. Aha!  There’s a biological reason why a stranger in my neighbourhood rushed out of his shop one day to thank me for beaming every time I walk by. Unawares, I was greening the street. (Click here to read a previous post about this.)

Catch is, I am also an unconscious emotional polluter. A subtle edge in my voice that turns a superficially innocent statement (“I see we’re out of sliced ham”) into something more akin to an accusation (“Why have you devoured our ham supply?”).

Tones of voice have such power that they can shape moods between total strangers—and Goleman cites a study to prove it. Two groups of students listened to a tape recording of a dry philospophy text read aloud. One group heard the tape read in a slightly upbeat voice; the other listened to a version with a melancholic tinge. Afterwards, the students felt either a little happier or a little sadder, depending on which version of the tape they had heard.

I could tell you a whole lot more about the discoveries I found in this endlessly informative book, but it’s almost lunchtime and I can almost taste that ham-and-gruyere on brown. So I’ll conclude with a few choice nuggets that caught my attention:

* Any interaction with your boss—good, bad or in between—will raise your blood pressure. And distressing interactions with the boss will linger in your mind much longer than affirming ones.

* Marital battles compromise both spouses’ immune and endocrine systems, especially if the conflict drags on for years. But the damage hits women harder than men.

* Brain imaging studies show that women are soothed by the touch of their husband’s hand. The more satisfied a woman is with her marriage, the greater the power of holding hands.

Okay, off to lunch. Back soon.

Posted by Rona

Previously posted comments:

Deb Wilson
July 11, 2009 at 6:06AM

I was taught by a friend (who is a pastor) years ago to listen for holy echoes in my life. Holy Echoes meaning those times when a message seems to crop up everywhere, like dandelions in an unmown yard.

Tone of voice is the little yellow bloom for this week, apparently.

Accused previously of taking a certain tone with my husband when responding to a series of questions about what checks were written to pay, resisting the impulse (later that same day) to chide an adult daughter for her tone when rebuffing a suggested activity, last night watching a recorded special about music and our brain.

Today this little blossom in my inbox.

I am taking away that my tone of voice, like a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon, could set off a series of events traveling far beyond the bounds my momentary irritation could reasonably justify.

In the end, I am only responsible for my own actions and can only control my own behaviors. Resolved:Let there be a gentler tone on earth, and let it begin with me.

Rona Maynard
July 17, 2009 at 6:06 AM

Hear, hear! It’s so easy to feel utterly disheartened by events in the news, and to forget our own power for setting that gentler tone that’s so urgently needed.

Deb Pascoe
July 17, 2009 at 9:09AM

As a ranking queen of the sarcastic, cutting tone of voice, I squirmed while reading this entry and vowed, for the umpteenth time, to perform an “edge-ectomy” on my voice. My kids often ask me why I’m angry when I’m speaking to them – only I’m not angry. It’s become an automatic setting for me. When I try to sound serious or stern, out comes angry. It makes the listener defensive and undermines whatever point I’m trying to make. When coupled with sarcasm, it causes wounds I will never know the depth of.
So I’ll keep trying to soften my sharp vocal edges. Thank you for the reminder.

Rona Maynard
July 17, 2009 at 11:11 AM

Edge-ectomy! My mother could have used one of those. And so could I, it seems. How to break this unconscious habit of a lifetime? Let me know if you discover any secrets.

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