Career Transition: Words Can Change Your Client’s Brain


By Elizabeth Wilson.

Career Professionals of Canada’s Mastermind, Elizabeth Wilson discusses how words can change your client’s brain. She provides sage advice for practitioners, featuring techniques from leaders in the existing and emerging field of positive psychology.

In my experience working with unemployed people, often the biggest barrier they have to becoming successfully employed is their own attitudes and thought processes. While their more concrete difficulties are very real and need to be addressed, helping them to have a more positive outlook and resilient attitude makes dealing with other difficulties in their life much easier, and they will be more successful at making the necessary changes.

When I first entered the field of employment and career services, we delivered group-based pre-employment programs. Using a formal curriculum, we helped people make positive changes in their life. When I came across the positive psychology work of Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, I began to get understand how and why we were getting such meaningful results with our clients.

Dr. Seligman, often referred to as the father of positive psychology, wanted to move from the ‘disease’ model and move toward learning the science behind well-being. Over 10 years of scientific research has resulted in some very simple and approachable exercises that can have a powerful effect for good in our lives and those of our clients.

The research has been picked up in various different ways, so it is fairly easy to find free websites that give enough information to begin using the exercises to improve our lives and the lives of our clients. This research on positive psychology has been so powerful that the United States Army has developed a resilience program to help prevent and treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in its members.

You can recommend some of Dr. Selgman’s techniques to your clients. The first exercise that he promotes is to “find one wholly unexpected kind thing to do tomorrow and just do it. Notice what happens to your mood.” Scientists have found that “doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.”

In order to overcome “our brains’ natural catastrophic bent”, Seligman recommends another simple yet powerful exercise. The assignment this time is to “every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well.”

Through Dr. Seligman’s work, I also became aware of the Signature Strengths Exercise.  Another of his exercises to create well-being is to “create a designated time in your schedule when you will exercise one or more of your signature strengths in a new way.”  Through the VIA Institute, the power of understanding and exercises our signature strengths is made available free of charge.

While Dr. Seligman’s work shows how we can improve a fairly abstract principle called well-being, the work of Newberg and Waldman is much more concrete. Their research using brain scans shows that “over time the structure of your thalamus will also change in response to your conscious words, thought, and feelings.”. Here again, simple exercises result in big changes.

If you repetitiously focus on the word “peace,” saying it aloud or silently, you will begin to experience a sense of peacefulness in yourself and in others. The thalamus will respond to this incoming message of peace, and it will relay the information to the rest of the brain. Pleasure chemicals like dopamine will be released, the reward system of your brain will be stimulated, anxieties and doubts will fade away, and your entire body will relax. And if you do these practices consistently over a period of time, your sense of compassion will grow. In fact, some of the most recent studies show that this kind of exercise will increase the thickness of your neocortex and shrink the size of your amygdala, the fight-or-flight mechanism in your brain.

As a result of this research, they have developed a system of conversation that eliminated the negative and accentuates the positive. They call the system ‘compassionate communication’ and there are twelve strategies involved:

  1. Relax
  2. Stay present
  3. Cultivate inner silence
  4. Increase positivity
  5. Reflect on your deepest values
  6. Access a pleasant memory
  7. Observe nonverbal cues
  8. Express appreciation
  9. Speak warmly
  10. Speak slowly
  11. Speak briefly
  12. Listen deeply

As simple and dramatic as these exercises are for changing human beings to be more positive, they coincide with the work of social psychologist Amy Cuddy and her work on power. Cuddy and associates published studies documenting how our body position can dramatically change our hormone levels, which in turn change our thoughts and behaviour, in as little as two minutes. High power poses, such as those exhibited by alpha animals, very significantly increased the ‘dominance’ hormone mix (low cortisol and high testosterone).

In her TED Talk, Cuddy shares additional research where they field tested these hormonal changes in the evaluative situation of a video recorded job interview. People who were blind to the hypothesis and to which job ‘candidates’ did low power poses or high power poses overwhelmingly wanted to hire those who had been in high power poses. The difference did not have to do with the content of what the ‘candidates’ said but in attributes that were ascribed to them. These attributes included such descriptions as confident, passionate, enthusiastic, captivating, comfortable, and authentic.

It is sometimes difficult to get our clients to understand the importance of these sorts of behaviours as they want to rush on into the ‘real’ work of finding employment such as resume development and learning to do a good job interview. However, the best prepared resume in the world will not overcome the disadvantage created by a negative attitude in communications with an employer.

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