Outsmart Your Brain: Managing emotional reactions when teaching

Reprinted from ATD post, Sept. 2, 2022  https://www.td.org/magazines/td-magazine/how-to-manage-the-mind-when-emotions-take-the-wheel

There is a simple biological formula we sometimes forget to integrate into our instructional design:

  • When people feel psychologically safe, they are more curious, more likely to take risks when practicing, and more inspired to engage in creative work. They are also more inclined to help their peers learn and grow.
  • When they don’t feel safe, their brains revert to fight or flight mode. The blood flows to the large muscle groups in preparation to ward off threats. This protective instinct decreases the ability to sort ideas, shift perspective, and formulate insights.
  • The desire to learn is enhanced when the brain is safely at peace.

The emotions that create the presence you bring into the room and maintain throughout your program will facilitate or frustrate the safety participants feel. Your emotions impact their willingness to let go of what they think they know so they are open to learn, practice, and grow.

How do you create psychological safety when you teach? What sabotages your ability to create safety and trust? How do you quickly recognize when you feel emotionally provoked and return to generating the emotional energy that promotes safety? This article provides some answers to these questions. As Maya Angelou said, “…people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Creating psychological safety

The founder of the coaching school I attended taught my first coaching class in 1995. He said the way to learn how to coach was to go coach. We would get better as we applied the skills we learned.

We protested. How could we coach if we didn’t know what we were doing? He said, “Just go love them.”

When reading the testimonials from my first year of coaching. I realized I gave my clients a safe space to talk through their dilemmas. It might have been the only time in their days they could show up fully as themselves with no fear of judgment. Even today, I teach, “Mastery is the deepening of presence, not the perfection of skills.” They will not accept what you think they should know if they don’t trust you.

Years later, an acting teacher told me, “It doesn’t matter what the audience thinks of you. You are there to give them 100%. For every bit of worry you have about how they are assessing you, you aren’t giving them what they paid for.”

This may make sense but it is easier said than applied. Emotions show up first in your body before your brain can interpret what is happening. The energy generated from your emotions can actually be measured.1 Suppressing your emotions doesn’t stop this exchange.

Think about the last time you knew what people were feeling when they were trying to hide their reactions. Can you be curious and care the moment you walk into the room until you say goodbye at the end? Probably not, but you can increase your self-awareness when other emotions are set off, and then quickly shift back to feeling curious, appreciative, and caring.

Emotional Saboteurs

Your brain also wants you to feel safe. When it perceives a threat, it rises to the occasion. You have deeply imbedded patterns of reactions that show up before you think. You may rush to defensively explain yourself or silently express frustration in subtle as well as apparent gestures. You might tighten up as you fear you are losing control of the class. You may notice your behavior but quickly rationalize your reactions, putting the blame on someone or something else. You assume bad intent when explaining why others are annoying you. You judge what they mean, want, and need without fact-checking your assumptions.

Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga says humans are masters at fooling themselves into thinking they are acting consciously and willfully.2 When someone asks you why you did something, you immediately provide an answer that fits the situation even if the response doesn’t make sense. The brain makes decisions based on emotions and then expertly justifies reactions with “logic.”

These automatic patterns of behavior are difficult to override. You must develop continual self-awareness and immediate emotional choice to take back control of your brain. Only then can you see others in a new light, appreciating their perspective and where they are on their learning journey. You can better recognize and adapt to cultural differences and learning preferences.

I was teaching the pilot leadership program for a global company based in Denmark. The Director of HR was in the back of the room observing the class. The first hour went well. As I began explaining the impact of values on leadership behavior, a few participants challenged the concepts. I offered evidence. They seemed content but as I continued, others voiced their opinions and asked for deeper explanations. I kept breathing and releasing the tightness I felt growing in my body.

After 45 minutes of feeling like they were ganging up on me, we took a scheduled break. I nearly ran to the back of the room to find out what the Director was thinking. Before I could speak, she said, “Wow, they are really engaged!”

I must have looked confused. She added, “Oh, you might now know, this is a great example of how Danes are taught to learn. We challenge the teachers hoping for constructive dialogue even when we argue.” My body relaxed as I realized I was succeeding instead of failing.

Your emotional saboteurs are social needs. From the time you were born, you repeated behavior that brought you positive attention, love, and/or safety. You learned how to get what you most needed first from your family. Then, as you began navigating life beyond your family, some behaviors became more significant than others as you sought to feel confident or comfortable in the social groups you identified with. Getting your needs met fueled your personal or professional successes. These repeated behaviors became your personal strengths.

When you use your strengths – what has helped you navigate life so far – you expect to get what you need to feel confident or comfortable in response to your actions. When your social expectations are not met, you react anywhere along the continuum of visible anger to shutting down.

Here are some possibilities of needs that drive your success and provoke emotional reactions when you aren’t given what you expect from others. What do you unconsciously seek from your actions that helps you feel confident or comfortable (choose your top three motivators):

  Acceptance                                         Respect                                   Be Liked

  Recognition (for self or work)        Feel Valued                            Be Understood

  Appreciation                                       Attention                               Feel Needed

  Be Right                                             Accuracy                                 Control

  Comfort                                              Feel Safe                                 Peace and Quiet

  Fairness                                             New Challenges                      Independence

  Order                                                   Predictability                         Fun

Think about the last time you felt irritation, anxiety, or disappointment while interacting with others. What did you expect to get from them that was withheld or disregarded? What about when you last taught a class that didn’t go as you had hoped? Do you think a participant was trying to take control when you owned it? Did you not feel the hard work you put into your program was recognized? Were participants constantly checking their email and holding side conversations that could have denied you a social need from this list that is important to you?

In the moment, you don’t have to be sure which unmet social need was affected. However, you could ask yourself, “What was happening when I reacted in a negative way? What didn’t I get that makes me happy or content? What could I have been taking too personally, making me think I wasn’t getting what I expected?”

Don’t be embarrassed or angry about your impulse to defend yourself, convince others, or shut down. No matter how emotionally mature you think you are, your brain will prompt reactions before your “higher self” has a chance to intervene. Be curious about what transpired so you can learn from the experience.

You might not be able to recognize the unmet expectation in the moment, but in reflection, just acknowledging you have a need can begin to weaken the control the need has over your brain. This will support your practice of self-awareness and emotional choice while you are interacting.

Exercising emotional choice

Because of your brain’s quick reaction time, the skill is not to stop yourself from reacting. You want to develop your ability to quickly shift your emotions following a reaction. You can become aware of your emotional reactions, and then tell your brain what you would like to feel, think, and do differently.

Noticing you are reacting is the first step. The quicker you notice you are having an emotional reaction, the quicker you can shift your emotional state if you choose to. Your self-awareness gives you the freedom to choose how  you want to feel. Then you can breathe the feeling into your body so the shift is complete.

Viktor Frankl said in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Developing the mental habit of noticing and shifting your emotions takes time. Practice makes you competent, not perfect. Your social needs are strengths that define who you are. Who you are is your ego. Ego likes to rule your behavior. Can you let your ego fade into the background as you master emotional choice?

Here are a few tips to help you with your practice:

  1. Take clues from your body. Do you hold irritation in your stomach, shoulders, or jaw? When you are anxious, does your heart beat faster and the back of your neck heat up? Improve your emotional awareness by setting your phone alarm to go off three times a day for two weeks to remind you to ask yourself, “What am I feeling? Why?”
  2. Fill your body with your chosen emotion or two. Consciously remind yourself you want to feel curious and caring or calm and confident before you enter the room. Raise your hands to the sky so your spine is aligned as you inhale the emotions you want to feel. Repeat this exercise at breaks in your program to maintain your presence.
  3. Determine what people need from you. Do they need to know it is okay to share ideas not fully fleshed out? Do they need you to encourage them to take a risk? Are you good with being challenged so you learn together? Visualize meeting their needs as well as your own.
  4. Say you’re sorry if you need to. If an interaction felt contentious, you might find the time to discuss what happened with the class after a meal or break. Talking about your errors, growth, and journey is a strength. Your courage to be a vulnerable, normal human inspires others to grow as well.

You have an amazing ability to observe your brain at work. You can even laugh at your brain, and then choose to feel, think, and act differently so you don’t damage the psychological safety you established at the start of the program.


1  Rollin McCraty, Ph.D. The Energetic Heart: Biolectromagnetic Interactions Within and Between People. Chapter published in: Clinical Applications of Bioelectromagnetic Medicine, edited by P. J. Rosch; M. S. Markov. New York: Marcel Dekker, 2004: 541-562.

2  Michael Gazzaniga. Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain. Ecco, 2011, page 43.

article written from content in Outsmart Your Brain, 2nd edition (2012) by Marcia Reynolds.

AUTHOR: As president of Covisioning LLC, Dr. Marcia Reynolds has provided leadership coaching and training in 43 countries. Quotes from Marcia’s books Outsmart Your Brain; The Discomfort Zone; Wander Woman, and her latest international bestseller, Coach the Person, Not the Problem have appeared in business and psychological publications world-wide.

Marcia holds a doctorate in organizational psychology and two master’s degrees in learning psychology and communications. She was one of the first people to earn the designation of Master Certified Coach from the International Coaching Federation (ICF). She was the 5th global president of the ICF and teaches for coaching schools in the US, Russia, China, and the Philippines.

To learn more about Marcia, visit www.Covisioning.com.


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