THE RESEARCH: Alvaro Pascual-Leone, a neurologist at Harvard, has demonstrated that piano players using mental practice improve their performance more than those not practicing at all. In fact, according to neuroscientists Robert Zatorre and Andrea Halpern, when pianists listen to a piece they know how to perform, they activate areas in the motor cortex that correspond to the finger movements they would have to make in order to produce the sounds even though they do not actually move their fingers. Even more amazing, the same parts of their brain activate when they recall the music in their heads.
Studies like these have been done over the past twenties years in sports psychology, where basketball players and golfers have proven to increase their performance through mental practice.
THE OPPORTUNITY: If we treat learning how to handle specific communication situations as a motor skill, we can use our imagination to improve. The problem with learning how to relate with other people—including skills of leadership, negotiation, conflict resolution and assertiveness—is that we learn how to do this in a classroom, from a book, or from a mentor, but do not get regular chances to practice in real life. Therefore, the information we learn may or may not implant in our long-term memory, and our knowledge is susceptible to being overridden by fear if we do not remember or feel confident to use what we learn.
THE GOOD NEWS: Our brains are even more adept at learning active skills than simply remembering information. If you figure out what you want to say and do in specific situations and practice over and over, even if it is just in your head, the brain records it as a skill in your motor cortex where you have access to use it even under duress. It’s true that you can’t account for all interpersonal situations, but you can prepare for upcoming interactions and presentations which will give you confidence for the unplanned events.
- When you want something to happen, practice how you will talk, act, behave and feel in your head a few times every day. Make it your mental practice as you would prepare for a concert or sports event. You have a much better chance of performing well in spite of your fears if your brain can remember what to do instead.
- When you vision, be sure to monitor your emotions. Your brain works most efficiently when you are feeling happy, grateful, proud, compassionate, hopeful, forgiving, receptive, lucky, confident, optimistic, or any emotions related to feeling good.
- Be sure to see it through to the end. Whenever you practice mentally, go from start to the finish. Most people just see themselves starting an event. They rarely see it through to the end. You are teaching your brain new skills and ways of being. You need to be thorough so your negative thoughts don’t creep back in.
- Use this technique to start your day. Vision how you want to feel and who you want to be during the day. Mentally, and physically, practice this all day long to stay on track.
- Be conscious of your thoughts as often as possible. Running negative tapes in your head is also mental practice that is remembered. You have to stop and listen if you want to change the channel.
Remember, your brain learns quickly. If you choose the lessons you want it to learn, and practice regularly, you will reach mastery. Begin today to master your communication skills.
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