Three Ways To Hack Your Brain From a Former NASA Psychologist

Listen To The CEO School Podcast for The Full Episode
Bailey Maybray
Bailey Maybray


Your brain complicates life. It forgets to set an alarm. It demands coffee every morning. It encourages you to send a funny video to a friend, when you should be working on a memo.

A woman's head releases hearts.

As messy as your brain seems, you can easily hack it through your behavior. You can listen to your co-workers more, become less defensive, and even conquer your fears — thanks to surefire methods shared by organizational psychologist Dr. Laura Gallaher.

Gallaher worked at the NASA Kennedy Space Center following the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster of 2003, which cost the lives of everyone onboard. NASA hired Gallaher and a team of psychologists to redefine their culture, a primary reason for the disaster.

Her team identified both organizational and individual challenges and used her expertise to transform NASA’s culture to prevent future accidents.

On The CEO School podcast, Gallaher shared the lessons she learned from her time with NASA and how you can use them to improve your day-to-day life. Below are three takeaways from her chat — to get the full scoop, listen to the episode on the HubSpot Podcast Network.

1. Listen to People (No, Seriously)

Many business founders create ventures because they aspire to become their own boss. But as you scale up, reel in investors, and hire more workers, you need to really listen to people.

Your defenses kick in when you’re not open to other perspectives. If you hear an opinion you find distasteful or unagreeable, you get ready to fire back. Gallaher says humans respond to conflict in four levels:

  • Level 1: "You're wrong."
  • Level 2: "You shouldn't feel that way."
  • Level 3: "Let me explain it to you."
  • Level 4: "I don't see it the same way, but I want to know more. Can you explain?"

On the first level, the speaker regards the person’s opinion as factually incorrect. On the second, they target their opponent’s feelings (i.e., the opinion stems from an unnecessary feeling or emotion).

On the third level, the speaker shifts to their position rather than targeting the other’s. Finally, on the fourth level, the speaker acknowledges a potential misunderstanding. They want to learn and, in turn, listen.

To ascend to the final level (i.e., active and empathetic listening), Gallaher recommends checking in with yourself when you speak with others. This includes everyday conversations with your co-workers or neighbors. Gallaher suggests the following tactics to practice active listening:

  • If you interrupt someone, apologize and ask them to repeat themselves
  • Paraphrase what the other person says to reassure understanding
  • Place them at the center of the conversation instead of yourself

2. Embrace Healthy Conflict and Tear Down Defenses

If you never disagree with a co-worker, you might think that signals a great working relationship. But the absence of conflict does not always point to progress.

“Getting along is not the purpose of an organization,” says Gallaher.

Research shows that healthy conflict makes workplaces better. But the word healthy plays an important role. Hostile conflict involves personal, angry, and offensive discord (e.g., a boss berating a direct report for their gender).

On the other hand, conflict avoidance centers on saving face and ignoring disagreement — even if one exists (e.g., turning the other cheek). Both types are unhealthy forms of conflict.

Gallaher blames unhealthy conflict on defensiveness, or how humans react when they disagree with someone or feel threatened. When confronted with a disagreement, your defenses get triggered — and you likely won’t recognize it. You might even feel justified in maintaining your stance.

To break down your defenses, Gallaher advises on identifying your physiological reaction to conflict. How do you feel? What changes do you notice? Consider the following questions to help guide you:

  • Do you lose your sense of humor?
  • Do you save face and play nice?
  • Do you tend to withdraw from the conversation?
  • Do you get antagonistic?

Learn to recognize your triggers and disengage with defensiveness. For example, if you are feeling heated during an argument, take a step back, apologize for any negative behavior, and encourage the other person to continue speaking.

3. Lean Into Your Fears

It feels like fear runs amok across the world. You might fear your landlord upping your rent, or getting laid off from a job. Though facing it head on would make your life easier, courageousness in the face of fear is often easier said than done.

Instead of figuring out how to directly deal with your fear, Gallaher advises people to shift their focus to coping.

First, imagine yourself dealing with the worst-case scenario related to your fear. For example, if your company deals with decreasing sales, the worst-case scenario might involve reducing salaries or cutting costs.

Once you have the worst case in mind, Gallaher recommends asking yourself: Can I cope with this? Can you deal with the fallout from your fear coming true?

In all likelihood, you can cope with the worst-case scenario — if it even happens. Using this framework, you can start making conscious decisions instead of letting fear rule you.

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