photo by Peggy

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As you read this, I’m recovering from surgery. If all went according to plan, I have a couple of newly realigned vertebrae, with pins to keep them where they belong as they heal. Fortunately, I also have meds to keep me from crawling the walls while that healing happens.

You might guess, spinal surgery is a little scary. I’ve been working on a positive mindset, hoping to promote healing and well-being and get back to business quickly.

I went back into my own blog for inspiration. It’s been four years since my last experience with post-surgical rehab and my observations about how easily we can catch each other’s moods, for better or worse.

States are contagious

You know how you’ll see someone yawn and right away yawn yourself? The same thing goes on with facial expressions, even quick, subtle ones. Postures, gestures, and tones of voice can have similar impact.

We pick up these non-verbal cues about each other’s emotional state. We automatically imitate the frown or the smile or the cocked eyebrow. We lower our voice or add a note of sarcasm to match theirs.

Then our brain interprets these signals as an expression of our own feelings.

That’s how easily and quickly we can “catch” someone else’s emotional state.

Well, I had a big opportunity to study emotional contagion when I was rehabbing after knee surgery. It was fascinating. Some of what I learned then will be useful for me now, and for all of us when it comes to our professional lives.

Lessons from orthopedic rehab

Nobody’s having fun in rehab. It’s hard work coming back from shoulder surgery or a hip replacement, and much of the work hurts like hell. I was at a lovely facility with an impressive staff. But it’s not like being at home.

You pretty much have to follow the routine. In the beginning, you can’t even get up and get dressed by yourself! (It was a big deal to be declared SIR—Safe in Room means you can get out of bed and go to the bathroom without pressing a button to get help.)

Let’s see … no independence, limited choices, physical pain…you might guess, people can get cranky.

I believe attitude influences, well, almost everything.

Certainly, it has an impact on healing.

So, I set an intention from the get-go not to get crabby, to appreciate the help I was getting, to focus on doing the work and getting stronger. Also, to find the humor in the whole situation—that helps with healing too.

The upshot was: surprisingly quick progress. The physical therapists remarked on it, so did the nurses. My fellow-patients noticed I was getting better faster than would have been expected for a more-than-middle-aged woman with two shiny new knees.

Here’s where things got interesting. On my fourth morning, I headed off for PT bubbling with energy, feeling better than I had yet, proud of the progress I’d made.

I biked, I stretched, I practiced going up and down stairs with a cane. I talked with my cohorts and teased my therapist. I beamed and glowed.

And … I am not kidding you … the energy in the room changed.

You could feel the shift in people’s moods. Even the sour-faced woman who’d resisted every smile and greeting all week long wanted to chat that morning.

She was such a study. This woman had everything going for her: expert therapists, family visits. Her son even brought her dog to keep her company during PT—and she didn’t crack a smile. Until we talked on that fourth day.

Then she lit up. And I know this sounds like I’m showing off, but if you’d been there, you would have seen the same thing. I flipped that switch. My energy was so magnetic and so positive it changed her energy.

Why don’t I do that more often?

Think of the power we all have … and don’t use.

That day in rehab, I was very much in the moment.

  • Intensely focused on my physical experience and the cues from people around me.
  • Setting aside any thoughts or feelings that would distract me from my goal: do the work and get better.
  • Fully grounded in my body, present in the moment.

That’s what generates the magnetic energy that draws people in, connects them to you, and gives you a measure of influence.

On an ordinary day at work, when we’re distracted by demands from every direction, preoccupied with our to-do list, and daydreaming about our next day off, we can’t possibly exude that kind of intense energy.

We miss the chance to influence the people around us. Worse yet, they’re likely to influence us with their complaints and criticisms and crankiness. YIKES!

You’ve probably experienced that downward spiral that can infect a whole team.

What if we decide to put a stop to it, you and me?

I’m heading into recovery, rehab, and beyond with the firm intention to mind my state. And to watch what happens as a result.

When it comes to business, yours or mine, here’s the deal. Customers, clients, colleagues, the guy from GrubHub who delivers lunch…they can all make our work and our lives go more smoothly. Or they can throw a wrench into the whole thing, without even meaning to.

This is where it helps to have some subtle influence on the people around us. Not to tell them to shape up, but to shift their state by being intentional with our own state. I hope you’ll experiment with me and let me know how it goes.