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Relational Brain Skills for Growing
Emotional Capacity to Have Joy:
Interview with Chris Coursey
Learning practical relational skills helps us recover when things go wrong, keep relationships bigger than problems and stay on course. The foundational skill is learning to live relationally with our brain’s relational circuit engaged where we reflect our values rather than slip into “enemy mode” where people become problems to fix and we want to win rather than keep relationships intact. Chris Coursey is an ordained minister, pastoral counselor, published author, curriculum designer, and international speaker.
Chris Coursey authors, teaches, and trains people and groups to start joy and master the 19 relational skills. Priorities include an active ministry filled with the development of products and training resources designed to propagate relational skills that include discipleship, evangelism, marriage enrichment, curriculum development, networking, teaching and speaking.
Chris partners with respected leaders in the field of Christian discipleship and recovery.
Chris works with groups and individuals to effectively start and maintain joy so people reach their God-given potential. Chris pastored a small congregation for over seven years and for nearly twenty years Chris has worked with and been mentored by
internationally acclaimed author, speaker, and developer, Dr. E. James Wilder (www.lifemodelworks.org).
More about Chris Coursey and Thrive Today at https://thrivetoday.org/
Read the Interview Transcript
Hugh Ballou: Welcome again to The Nonprofit Exchange. Every week, we talk to a thought leader about their area of expertise. They get to share some things with us that help us do our jobs better. It’s a resource of SynerVision Leadership Foundation; I am the founder and president, Hugh Ballou. Today, I am honored to introduce you to Chris Coursey. I am going to let Chris tell you about himself and his organization. Chris, welcome.
Chris M. Coursey: Thank you, Hugh. I’m really excited to be here. Thoroughly enjoying our time. My wife and I run an organization called Thrive Today. We have been running this organization for over 20 years. We train relational skills. What that means is we focus on equipping leaders and communities with the skills that ideally, we learn early in life because our family and community have the skills. This is very much a hands-on training ministry. We do training events, seminars, retreats, create materials, try to spread the word on what happens when some of these relational skills are missing.
One of the big skills is called joy. We talk about how brain science tells us we are supposed to be joyful people. The brain runs on the fuel of joy. When our joy starts to fade, we have problems. Running organizations really works better when you have the fuel of joy woven throughout those interactions and relationships. That is my full-time job.
I started out as a counselor working with people with pain. When there is a lot of pain, there is not necessarily a lot of joy. Helping people to get on their feet, be able to reach their potential, and be the kind of people that they really want to be. I love what I do. I love serving people. I just love training relational skills. This is one of the funnest jobs in the world.
Hugh: You just heard a great leadership lesson. We can Google “leadership,” and you get millions of results. Fundamentally, it’s about influence. You influence because you have relationships.
A lot of people say, “I just want to be happy.” You didn’t use that word. You used “joy.” Why do you choose “joy” as your vision?
Chris: That’s a great question. There is a big difference. Happiness is circumstantial. “I’m happy because a new movie is coming out with my favorite actor.” “I’m happy because I got this loan, and it’s a very good thing.” Happiness is these are certain conditions that make me happy, and it comes and goes.
Joy on the other hand, as far as your brain is concerned, is relational. Joy is what happens when you walk into a room, and you see your friend over there in the corner with a cup of coffee. Your friend spots you, and their face lights up because it’s you. You haven’t seen this friend in a while. Their face lights up, you hear it in the voice tone, you see it in the mannerisms. Joy is the sense that we’re glad to be together. I’m glad that we’re in this together. Joy is when basically you’re the sparkle in other people’s eyes. There is genuine glad to be togetherness. We now know that this is the fuel for the brain to run at its best state. We’re glad to be together.
Happiness comes and goes. Happiness can be fleeting, especially in hard times. Even in the hard times, joy can still be present because this is a hard time, this is a trial we’re going through here, but I’m glad we’re in this together. I’m glad I can be here with you. I’m glad you’re not alone. I’m glad you’re here with me. This joy just flows from all walks of life. It means that we’re glad to be together, and we show it. You see it, you hear it, you feel it, no matter the conditions or circumstances. We can still have joy. That’s what makes joy so powerful.
When you have joy present, good things will grow in that garden. When joy levels are high, fear levels are low. When fear levels are high, joy levels are low. We really want to turn up that volume and increase our glad to be together relational joy so that we can be the best version of ourselves.
Hugh: I love it. I understand there is a brain circuit which helps us stay relational. What do we need to know about this?
Chris: Yeah, this is really exciting. We now know from interpersonal neurobiology, guy by the name of Dr. Alan Shore out of UCLA, in the ‘90s, he pulled together a lot of research from a lot of different disciplines. One of the things he came out with in looking at the brain is saying the brain runs on joy.
There is actually this relational engine on the right side of our brain, kind of like a car engine. There are different parts that are supposed to work together. When you are expecting joy—you know you will be with that friend over coffee or a family member—this engine works together, and you’re relational. There is this anticipation of something good. This engine is kind of like a circuit breaker. If you plug too many things into an outlet, guess what’s going to happen? Something is going to give. Your circuit is going to break. You will have to go downstairs and flip the switch to get electricity going.
That is kind of what the circuit is in the brain. It can go on or off like a dimmer switch. When it’s on, I’m relational, I’m glad to be with you, I’m flexible, I’m patient, I’m understanding, and I can put myself in your shoes. When that switch goes off, I lose my joy. I start focusing and getting stuck on pain or problems or the things that bother me or the things that anger me or offend me. I’m no longer in my relational sweet spot when the circuit goes off. My colleagues call it a relational circuit. I call it a joy switch. I wrote a book on it.
If the circuit is on, you’re a good version of yourself. You can live according to your values. You can be the kind of person that you’re proud of. When the switch goes off, we run on fear. I’m focused on what’s wrong instead of what’s right. I could have 30 things in my day that were wonderful, really good, joyful moments. But when the circuit is off, I will focus on the one thing that is wrong, the one thing that is bothering me. I get stuck there, and I can’t shift my attention very well.
A lot of what we do at our organization is helping people to recognize how to get out of this- My friend Jim Wilder calls it “enemy mode.” When my switch is off, people that I normally enjoy feel like enemies, whether it’s a spouse, a family member, a co-worker, a boss, doesn’t matter. In enemy mode, the people I normally enjoy feel like enemies. I get stuck on the things that bother me. Creativity flies out the window. I become impatient and irritable and rigid. Not good things you want in an organization.
With a little practice, we can easily learn to live relationally with this joy switch working the way that it’s supposed to.
Hugh: What I know about leadership is as a conductor, what the orchestra sees is what I get. The team is a reflection of us, including our anxieties. This is a good way to mitigate that. We are certainly in times of heightened anxiety.
Chris: Yes, we are.
Hugh: You slipped in there the book. I see it behind you.
Chris: This is The Joy Switch. It’s all about the switch, the circuit, and joy. I wrote it last year.
Hugh: Tell us about it.
Chris: This is a fun little book. It has 19 practice exercises. Our organization is big on giving people practice. I can talk about joy ‘til I’m blue in the face, but ultimately, I want people to practice joy. That’s what this book was supposed to be: an introductory resource of what is this relational joy? How do I hold onto it? More importantly, how do I stay my relational self? How do I get out of enemy mode when my brain is locked in that mode because I’m anxious and overwhelmed, stuck, locked in? It’s not fun to be stuck in enemy mode. In fact, the longer we’re in enemy mode, the harder it will be to hold onto joy.
This book is really a very good introductory resource. There is lots of stories, lots of examples, lots of exercises to help people taste joy. Let’s do some exercises to practice joy. Let’s notice what it is like when I am in relational mode, where joy is possible, versus enemy mode, where I’m kind of stuck and I don’t like it. That’s what I wanted to accomplish with this book. It’s something people can go through, read, and practice the exercises.
Hugh: As a musician, I understand that. We don’t do that in other professions or organizations. If people want to find you, the website is ThriveToday.org. What do people find when they visit your website?
Chris: What they are going to find is some understanding of what are relational skills? Why are there 19 of these skills? How do I grow some of these skills? We have blogs and books and videos and free webinars. There is all kinds of good stuff there. At the end of the day, there is opportunities for people to practice these skills to build some joy. The proof is in the pudding. When people taste joy, that is what brings all of this home. I can talk about joy and give you the brain science and theory behind joy. Ultimately, it is helping people to start some joy in their life.
One of the easiest ways to start joy is to think about the times of joy in your life. For example, I took my family roller-skating last week. I have 10- and 11-year-old sons. I haven’t roller-skated in 35 years. You know what? It took me a little while to figure out how to stay on my feet because it’s taken so long, but it came back to me. I started roller-skating, and my sons were learning and trying to stay on their feet. What happened in this evening together? There was a lot of joy, laughter, and fun.
Even when you think and reflect on the moments of joy in your life, whatever they are, your brain responds as though you’re reliving the moment all over again. Thinking about the joyful moments, the good times, sharing them, noticing how you feel, your brain’s responding as though you’ve gone back in time and are reliving the moment all over again just by thinking about it, feeling it, and sharing it. This is a powerful force which helps people to get relational.
I encourage groups and organizations to drop a little bit of joy into the day for people. You will get more creativity, patience, and good stuff out of your team and your community and organization.
Hugh: That’s one of those things that is a reverse paradigm. The more you give away, the more you have.
Chris: I like that.
Hugh: In your website, you talk about a free assessment. Talk about that.
Chris: This is a short free assessment I made called “Taking Your Relational Temperature.” It’s a way to help organizations and people notice how often you’re in your relational sweet spot, where joy is present and possible. How often do you spend locked in enemy mode? There are certain ingredients that help you gauge your joy individually or as a group.
It was an easy way to put something into people’s hands that they can look at and reflect on and go through. Hopefully they can gauge where some strengths and weaknesses that you can be working on are. The goal is to get people to talk about it, to practice it. That’s where the rubber meets the road.
Hugh: Oh, yes. You talk about working through five foundational resources. Then we should talk about the 19 skills.
Chris: When people normally hear 19 skills, they go, “Are you kidding me? Why 19? Why can’t it be like three?” I get it. 19 is a big number. But there are some skills that are all about growing capacity, which just means I increase my ability to handle hardship well, to stay my relational self no matter what’s going on around me.
Joy is one of those foundational skills. I’m very active on finding ways to increase the joy levels in my life, in my relationships.
Another one is breath. Joy is high energy. We get our heart rate going when we are building joy. The complementary side of joy is we can pause to catch our breath. Sometimes people have lots of joy, but they are not quieting, so joy starts to fade because they are not resting. Some people are good at resting, but they are not good at building joy. We want to find that balance of building joy and resting.
Then there is a skill called appreciation. It’s just what I call packaged joy. Packaged joy are gifts I can unwrap any time. Those are thinking about the good stuff, like I was talking about earlier. You think about those moments or memories in your life. As you reflect on those good times, what happens is you’re building your joy levels. We can be actively reflecting on the good stuff. I sometimes ask people what’s a highlight from your day? What are you thankful for today? What’s a highlight from your week? What’s been good at the office this past week? You get people talking about that, and you will notice it makes a difference in the temperature in the room.
These are foundational skills that really help to grow capacity. It’s like bench pressing at the gym to get more strength. Some skills are all about growing strength so I can handle better hard stuff. Some skills are focused on how to get back to joy when you lose it. My brain is wired for negative emotion, so I have to learn how to feel an unpleasant emotion and return to joy.
This is a pathway in your brain that ideally starts by the time you are about two years old. I suspect the audience is probably saying, “I don’t know what I was doing at two years old.” Of course you don’t; you were too young. The good news is you can learn these skills later in life. You just have to understand what the mountain is that you’re trying to climb. Then you can start working on those skills. A little bit goes a long way. That is a message that I hope everybody hears today: A little bit of practice pays off in big dividends.
Hugh: You heard it here. It’s one thing to read a book or think about a concept. It’s another thing to put it in practice. It’s another thing to master it. It’s one more thing to make it a habit.
Our audience is composed of nonprofit leaders and clergy. I have worked in the church like you have. I have worked in the nonprofit space for quite a while. We tend to want to do it alone. We don’t need help. We can get a book. Having an outside resource like what I provide in leadership, organizational development, and team empowerment, and what you provide, why do people need to look outside of their own space, to get outside help with a system or advocate to work with them?
Chris: That’s a great question. We only know what we know. We don’t know what we don’t know. One of the values of having people outside of ourselves is they can see things we can’t see. I live in this world of relational skills and joy. For example, it’s really easy for me to talk about this stuff as though everybody gets it because this is what I live and breathe. When I’m introducing this to a new group of people, like today for example, it helps to talk and interact with other people who are also going, “What about this? How does this work?”
The worst condition for your brain is when you feel alone and you’re trying to navigate something hard. Whenever I feel alone in the hard stuff, that creates the toughest conditions for my brain to stay relational and to navigate that terrain. What I like to tell people is: We need each other. We need people like you, Hugh, who do what you do to give us an outside perspective with your experience and wisdom. All of us need people outside of ourselves to help us see and hear and understand the things that frankly we might not be able to see.
Hugh: We call them “blind spots.” When I am in a big group, I’ll say, “We’re going to talk about blind spots. How many people know your blind spots?” There is always one or two. I go, “No, you don’t.” I help people do their strategy. Do you think I can do my own strategy? No, I’m too close to it. We need somebody, just like you said, an external presence because we are so close to it that we can’t see it. That’s fresh.
There is a mind/body connection to this. I notice people who are really negative all their lives are more prone to being ill. Any knowledge there you want to share?
Chris: Your body is a canvas for your brain. What that means is what’s happening up here between my ears will show up in my body. If I’m anxious because I’m worried about a big day tomorrow at work, those feelings of anxiety are going to show up in my body. They are going to show up in how I feel. They are going to show up in how I’m breathing, my heart rate, skin condensation. There are a lot of things that happen in this body.
I started out as a counselor working with people working through hard stuff in life. One of the things I noticed in working with people was when I was sitting across from them, some people were holding their breath. Two thirds of us hold our breath when we pick up our phone. We hold our breath without realizing it. When I would sit across from people, I would notice I’d start holding my breath. I would take a deep breath, look at the person, and see they’re not breathing. Just helping people to notice the canvas for your brain, “Hey, let’s try to find some peace.”
When I have people practice joy, pay attention to your body. How does joy feel? Emotions are directly tied to your body as far as your brain is concerned. Your body is very relevant to how well you’re doing when it comes to joy and peace. We just have to learn to live in our bodies. We’re glad to be together. We’re peaceful. Whenever we start to lose our peace, we pause and get our peace back. That is so valuable. It’s practical, but it’s so valuable. How do I live in this body and have joy and peace?
Hugh: Let’s go back to the book a minute. I can read it by myself. Is there value in pulling together my leadership team in my nonprofit or my religious organization and reading it together and having conversations about it?
Chris: Definitely. The book was really put together for people to practice. I encourage people to get a copy, read it yourself, and then do it with other people, especially the exercises. The exercises are where it’s at. You can talk about the concepts and the theory. Ultimately, practice the exercises, and watch what happens. If I have an hour-long meeting with a group, I will have them do at least 10-15 minutes of practice at least. I can talk about something for a while, but when you have people practice this stuff, it changes the energy in the room. People come alive. It’s like turning on a light. Get together with other people. Talk about this. How does it apply? More than anything, practice the exercises. That is the good stuff.
Hugh: The whole basis for getting together in church is to have like-minded people support us in the ups and downs of our spiritual journey. As our other journeys go on parallel to that, having a support group is, I find, very valuable.
Chris: It’s so valuable. Your relational brain is always looking for faces. When you walk into a room, your brain is looking for faces. That’s what it’s wired to do. When you have people who are together, you can talk about stuff. You work through stuff. Ultimately, we work best in community, in relationship. Connecting with people goes a long way to charging our relational battery.
Hugh: Hold up your book cover again. There is a light switch on there. What if that switch is turned off?
Chris: If it’s turned off, that’s where I’m not really enjoying my joy or my peace. What happens if the switch is off? First, I have to recognize it. We can learn with a little bit of practice to know when the switch is off. I can tell by my wife’s voice when her switch is off. I can tell when her blood sugar is crashing, and she needs some food. She can look at my face—I have a back injury—and know when my switch is off because I’m in back pain. The good thing is you can learn to recognize when the switch is on or off.
One of the most common ways we know the switch is off is when I’m not enjoying the people around me. I might not be even enjoying myself, but I’m not enjoying the people around me or my job or the things I normally enjoy. That’s a good sign the switch is off.
Hugh: When those joyful people irritate you, maybe there is a problem.
Chris: Yes! That’s it. That’s a good sign the switch is fading real quickly.
Hugh: There are three options for this relational circuit. Would you say more about that?
Chris: The three options are basically on, off, and aversion, where it looks like it’s on, but it’s really off. I’ll explain that. When it’s on, I am my normal, glad to be with you, relational self. I enjoy the people in my life. I have joy and peace. It’s very easy. I’m curious about what you’re thinking. I can feel appreciation. I feel like being kind. I look people in the eye. Those are all good signs I’m in relational mode.
When the switch goes off, I’m no longer curious about what you’re thinking or feeling. I don’t care. I don’t feel any joy or appreciation; I’m focused on pain or whatever’s wrong. I lose my ability to be kind; I don’t want to be kind. Maybe I’m mean with my words or actions. I don’t look people in the eye, or if I do, it’s like giving them the stare. We all know what the stare looks like. We have probably been on the receiving end of that.
You can just notice when I have lost my joy, my relational circuits are off. It would be time to take a breather. It would be time to get some fresh air. It’s time to do whatever helps you get back into your relational sweet spot. That can look differently for everybody.
One of the best ways is to be thinking about the good stuff. That brings me joy. If you’re stuck in traffic, and you notice you’re going into enemy mode, and you want to take out the bazooka at all the cars that are cutting you off, that’s a sign you’ve lost your joy. Try to pause, take some deep breaths, and access the joy files. Think about the things that help you calm down. Think about good memories with your family. Good trips, fun vacations, whatever the things are that help you get back to your relational sweet spot. Take a few minutes to do that before you try to do anything else.
When I am in relational off mode, what we call enemy mode, the results are not good. Whether it’s a conversation, a meeting, working out a conflict, whatever it is, when I am in enemy mode, I am not a good version of myself. I encourage people to take a few minutes, get relational. Any time you lose your peace or joy, pause, get relational, and continue the interaction. It will go much better.
Hugh: That is a great tip. Chris, this got us on the right track. The work we do is very difficult. If we’re not tuned up with our joy, it’s a lot harder than it is. You gave us some really helpful tips today. What do you want to leave us with, a tip or challenge or thought?
Chris: Whenever our brain looks at a problem and stays stuck on it, that keeps us in enemy mode, I encourage people to sandwich your problems with joy. If you know you will have a meeting or are trying to creatively solve some problems, take a few minutes before and after to build some joy. That can be simply appreciating your team. What do you appreciate about your coworkers? What do you appreciate about the workplace? What do you appreciate about the good things in your life? Whatever it is, insert joy before and after, and even during if you need to. What that does is it helps people to stay in the relational sweet spot, where we’re creative, patient, flexible, and better versions of ourselves. It’s a win-win.
Today, just focus on finding the good stuff. Some people make lists. Some people look at pictures of their phones. Just give yourself time to focus on the good stuff and notice what happens.
Hugh: Chris Coursey, Thrive Today. Not later, today. Thank you for being our guest today.
Chris: Thank you, Hugh. It’s been a joy.