Two weeks ago a client invited me to join her team at the Eisenhower Executive building.
And as I walked past ornate fences to cut through security on a rainy, windy morning, I couldn’t help but feel like a bona fide Washingtonian (bad hair day and all).
The place is marvelous, complete with gilded railings on spiral staircases and decked out ceilings.
We met next to the National Security Council and went to work. I’ll have to spare you the details of what was said and why, but the meeting itself brought together federal leaders and was being facilitated by Harvard professor Lenny Marcus.
Lenny reminded me of the Basement and the Balcony, and I wanted to share these concepts with you because I think they are helpful for all Millennials who are trying to go bigger in work and life.
All of us have these moments when we are in the “Basement.” The logical part of our brains just shut down and our intuitive survival mechanism kicks in. Nowadays there are less saber tooth tigers out there, but we get scared when we hear a honk or an alarm. We lash out at people when we feel threatened or angry, and come to regret it right away. We freeze up and “go blank” before a big speech. You can blame the Amygdala in your brain for all of that. In any one of those moments, you’re in the Basement…
How does it feel when you’re in the Basement? Take a moment next time to notice what it’s like. How’s your breathing? Are you getting clammy or feeling your heart rate? How clearly are you thinking?
I know it’s not a very comfortable place, but it’s entirely normal and necessary to keep us out of trouble. The good news is we can be “smarter than our brains,” and here are some ways to get you started:
Take a Look Around & Name It
Lenny says his way of getting out of the Basement is to just name it. “Well I guess I’m in the Basement right now.” That seems to work for him, and it works for me too…sometimes. I’ll tell you my “go-to” approach below… (it’s nuanced but not complicated).
Slow It Down
You should know that the Amygdala operates much faster than your rational thoughts. So in that moment your logic is not all that helpful, but the best thing you can do is to try and slow yourself down for a second. You can do this by breathing deeply, distracting yourself with a happy thought, and choosing to sit in silence.
I know it can be hard to slow it down when things are ratcheting up or you’re about to hop on stage, but those few seconds can make the biggest difference. Consider picking up a breathing practice or coming up with some happy thoughts that you can access quickly. Practice slowing it down next time and staying silent, to see how it works for you.
Go To the Balcony
William Ury at Harvard has been at it a long time. He co-wrote the seminal book on negotiation, Getting to Yes, and I can’t recommend it enough for anyone interested in becoming a master negotiator. Ury has written a number of other books and has some great YouTube videos floating around that you can check out for more information.
He talks a lot about the tough work he does in advising top leaders in the public and private sectors, including none other than Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. During a meeting with Chavez, Ury caught himself going into the Basement. Chavez was yelling at him about how slow progress was going and how disappointed he was.
Ury tells us what we might already know. He was in trouble unless he figured out a way to calm the emotions down, and it didn’t help that he was fired up himself! It was in that moment that Ury went to the Balcony. He stepped out of his body and visualized himself “above” on a balcony, looking down on himself and the situation. This “bird’s eye view” is an amazing vantage point when considering difficult situations, because it gives your logical brain a chance to get back in the fight.
I like playing with this framework by reminding myself that there are such things as Basements and Balconies. These concepts have become common in conversation with my friends and loved ones, so we have an easy way to remind each other in times of stress. I also have worked hard to incorporate a breathing exercise into my moments of anger and frustration. When someone steals my parking spot or gives me grief at Starbucks, I do my best to breathe in for a second or two and then exhale fully for 3-5 seconds. This simple act of breathing in for less time than you exhale has been shown to reset your Limbic System, which again gives your rational brain a chance to recover.
Finding What Works For You
What are some tricks that might work for you? Take a minute to ponder it when you have the time. In the long run this “self-work” may save you from some costly or embarrassing experiences, but you have to decide if it’s worth worrying about right now. If your "Amygdala Hijacks" are getting in your way, maybe it’s time to get started on a new you.
It’s Hard Until It’s Easy
The simple truth is always tough to hear. Going from the Basement to the Balcony is a hard thing to do. Not everyone does it the first time they try. Sometimes you get caught off-guard and you lose to the tide of emotion that comes your way. You may not feel any meaningful progress for some time. But one day, it will just click, and you will breathe a sigh of relief from your Balcony! You’ll smile and handle a familiar situation far better than you ever did before. There are steps backwards and forwards on this journey, but it is well worth it!
If you’ve made it this far, it’s because you care. What will you do next?!