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Is a Smile Really Contagious? interpersonal relationships and therefore the quality of life. The companies I advise are initially skeptical that these changes can improve sales or productivity. When they realize that the atmosphere has changed, they understand and begin to list the things that have changed and how they are “living better”, even if they are at work. And how they take this atmosphere home in the evening. How much is that worth? How many of us would like to work in a calm environment where eight hours feel like four? How important is it to go home and have a positive state of mind towards your partner? Can we list what we lose every time we leave the office, or home, with expressions of sadness, anxiety, anguish and stress? We only have one life. Mirror neurons and empathy: new frontiers in corporate and staff training. When we see someone perform an action, if it is one we have performed ourselves and know, mirror neurons are activated in our brain, and this allows us to understand the action at a deep level. Imagine seeing someone stub a toe... how do you feel? Do you understand how much it hurts? If it has happened to you, yes: you know because your mirror neurons are activated, “mirroring” that action. This also explains why when we see someone yawn, for example, we immediately imitate the gesture, even involuntarily. We are able to do this because we were activated towards the observed action by our mirror system. In the late 18th century Adam Smith said: “If ... I see a stroke aimed, and just ready to fall upon the leg, or arm, of another person, I naturally shrink and draw back my own leg, or my own arm: and when it does fall, I feel it in some measure, and am hurt by it as well as the sufferer.” This is a wonderful demonstration of empathic resonance, by which people understand the emotions of others through their ability to mirror each other. When you watch television or a movie, immersed in the images, you feel sensations that seem to catapult you “inside” the drama. Charles Darwin stated in 1870: “When a public singer suddenly becomes a little hoarse, many of those present may be heard, as I have been assured by a gentleman on whom I can rely, to clear their throats; ... I have also been told that at leaping matches ... many of the spectators... move their feet.” We can reproduce the observed act because from the moment we see it, the same movement is present within us (it is part of our motor vocabulary because we have done it, know it). Seeing others do it, it is as if we were doing it, with one difference: inside us the gesture is only potential. It is our subsequent intention that may transform it into an actual one. This became of greater import when it was discovered that mirror neurons also act on emotions. Inside us we have a mirror system capable of uniting the image we see of others (faces and expressions) to emotions they are feeling, making us experience, if only in part, the feelings we are observing, particularly if the emotions are negative. Think of anger or a smile. Initially, watching someone feel certain emotions we are immediately inclined to “prepare ourselves” to feel them. It is then our choice whether to imitate them or not. Meanwhile, we have somehow lived them! Just as we tend to imitate a yawn and to understand others’ motor intentions, we are also prone to “copy” their moods. The point is that most people are not aware of this; in fact there are people who keep their negative attitude a lifetime! Think of aggressive people, of “chronic” pessimists. How do you feel when you meet them? On the other hand how nice it is to be with positive people, because balance, joy and serenity are “infectious”. The smile! When we are with others, our space becomes shared and through this extraordinary mechanism of the brain, others immediately recognize our actions and emotions. This unites us profoundly, demonstrating, scientifically, that we cannot help experiencing what those around us experience. In short, living in contact with others exposes us to a marvelous collective phenomenon whereby we “infect” each other. To get closer to someone, you should first examine your emotional state: we can improve others’ moods through modifying our own! The more advanced companies have already figured out how this impacts the business climate and are training their employees, especially their managers! One negative or stressed employee can infect the mood of a whole company. Have you ever walked into a store and found rude salespeople who are obviously sick of working in an unfulfilling, unsatisfying context? Are the owners aware that by slightly improved their employees’ conditions and valuing them, they might smile and attract more customers? The salesperson, receptionist, cashier and the front office are the company’s calling card. We often choose one store over another for the quality of the salespeople. This applies to supermarkets, waiters in restaurants (never scrimp on waiters!), as well as bar staff. And by quality I mean what’s inside them, regardless of their CV. How many clients can a supermarket with thousands of customers lose because of demotivated people at the checkout? Do the math, especially on how much they could earn by investing in training to improve staff morale. The difference is the staff’s state of mind, because their mood will “infect” all who come into contact with them. Think about the implications of this mechanism at the level of interpersonal relationships. How has it affected your upbringing? Do we learn things better when taught by an angry parent or a calm one? In the book I am Your Mirror: Mirror Neurons and Empathy, Davide Donelli and I explain the wonder of these mechanisms as clearly as possible so that everyone can master this discovery and improve their interpersonal relationships. We want people to be better and happier at work, home, and in all interpersonal relationships. We are convinced that getting on well with others and making others feel good is the true index of success. PE Matteo Rizzato is the co-author of I Am Your Mirror: Mirror Neurons and Empathy. A professional coach, certified in Neuro Linguistic Programming New Code, he has a degree in political science. After working in sectors ranging from banking to public institutions, he specialized in communication. In 2006, he furthered his studies into mirror neurons and empathy. Visit matteorizzato.wordpress.com 9 Personal Excellence essentials presented by HR.com | 06.2014


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