How to Deal with Unfamiliar Situations by Srini Pillay MARCH 13, 2014


How to Deal with Unfamiliar Situations by Srini Pillay MARCH 13, 2014

Have you recently switched jobs or positions and wondered “What’s going on here?” Have you been given a new task or a new technology that’s completely unfamiliar? Are you working with people

who come from different backgrounds and not really sure if you’re all on the same page? Dealing with unfamiliar situations and people is challenging, of course, because we don’t yet have everything

figured out. Over time, we adjust. But how can we get better at dealing with the new and unfamiliar— from the start?

Brain science tells us a lot about the answer to this question. The biological challenge is that we are wired to recognize and process familiar people and situations from a young age. For example, children “know” when a face is their own race versus a different one at a very early stage because their brains are wired to detect this. In addition, the brain of a mother is wired to respond specifically to the familiarity of her own infant as compared to that of another. In fact, for all adults it takes only 200 milliseconds to register whether a face is familiar or not and recent research shows us that we process familiar faces with almost double the efficiency than unfamiliar faces. Furthermore, the brain treats “threat” in the same way if you or someone familiar to you is threatened, but responds differently if the person who is threatened is unfamiliar. These differences apply not just to unfamiliar people, but to unfamiliar processes as well. Thus, when someone or something is unfamiliar, the brain is less engaged and empathic and has to use greater effort as well. This is clearly an advantage when it comes to protecting one’s “own” or responding with speed in familiar situations, but what can we do when the people around us or situations in which we find ourselves are constantly changing and unfamiliar as in the current business environment?

First, building up trust and focusing specifically on steps related to this can override the discomfort of unfamiliarity. How do we know this? A recent study demonstrated that when men are given oxytocin—a “trust” hormone—unfamiliar female faces will appear to be more attractive because the


trust that oxytocin creates activates the brain’s reward center and overrides the anxiety of unfamiliarity. Many other studies have also shown that oxytocin does in fact enhance trust, possibly because it enhances the distinction between self and other and increases the positive evaluation of others. Thus, trust actually changes how the brain perceives other people.

This implies that when a person or situation is unfamiliar, setting up structures and processes that enhance trust will increase engagement. What are some of these things? Clear communication, being on time, delivering on promises, and fulfilling contractual obligations are good ways to create a climate of trust when things are unfamiliar. And speaking of contracts, in today’s more casual business environment, you may be more inclined to ignore the contractual elements of a business relationship, or even overlook a mutual non-disclosure agreement. It is probably best not to do this for the obvious reasons—and you miss an opportunity to build trust.

Second, stress also plays a role in how we handle unfamiliar situations or people. Stress makes the brain less “friendly” toward novelty—we tend to want what we’re used to even more rather than having to deal with something new when we’re stressed. If you have just entered an unfamiliar situation or find things changing all the time, be aware that your brain will try to slam on the brakes and make a U-turn to old ways of doing things. Hence it is critical that when we are in unfamiliar situations, we must check in with ourselves to deliberately reduce our stress levels. If not, we will be prone to making habitual decisions that were relevant to the past and not the present or future. This has been recognized as a particular vulnerability of leaders, even good ones and is a bias we may completely ignore.

Finally, on a different note, a recent study revealed that when we’ re moved by art, even when it is unfamiliar, it activates brain networks associated with the self. That is, art evokes an emotional experience that connects us with ourselves despite being unfamiliar. We may be moved by intangible elements of the art that connect with corresponding intangible aspects of ourselves. This overrides the otherwise unfamiliar art and make us feel known. Thus, when you find yourself in a culturally unfamiliar environment, look for shared subjective characteristics rather than differences only. As a start, you could connect on vision, mission or intent in a way that expresses your subjective intention and voice, which will help to transcend any existing differences in how you look or behave. Also, elevating a relationship to an art form by producing beautiful and not just timely work will enhance resonance and connection when you are unfamiliar.

Unfamiliar situations can cause a brain-jam if we do not approach them with a conscious sense of how to be. Building up structures that enhance trust, decrease stress and creating an emotional connection with people or a project can help the brain navigate its way to your goals.

Srini Pillay, M.D. is the CEO of NeuroBusiness Group and award-winning author of numerous books, including Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear, as well as Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders. He is also Assistant Clinical Professor at Harvard Medical School and teaches in the Executive Education Program at Harvard Business School.


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