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The Writing Brain: Putting Plasticity to Work

Journaling promotes self-expression, stress relief, and creativity.

This post was written by Ariana Friedlander and Nicklas Balboa.

It doesn't take long for the euphoria of a promotion to turn into feelings of overwhelm. As the expectations of the added responsibilities of a new leadership role sink in, the reality becomes a stark contrast to the vision. What was supposed to be an opportunity to shine becomes laden with stress and concern. That's what happened to Frederick.

Frederick was all too excited for the promotion to lead the IT department. He had a lot of ideas for driving innovation to advance the organization's mission, but when Frederick found himself overwhelmed and stressed by the weight of the new responsibilities, he started taking his work home every night. The blurred borders of work and home created tension across Frederick’s social networks: work and family.

It didn't help that as a young professional, Frederick was the youngest leader sitting on the executive team. And instead of driving innovation at executive meetings, he felt insecure, struggled to find his words, and was unsure about how to add his voice to the conversation. That's when he decided to reach out for help.

Source: Kyle Victory/Storyhackers, used with permission
The writing brain.
Source: Kyle Victory/Storyhackers, used with permission

Holistic Coaching: Rewriting Narratives

Coaching is less about giving a person answers and more about guiding them to find answers within. Elevating one's communication skills begins by improving the quality of their relationship with their innermost thoughts and feelings.

When they started working together, coach Ariana Friedlander and Frederick engaged in a discovery process to identify the challenges he was facing as well as his aspirations. The more Ariana could learn about Frederick, as well as the dynamics of the situation he was navigating and his goals, the better she could support him as a whole person. Starting this effort towards professional development as an inward journey is paramount as our education system has trained us to search externally for the right answer.

For leaders who are driving innovation, there is no one right answer out there to be found. Each person on the team has valuable experiences and insights which, when combined together, enable the leader to co-create new innovations that drive business success. Navigating such co-creative conversations begins with a healthy inner dialogue. Naturally, Frederick’s first steps began with simply noticing his thoughts and feelings and observing how different triggers caused him to get carried away by his emotions in the moment. With that awareness and self-honesty, Ariana and Frederick were able to work together to rewrite the stories that held him back from being the best leader that he could.

The Power of the Pen

Journaling is an exceptional tool for coaching professionals to apply the latest research on the Neuroscience of Conversations . It's a simple premise really. There's a well-known saying: “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Certain stimuli, like a colleague speaking in a dismissive tone, can send the brain into a nuanced form of a well-conditioned call to survival.

The threat reactions the brain taps into are great if we are face-to-face with a saber-toothed tiger, but the fact is that the vast majority of the challenges we face today are more complicated and nuanced than following a patterned threat reaction (fight, flight, freeze, or appease). Feelings of worry, concern, fear, sadness, loss, or uncertainty can further create a sense of alarm. And there the loop begins.

This is where journaling is so powerful because it creates an opportunity to reframe the threat narrative, refocus your energy and intentions, and rewrite your experiences! This incredible capacity to reshape our experiences is rooted in learning and can literally change the brain, so that instead of going through a patterned threat response, we can re-engage the executive brain, process the situation with a new perspective, and gain powerful insights to challenges that evaded you before.

Like many professionals, Frederick was used to managing everything in his head, relying on the inner thought process to try to solve every problem. The mere act of getting ideas out of his head and onto paper proved to be a beneficial shift of habit, reducing a significant amount of self-reported stress while stimulating his creative brain. These novel and useful methods of journaling gave Frederick a fresh technique for cogitating and exploring new solutions. Journaling is now a big part of how Frederick manages his life and work, because it enables him to relieve stress, better manage his productivity, get in the creative zone, and most importantly, show up as the leader he wants to be.

Are you interested in journaling, but are having trouble getting started? Here are two conversational intelligence -based tips that help create the mental and physical space necessary for healthy self-expression and connection.

1. Find the pen that works.

  • Insight: When it comes to human expression, feeling is everything. It was Miguel de Cervantes who said, “La pluma es la lengua del alma,” or “The pen is the language of the soul.” Finding the implement or tool that you are most comfortable with, whether it be pen and paper, a computer, or digital recorder, creates a sense of ease, minimizes excuses and distractions, and helps bring the ideas out of your mind and onto the medium.

2. Call on the writer's muse.

  • Insight: To quote Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis, "The best thing to do is to loosen my grip on my pen and let it go wandering about until it finds an entrance." Sometimes writer’s block stops all progress, so instead of attending to the “voice in your head,” which often stops all progress, let the words flow from the unconscious writer within. This is the voice with access to a pool of seemingly infinite ways to describe the world; images and feelings flow from the source in rich, incredible detail, as fact or fiction emerge adjective after adjective. Once the story is out of the mind and onto the medium, it becomes increasingly easier to reframe the narrative and rewrite your experiences.

Ariana Friedlander is a Conversational Intelligence® certified coach and a journaling instructor at Storyhackers.

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