The Play Zone: Revolutionizing Leadership with Polyvagal Theory with Michael Allison


In this episode of Evolve: A New Era of Leadership, I’m joined by Michael Allison, an educational partner with the Polyvagal Instituteory. Michael shares his profound insights on the application of polyvagal theory to enhance leadership and performance, iMichael’s unique approach helps leaders and individuals achieve peak performance by consciously controlling their physiology. With extensive experience working with athletes and business leaders, Michael’s insights are invaluable for anyone looking to elevate their performance and leadership effectiveness.

Michael Allison

Michael is an educational partner with Polyvagal Institute and Stephen W. Porges, Ph.D. (originator of Polyvagal Theory) leading the development and delivery of a Polyvagal-informed Certificate for Health, Wellness & Performance Coaches accredited by the National Board for Health & Wellness Coaches. 

His unique application of Polyvagal Theory to performance endorsed by Dr. Porges – The Play Zone – provides a paradigm shifting methodology to optimize control of our performance through skillful and conscious control of our physiology. 

Michael consults with professional, collegiate and high performing coaches, teams, organizations, athletes and performers in a variety of disciplines, as well as schools, executive coaches, business leaders and corporate teams.

He is a Health & Performance Coach, Personal Trainer, Medical Exercise Specialist, Post Rehab Specialist and Certified Oxygen Advantage Breathwork Instructor, and the author of SMARTER Coaching, a certificated behavior change course accredited by the American Council on Exercise. In addition, Michael is a certificated ILS Safe & Sound Provider / Remote Provider and Focus System Training Provider.


🔑 Key Themes & Takeaways:

  • Understanding Physiology: Michael explains the crucial role of physiology in influencing behavior and performance. He emphasizes how our internal state impacts our interactions and effectiveness as leaders. 🧠💪

  • The Play Zone: Introducing the concept of the “play zone,” Michael describes how achieving a state of play can enhance creativity, collaboration, and overall performance. 🎮🌟

  • Polyvagal Theory in Practice: Insights into how polyvagal theory can be applied in both athletic and corporate settings to improve performance through better regulation of the nervous system. 🏃‍♂️🏢

  • Importance of Safety: Michael discusses the significance of creating an environment of physiological and psychological safety to foster trust, belonging, and optimal performance. 🛡️🤝

  • Navigating Different States: An exploration of the performance hierarchy, detailing the predictable physiological states we go through and how to manage them effectively. 🔄🧘‍♂️

We talk about:

  • 00:00 Intro
  • 02:04 Understanding Physiology and Performance
  • 06:15 The Role of Physiology in Leadership and Business
  • 15:43 Navigating Physiological States in High-Stress Situations
  • 24:25 Recognizing and Managing Physiological Responses
  • 29:32 Introduction to Neuroception
  • 30:03 Understanding Neuroception
  • 33:12 The Role of Neuroception in Leadership
  • 33:54 Building Awareness and Skills
  • 37:12 Practical Applications for Leaders
  • 39:06 The Importance of Psychological and Physiological Safety
  • 43:06 Strategies for Team Resilience
  • 55:25 Closing Thoughts and Resources

🌈 Closing Thoughts:

This episode with Michael Allison provides a deep dive into the transformative power of polyvagal theory and its application in leadership and performance. Michael’s insights offer a fresh perspective on how to harness our physiology to become more effective leaders and individuals. 

#PolyvagalTheory #Leadership #Performance #Physiology #PlayZone


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[00:00:00] Carolyn: So 2024 has been a year of polyvagal theory for me. Uh, I had the privilege of doing a polyvagal certificate program through the Polyvagal Institute, and our next guest was the second instructor in this program. And it wasn’t even five minutes into his session I thought. I wonder if he would actually come on the podcast.

So it is my honor and privilege to be talking to Michael Allison today. He is an educational partner with the Polyvagal Institute and Steven Porges, the originator of polyvagal theory. Um, and he leads the development and delivery of a polyvagal informed certificate for health, wellness, and performance coaches.

He has a very unique application of polyvagal theory that I think is really going to help all of us as leaders understand how we can perform at our peak level. He calls this the play zone, and it’s a real paradigm shifting methodology. That helps us control our performance through conscious control of our physiology.

Now, um, Michael does work with tons of athletes, professional, collegiate, um, all, all types of athletes, as well as business leaders and corporate teams. So I’m so excited to get into this conversation. I really, I feel like I’m a kid in the candy store and, um, I can hardly wait. So let’s get going.

Hello, Evolve listeners. Uh, well, the time is here that, uh, for me, I get to interview somebody I’ve been really looking forward to having on the show. So Michael Allison, welcome to Evolve.

[00:01:56] Michael: Thank you for having me. I’m really excited to see where, where we go, how this all plays out together.

[00:02:02] Carolyn: Well, um, I, I just, I shared in the intro that, you know, I love sports, I love music and you brought a bit of both to, uh, the lesson that you taught us, um, when I was taking my polyvagal certificate. Um, so. And, and so I’m hoping that we can have a really sort of fulsome conversation about performance.

Um, I know we can talk about that on the sport, on the, on a playing field. We can also talk about it in a boardroom. Um, can you just share a little bit about how you found this beautiful niche of work that you do?

[00:02:38] Michael: Well, I, I’ve, for about 25 years, I’ve been in the wellness and fitness industry. And so I was working a lot of one on one coaching with individuals and trying to help them make themselves healthier or interrupt habits that weren’t leading them to who they really wanted to be. And at first I started really studying habit science and behavior change.

And those tools that I learned in those studies were really helpful for basic habit change, like, oh, I want to not eat as many sweets. Or I want to substitute this for that, or maybe I want to, before I start my day, I want to exercise. And so they worked for those sort of basic lifestyle changes. But when it came down to the really foundational habits or patterns in behavior that were really interrupting someone from who they really aspired to be, it wasn’t habit science and it wasn’t behavior change.

What I came to learn is it was their physiology. It was the state they were in, and it was them looking for a way to feel differently, looking for a way to feel better, looking for a way, maybe even to feel something. And so that sort of just, woof, there it is. When I first, like you, when I first started reading about polyvagal theory, it made sense.

Polyvagal theory made a sense of my whole, my whole pathway to where I am in my life. And at the same time, it just made sense as to why this type of work, behavior science wasn’t working for those things. Whereas once I could see, Oh, this was, this was them subconsciously trying to feel differently, which meant trying to shift their physiology into a different state.

It just made so much more sense. And that little by little led into performance

[00:04:40] Carolyn: Yeah. I mean, it’s, um, it’s just amazing to me. I think of like when I, when I did my kinesiology degree, it was in 1991. And I think Stephen’s theory, he published it in 1995,

[00:04:53] Michael: somewhere in there,

[00:04:54] Carolyn: around there. Yeah, and so I remember learning about the nervous system, the autonomic nervous system, and, you know, we could really go down that science pathway.

I’d love to geek out with you there. However, the listeners, um, on this show are, are not, you know, I don’t think we want, it’s as important for them to know the elements of the nervous system. However, what I think can unlock a whole new level of performance comes down to this word physiology. And so maybe if we could start, like, what does physiology even mean?

Um, and, and then maybe talk us through these different states of our physiology, right?

[00:05:35] Michael: From this perspective of, of what’s useful and practical, the physiology. So when I say physiology, what I’m saying is how the internal environment is being regulated autonomically without our conscious control. Not necessarily anything we’re doing deliberately. So how our heart is beating, how our body’s breathing, how much metabolic output we have in the moment.

Maybe we’re sweating, maybe we’re not. Right. What amount of muscle tension really essentially, how is the internal environment being regulated by the nervous system? That’s what I’m talking about. Physiology. And what, why is that so important is because at every moment, including right here with the two of us, how my heart is beating, how my body’s breathing, how much metabolic output I’m creating again, autonomically influences how I interact with you.

Influence is how I experienced the world and really importantly, from a leader’s perspective, it influences how the world interprets and receives you as the leader. So that, that’s, what’s really fascinating and also really gives us some agency because once we can start in my language, meeting our body where it is without judgment, without shame, without guilt, without criticism.

Simply awareness of where is my body right now that gives us some agency that gives us some opportunity to relate to whatever is going on internally in ways that might help us actually show up in the world, whatever it is in a business meeting in a really important relationship in ways that actually align with our heartfelt intentions that align with our Our values and our goals and our character versus just reacting and, and, and all of that.

Right. So it’s going to happen whether we recognize it or not, whether we like it or not, how our physiology is being regulated in this moment. Um, biases, what we think our emotions, what we do, and really how we come across to one another. So we might as well actually start looking there because then it can become a resource and not just the reaction.

[00:08:03] Carolyn: So, you know, when I was learning about this, part of me was thinking, why do more people not know about this? Or why, like, how can we get more people, um, and I’ll speak very specific about the business community, honouring, accepting, welcoming, this knowledge. Um, you know, what is it? 80 percent of, of the data that, you know, our, our body gives us, our nervous system gives us, goes up into our brain to tell us what to do.

So we’re in essence, ignoring that.

[00:08:37] Michael: Yeah. And it even provides us the neural platform for creativity or interrupts creativity or collaboration or interrupts all of that. I think the answer to your question, it’s, it’s complex, but I think one of the reasons is. The culture itself, the system that we work in, the system that we learn in, the system that we even often socialize in, it’s grounded in competition,

[00:09:02] Carolyn: Hmm.

[00:09:03] Michael: It’s grounded in evaluation, it’s grounded in rapid, extremely rapid and unpredictable change. And from our nervous systems perspective, that’s uncertainty, that’s risk, that’s danger, that’s a threat to survival. So we would reflexively and naturally respond to that by now being in a body that’s on guard, by being in a body that’s ready and prepared to attack or defend or escape or protect. And what we see often in business is we see those who are quoted at the top. They were the ones who figured out how to fight, figured out how to take that mobilized Maybe it felt like what we would call anxiety. Maybe it felt like uncertainty and unsettledness, but for whatever reason, they channeled it into attacking, into, into getting stuff done, into almost locking in and not letting anyone or anything get in their way.

[00:10:08] Carolyn: Right.

[00:10:09] Michael: now when we go into those organizations and we might speak this language, well, what that defended, uh, aggressive body isn’t necessarily open to a new approach. Plus the fact is it worked. We got them to the top. What I’m saying is actually it’s not sustainable at some point, a body that hasn’t actually been met and actually nurtured to feel a sense of safety and belonging and enoughness will eventually, it will eventually speak more loudly.

It might take us down in the form of disease or illness, or socially, we might not really have a sense of belonging.

[00:10:56] Carolyn: Right.

[00:10:56] Michael: have a lot of great friends.

[00:10:58] Carolyn: Oh, Michael, that is just, it, it really, um, and, and we’re kind of at a, I’ll say a turning point, um, because people aren’t able to hang on. They aren’t able to show up like the, the Band Aid, I don’t even think it’s a Band Aid, like the, it’s a gaping wound, right? Like, right,

[00:11:21] Michael: a conversation, right? That’s why. And, and, and sometimes things have to crumble,

[00:11:26] Carolyn: Yeah.

[00:11:26] Michael: Sometimes it has to get really, really uncomfortable

[00:11:30] Carolyn: Yes.

[00:11:31] Michael: we go, you know what, because even discomfort that’s familiar from, again, from the nervous system’s perspective is safer than the unknown. Okay. So I got here by doing this and doing this.

[00:11:45] Carolyn: Yep.

[00:11:46] Michael: And, and until that gets really uncomfortable, it’s, it’s hard to even look at the unknown. Anything, any transition is unknown and that is risky.

[00:11:57] Carolyn: you know, I just, I’m thinking of myself. I mean, I just like out of my way, everybody, like I will beat you all. And it goes back to early days as a, as a, as a child. I mean, I was told I organized people in the playground, which. in the seventies was veiled under the word bossy. Um, and I played competitive sports.

I could beat the boys up until they got, you know, physically bigger. And that just carried on into my business life, which was watch out, everybody. I’m going to beat you all. And. And yeah, and what’s, what’s the rubric? What, what marks do I need to get? Um, and so you wrote an article, um, called, are we playing the wrong game?

Which I think is essentially what we’re talking about here. And that to me was my wake up call about four years ago when I realized, damn, I didn’t even need to be playing this game all along.

[00:12:55] Michael: It’s tricky. I, I write a lot about that stuff and I ponder on, on all of that all of the time as a parent like you to, to now 19 and 23 who are moving into the game. Right now, they’re now transitioning into the game and the game is still going to be played.

[00:13:19] Carolyn: Yep.

[00:13:20] Michael: Right. And so there are times when we do have to fight.

Right. But we do it with awareness and intention as to why not just growing things. And, and there are times when I’ve watched my daughters grow up where I, Wanted them and encourage them to fight, right? And when I work with high performers, there are times where it is necessary, or there’s times where they’re moving again reflexively into almost of a shutting down or a numbing and withdrawal.

And in that case, sometimes. A little bit of fight can move us out of that, and so it can be really important, and at the same time, we also have to recognize that that really is fighting, defending, protecting, any of that is really pitted against our biological need for connection, for trust, for actually letting our guard down.


[00:14:26] Carolyn: Yep.

[00:14:27] Michael: we’re not going to necessarily change the culture. And I’m not saying that the culture even has to change. It would be nice. But what I’m saying is that if we can recognize this is a paradox, the culture doesn’t really match what our biology needs. So we have to find ways in our own life, maybe in our work, in our leadership roles, and really importantly, in our relationships.

That feed what our biology truly needs and if we can start to create Little pockets of that in a corporate culture. Awesome. Let’s do it,

[00:15:07] Carolyn: Yeah.

[00:15:08] Michael: do it because my other Position on all this is if if we’re in a physiological state and I call it play it’s not silly play It’s not goofy play. It’s play which is a different physiology than attacking or defending if we’re in a physiological state of quote play You We can actually tap into higher levels of creativity, higher levels of, of cooperation, holding other perspectives, seeing the bigger picture, all of that.

Cause we all know when we ask ourselves, and I often ask a high level athlete, when you’ve been at your best, what’s it like? And every time I’ve never heard one athlete tell me, Oh man, I’m fighting for my life out there. I’ve never heard it. I’ve never heard it. So why do we get locked into just having to fight and fight and fight?

And why do we say, Oh, he’s put his game face on. I’ll tell you who has the game face. Carlos Alcarez. If you watch tennis now, Carlos Alcarez has the game face. What’s he doing? He’s smiling at the crowd.

[00:16:11] Carolyn: Yep.

[00:16:12] Michael: He’s loving life. Yannick Sinner is starting to do that too. So the game face is a misrepresentation. The game face that we’re talking about is actually a smile.

It’s actually loving it. It’s joy. It’s passion.

[00:16:28] Carolyn: it’s um, so let’s, let’s talk about, um, The three states. So you have it beautifully, um, articulated. You call it the performance hierarchy. Um, and I found it so helpful to realize that we, we go through a very predictable path. So could, and I know we don’t, um, I don’t know, we don’t have like a visual to show on the screen, but if you could maybe walk the listeners through these three States, because I think to your point, when we can know where we are, we have agency.

We don’t beat ourself up. I mean, I look back at my career and I thought I was just weak. I was just being one of those girls, females who didn’t know how to deal with the pressure and it was something so different. So let’s talk those through those three States.

[00:17:19] Michael: First off, it’s a natural physiological reaction. They’re adaptive. They’re reflexive, in our evolution, grounded in our nervous system. It’s, it’s not at first that the reactions that we have that will go through these different states. They’re not deliberate decisions. They’re not conscious choices.

These are reactions. These are reflexes, like a sound, boom, the startle. It’s very much that, and we can see a very predictable pattern in how this plays out. So when we will use it, we’ll use it in an example of like, when you walk into a business meeting, okay. Or say you’re sitting in a business meeting and now it’s your turn to speak.

Okay, and you have to walk up. All right. So you walk up now and you turn and you look and as soon as you turn and you look, even before you get there, you have associations going through your mind of prior experiences. But let’s just say you walk up there. Now you turn and look as soon as you look out there. You’re seeing all of these different bodily reactions. You’re seeing people in all different quote states, which we’ll go through and they’re sending information to you. So you’re interpreting all of this like that subconsciously and you’re evaluating the environment around you. You’re looking at faces, you’re seeing eyes, you’re, you’re seeing body posture, all of these movements, and you’re making this quick evaluation of, is this safe?

Am I safe? Am I safe? Or am I actually a little unsafe and this is uncertain

[00:18:55] Carolyn: Yep.

[00:18:55] Michael: or is this like way too much and this is overwhelming quote life threatening again these are reactions so immediately what we would do and you can see this in sport it’s beautiful that’s why I love watching sport immediately what we do is we look for a cue from someone we either try to make a cue or we look for a cue from someone else to say hey actually we’re all good here this is all we’re all good everybody we’re actually okay And, and that might be enough, that might be enough to settle.

And what I mean by settle, go back to where we started, that physiology, meaning when I first looked out there, all of a sudden my heart rate goes up, my breathing changes, muscle tension kicks in. If you’re looking at my face, the tension around my eyes might change, I might get tension in the jaw. I might grip my hands or all of a sudden I might start to perspire.

All of this happens. And that’s that body preparing to either fight or to flee. That’s the first line of defense and we all share it.

[00:19:56] Carolyn: And it’s normal. Like, what you’re saying is it’s

[00:19:58] Michael: Absolutely. It’s natural and normal. And I’ve spoken a hundred times and I’m still have a little reaction. Absolutely. Because it’s a new environment. These are new faces,

[00:20:10] Carolyn: Right. It’s a new day of the week.

[00:20:11] Michael: A whole new thing. Right? So boom. A little bit of that. Look for a cue. Maybe that settles us. And maybe that lowers our heart rate, regulates our breathing, calms us down just enough that now we can start our meeting and interact and we have energy. And so we’ve taken that that little bit of mobilized energy when we first looked, and we’ve contained it with enough cues of safety

[00:20:36] Carolyn: Right.

[00:20:37] Michael: that we can now play with it.

We’re now kind of playing and we’re having fun and we’re interacting and that’s at that top of that pyramid. Okay, that’s what I have at the top of the pyramid. I call that the play zone.

[00:20:49] Carolyn: Right.

[00:20:49] Michael: Now, if that didn’t work, or if I looked at you and you yawned, or, or

[00:20:56] Carolyn: Or I’m texting

[00:20:57] Michael: your tone, or you looked at your watch, and I, you know, and, and, and, or you’re not even paying attention, or someone else, for any other reason, they have a scowl on their face.

They’re not even thinking about me. They have a scowl because of something else. Now, all of a sudden, I’m getting more and more cues of uncertainty, or evaluation, or judgment, whatever we want to label it.

[00:21:16] Carolyn: Right.

[00:21:17] Michael: now I’m starting to feel even more of a higher heart rate, more of a change in breathing. And so that is that middle stage on that pyramid.

And that’s that mobilized zone. It’s mobilized to either fight or to flee or to attack or defend. I break it apart metabolically and physiologically. They’re pretty much identical.

[00:21:42] Carolyn: Okay.

[00:21:43] Michael: And they are that first line of defense, however, in, in a performance world, as we’ve already talked about it, taking that mobilized, uncertain energy and channeling it more into attacking or more into fight is higher in the performance hierarchy than what I’m calling the flight and defending and just hoping.

Somebody else gets up hoping, hoping I don’t make a mistake, hoping this all just goes okay, but I’m scattered and I’m more reaction and what we would call anxiety. So I break apart that mobilized from a performance perspective. I put fight slightly above that flight.

[00:22:23] Carolyn: And that flight is more, as you said, anxiety. That fight is more like aggression,

[00:22:30] Michael: Yeah, I’m going to, I’m going to make this. Yeah.

[00:22:34] Carolyn: And so anger is sort of, I was really interested in, with that, like anger can give us a warning And so that’s sort of like the place are we going to go in to do something more like ventral vagal more like in the play Zone, or is it going to just tap more energy and pull us into anxiety?

[00:22:55] Michael: Yes. So, so anger is an emotion. Okay. And emotions from this polyvagal perspective, emotions sit on top of the physiology, sit on top of what’s actually happening in the body. And so I have this. So let’s just go back to our scene. I’m now getting ready to say something in front of this large group of my colleagues. My heart beats faster. My breath is different. So I have this physiology that’s now in that mobilized middle part of that pyramid. Okay. Now, because of this context and maybe prior experiences in this context, That same physiology, I might have the emotion of anxiety or worry or panic. Whereas that same physiology now on the tennis court, I might have now the emotion of rage or aggression or, or anger.

Okay. So what you’re saying though, too, is a really important piece. So what we see in a lot of high performers is we see them again, take that mobilized Uncertainty. They channel it into aggression, they attack, and when that doesn’t work, when they don’t overwhelm their opponent. Whether that’s a player on the court, whether that’s someone in a meeting they’re talking over and they’re trying to hammer out their point, whatever the opponent is, if they don’t overwhelm and convince everyone else in the room of their perspective, or convince the player that I own you,

[00:24:36] Carolyn: Yep.

[00:24:37] Michael: then what we see typically is they’re still locked in this mobilized physiology, but now they’re not getting any leverage.

And that’s when we see the anger. That’s when we see the anger and we see the body actually shift. It’s amazing. I’ve watched this in so many sports. We see them now take, they have upper body tension and all this. And they often, they often fold over.

[00:24:58] Carolyn: I saw that in some of those videos

[00:25:01] Michael: yeah, they often fold over and they screen.

So, so that is why you’re saying it’s that transition because what’s actually happening, that folding over is the beginning of moving down into that bottom row of the pit of that pyramid. That collapsed, shut down, overwhelmed, because I don’t know how to get my, I don’t know how to overcome you. I don’t know how to get through this any other way than to fight.

Again, this is not conscious. This is all unconscious. And, and, um, this fighting isn’t working. And so now the body is starting to feel overwhelmed. Even though you’re, argh! It’s like your last, it’s like your last ditch.

[00:25:39] Carolyn: So Michael, what might that look like in a business meeting? Right? Like I, I haven’t seen many people like lean over or like growl. Maybe they are

[00:25:48] Michael: I think, I think what you’d see is all of a sudden, They’re done,

[00:25:52] Carolyn: Hmm.

[00:25:54] Michael: gone, going, going after it. And then all of a sudden they’re done and they walk back, they give up, they, they go radio silence or they, or I don’t care, just, um, I don’t care.

[00:26:07] Carolyn: right.

[00:26:08] Michael: Right. So all of a sudden there’s a retreat

[00:26:11] Carolyn: and then they’re down in that lower, um,

[00:26:15] Michael: that lower.

[00:26:16] Carolyn: the lower

[00:26:17] Michael: Yeah. The shutting down some version, some version of overwhelm. Again, not a deliberate decision, not a conscious choice. It’s a reflex, a bodily reaction, a very adaptive strategy. And it’s really that body, that nervous system in that moment, making this interpretation based on what’s been playing out, based on everything that’s around in that moment, based on how the body is feeling in that moment, it’s saying, I have no more resource left to get over this challenge.

[00:26:48] Carolyn: Right.

[00:26:49] Michael: And the only thing left to do. is to conserve and preserve what’s left. And so actually what happens is the muscle tension diminishes, the metabolic output drops, heart rate slows, blood pressure slows, breathing slows. It’s almost like a visual would be like the turtle going into the shell. The it’s literally conserving the resources that are left.

And so that’s why I’m saying what you would see, you’d see the physiological manifestations of that. You’d see all of a sudden, there’s no more tension in their face. It would be flat.

[00:27:29] Carolyn: Right.

[00:27:29] Michael: see the body soften, but not soften in a way of acceptance. There’d be defeat. There’d be a slouch, a slump. And then there might be a retreat back to sitting or something.

There’d be some bodily shift and change that was, you’d see lack of tension. But a slouch, a slump, you know it when you see it, you’ll feel

[00:27:51] Carolyn: Well, I’m just thinking of those images, like when somebody just like falls into their chair and like goes low. Yeah.

[00:27:59] Michael: Yes.

[00:28:00] Carolyn: So that lower danger part, so safe sort of threat assessing, which way am I going to go and then full on danger?

[00:28:09] Michael: Full on life threat, more than danger. Like full on, like overwhelm, like,

[00:28:14] Carolyn: and, and this is an emotional, like we need people to understand that this is not, you know, like someone chasing after you, that’s going to hurt you physically necessarily, hopefully, but these are all based on past experiences and data in our brain already.

[00:28:32] Michael: and just it’s, it’s a combination, but it’s first and foremost, it’s based on the cues coming at you. So literally when that person’s up there and they’re making their point, but it’s not landing, they’re getting cues back from your face, from her face, from his face, from his body language. And so the first thing that’s happening is the cueing, the signaling from others and how much metabolic output I’ve already had trying to get my point across.

That’s exhausting. So it’s the internal environment. It’s the relational space and it’s the external environment. All of those cues are coming in. And then that they’re making little changes in our physiology. And then it’s tied to an association from before. Then it’s tied to a story. And then that story can feed it.

[00:29:25] Carolyn: then it

[00:29:25] Michael: it can make it worse. And now you’re in this loop, right? And we don’t know what your story is We can just see your physiology changing changing changing But it is could be being fed by that story that narrative that belief That emotion and now you get looped in that loop, which is when we see someone move down that trajectory Move down that performance hierarchy and end up in the bottom So one of the skills that we that we teach is is recognizing where you are in that pyramid, any moment, and getting ahead of moving all the way into that shutdown and collapse. That’s what we want. We want, we want to help ourselves and each other not collapse. We don’t want to help each other to get angry and aggressive either, but So we really want to help, we want to help mitigate that collapse, that full overwhelm. Little bouts of mobilized fight or flight, we’re, we’re, we’re wired for that.

[00:30:27] Carolyn: Right. We need that.

[00:30:28] Michael: We need that. That’s why we exercise too. That’s why we take a cold plunge. That’s why we do a hot sauna. That’s that those are challenges. So it’s, it’s important for us healthy wise to be able to have autonomic flexibility, to be able to go from rest. I like to think of it like a dog or a cat. You want to be able to go from rest, all of a sudden my dog can hear a sound and he jumps up and he runs, and then he goes right back to rest.

That’s what we want. That’s what we want.

[00:30:57] Carolyn: Right.

[00:30:58] Michael: Those little blips are good.

[00:31:00] Carolyn: so that’s vagal efficiency, right?

[00:31:03] Michael: That’s right. Good.

[00:31:04] Carolyn: Um, I know. Sorry. I just had to have a little geeky moment there.

[00:31:08] Michael: Very nice.

[00:31:09] Carolyn: Um, so I want to come back to, um, you didn’t, you didn’t say this word, but I want to introduce this word to the listeners, which is neuroception. And you talked about the three elements of neuroception.

Um, our state internally, what’s going on outside of us, and then what’s happening between us. And so neuroception then, would you say that that is a skill set, um, that we Like, what would you say about neuroception? It’s not, it’s going on unconsciously.

[00:31:41] Michael: on. So becoming aware of how, okay, so we’ll rewind. Neuroception is essentially hardwired. Neuroception is not something that we become skilled at using or not using. Neuroception is happening again, like I said, whether we recognize it or not, whether we like it or not, it’s happening. So, and, and what’s actually happening is We’re reading, scanning, interpreting, and evaluating all of the sensory information

[00:32:12] Carolyn: Mm hmm.

[00:32:13] Michael: that’s coming in at any moment, right?

So sound, sight, smell, taste, touch, all of that is coming in and we’re just reflexively comparing what’s coming in to very primitive templates, really deep in the brain, beneath consciousness. really getting closer to the brainstem and we’re making these reflexive evaluations of that information, which is then making changes to our physiology through that vagus nerve.

Okay. Which then we can become aware of what those changes are. Okay. So, so first thing is neuroception is scanning. And I talked about scanning the senses. It’s also scanning It’s scanning your, the cues you’re sending to me. So it’s scanning your facial expressions, particularly around the eyes. It’s scanning your tone of voice, the pace of your voice, the pitch of your voice, the rhythms in your voice, right?

And then it’s scanning your body language, your postures, your gestures, your movements. And again, it’s taking that information in and it’s really quick making predictions that are some based on prior experience, And some really hardwired in to whether or not what that whole combination of your voice your movement your breath Your body language your facial expressions is are you safe and approachable and sending me warmth and welcome?

Or are you sending me uncertainty and danger and risk? And so now it’s taking in all of that and then the third place where you mentioned is It’s also simultaneously the state that I’m currently in

[00:33:53] Carolyn: Mm hmm.

[00:33:54] Michael: is impacting, because that information is coming back up the vagal afferents into the brainstem. At the same time, the sensory information is coming in and this relational information is coming in.

So you’ve got those three, think of those as the three primary inputs, the current state coming up. Okay. Sensory and relational, and now you’ve got this all coming in and then boom, making reflexive evaluations of safe, unsafe, overwhelmed, life threatening, which changes the internal environment, which then percolates up into our awareness, maybe, not everyone’s fully aware, but maybe, and now we can become aware of those little shifts.

Or sometimes dramatic shifts in our physiology, but we’re really not aware of what’s actually triggering it. We think we might be, but we’re

[00:34:51] Carolyn: Right.

[00:34:52] Michael: Right.

[00:34:53] Carolyn: I really appreciate that, um, that we have that piece because neuroceptions, I mean, I remember that class, it was difficult. It’s difficult to follow. I had to watch it a few times. Um, Here’s, I guess, here’s a, an invitation to leaders listening is one to understand that neuroception goes on in our body. That is a huge step. Um, I’d say forward, but it’s a huge opportunity for you to have more agency for you to truly, truly create an environment of belonging. Or it’d be one step closer to a true environment of belonging. The second then from a skill perspective, where we do have conscious control, is that where we would talk about constructing our container of safety?

Is that where we have a little bit more agency? Is that the skill set that more leaders could really embrace?

[00:35:52] Michael: Yeah. I think that the real skill set is to begin to tap into those little shifts in the physiology to have more and more awareness of what’s actually going on in neuroception. Right. So we can’t change neuroception. But we can start to feel little shifts occurring in our body or sometimes dramatic shifts now the real skill So that’s the first part is awareness of that But the real skill is then how do we relate to that? How do we relate to those shifts? So I stand up there, I feel my heart racing. I feel my body tightening up. Maybe I start to speak and my voice is really high pitched and really, and I, and I, it’s like, what am I doing? I can’t, and I’m noticing I can’t put my thoughts together and I know I know my stuff.

Okay, so that obviously that’s pretty easy to be aware of. All right, so I’m aware of that physiological shift now Here’s the moment. How do I relate to that? And and and the old me the the pre polyvagal theory me May have attached the narrative like, Oh, this is what always happens. This means I’m screwed.

This is going to go really, really badly. Oh my gosh, you got to regroup. What is going on? Why are you doing this? You, you do this on what? Right. And get looped up into this. Meanwhile, while trying to talk and do your whole thing, right? And so you’re, now you’re in this, you’re in this conflict between why.

Is my body not cooperating with what I know I can do, which is what happens all the time, whether it’s in sports, life, anything. Okay. So that’s why I’m saying the key skill is that relationship to what’s going on in the internal environment, in the physiology, and relating to that in a way that might actually help you align your body, align that internal environment to be more supportive of your body.

Your performance of your values of how you want to show up how you want to broadcast your message So that’s the key skill and sometimes sometimes just by having that awareness and that Understanding of that pyramid

[00:38:24] Carolyn: Mm hmm.

[00:38:25] Michael: of how these are just bodily reactions that are actually natural and adaptive And don’t mean that you’re weak,

[00:38:32] Carolyn: hmm.

[00:38:32] Michael: don’t mean you’re emotionally fragile or not mentally tough or all of those things that we’ve been throwing around in the paradigm of performance.

It doesn’t mean any of that doesn’t mean you’re not good enough doesn’t mean you didn’t prepare well enough doesn’t mean any of that. All it means is for whatever reason, right here right now, brainstem is interpreting this as unsafe or overwhelming. So sometimes just that alone that awareness. And that respect for that is enough to regroup or enough to slow it down that you don’t get looped into the story that feeds it. And, and, and that little moment can play itself out. Sometimes that’s enough,

[00:39:18] Carolyn: Right.

[00:39:19] Michael: not all the time, but sometimes that’s enough. And then other times we need what you talked about, the container of safety, right? So we need to actually have resources like. A really slow exhale, which regulates that activation and slows the heart rate or like Really keying off of a face in the audience That you trust or that’s sending you warmth and welcome and reassurance and maybe right?

Yeah, exactly

[00:39:50] Carolyn: The Yannick Sinner, his team.

[00:39:53] Michael: So so that’s what I love. Like I love you. You brought up You In the last article that I just wrote, I put a picture of Carlos Alcaraz’s team box. I don’t know if you saw that. And that was last year, obviously in that moment, Alcaraz was not in his play zone. Things were not going his way, but his coaching box was not lifting him or helping him.

And they were all broadcasting to him that they were hurting just as bad as he was. And, and what I’m saying and kind of what I think we can get at with leaders. It’s not about stopping our own bodily reactions. It’s not about stopping that neuroception from detecting whatever it’s detecting and creating these reflexive shifts in our physiology.

It’s not about stopping that. It’s about now relating to that in a way that helps us regroup, helps us settle back in so that we can now broadcast non verbally. and verbally

[00:40:58] Carolyn: Right.

[00:40:58] Michael: to whoever we’re leading or helping or coaching or supporting in ways that actually are helpful and supportive. Because as long as we’re locked in that physiological state of Unsafety or overwhelm doesn’t matter what we’re saying doesn’t matter the words we’re using.

[00:41:19] Carolyn: No, and it’s, it’s really, I think that the piece, like we cannot have psychological safety without physiological safety. It’s just, it’s, it’s impossible that that’s been my big takeaway. And I finally heard Jan say it and I’m like, yes, that’s exactly what I was thinking. Um, and I think, you know, I was with a group last week and, you know, we just high, high level, like I just talked high level about physiology.

And then the question is like, well, what can we do? And, you know, one thing that I have found. is being received is, Hey, did you know there are cues of safety that are available to you? And recognizing that and people were like, Oh, um, And so I think that there is, I, I’m really excited. I’ve, I feel like there’s a lot of hope, um, for where leadership can continue to evolve and that our workplaces, as you said, we’re not going to necessarily change the system.

That’s not our goal. And we’re not saying that it’s, well, I will say that it’s not working optimally. I won’t pull you in on that if you don’t want it. But, um, I do think that leaders have this treasure trove of information now that They have access to around the physiology.

[00:42:35] Michael: Yeah, yeah, and and and to me that is the primary Role of leadership is to how do you how do you regroup yourself? How do you how do you notice when you’re triggered? How do you notice when you’re actually in a really good place?

[00:42:53] Carolyn: Yep.

[00:42:53] Michael: How do you how do you help yourself regroup when you get triggered no matter what?

You That is causing the triggering so that you can actually broadcast and exchange features to those around you that, you know what, we’re in this together. We are a team. It isn’t the old, I’m leading and you’re all following. No, we’re doing this together. We’re charging this together. Maybe we’re all fighting together.

Maybe we’re all defending together. Hopefully we’re playing together again, playing not in a silly way, but playing in a creative way. Lifting each other up, but together to me, that’s what leadership is. And that comes not necessarily from the words that we say, but that comes from our body language, from our facial expressions, from the tone and prosody in our voice.

And that emerges out of our physiology.

[00:43:42] Carolyn: Right.

[00:43:43] Michael: So psychological safety, I think, is a really important component. The way I look at psychological safety, the way Edmondson has defined it. To me, it’s setting up, it’s setting up a lot of the behaviors. A lot of the agreements, a lot of the structure and the environment, that would make it more likely that each individual in that culture experience physiological safety.

But that’s what we’re really after. What we’re after is how do we help. Each and every person, and it might not be possible, but that can be the goal. How do we help each person get closer and closer to feeling safe enough to be bold, to share their voice, to actually throw out a creative idea, right? So that’s what I think Edmondson is getting at, too.

I think there’s just one more layer beneath psychological safety, and that’s what you said, the physiological safety. And, and, and they work together together. then they’re interconnected, but just to have this, I’m think we have all this structure, therefore we’re safe. No, that still isn’t true. We need to get to physiological safety.

[00:45:04] Carolyn: We need the folks at Google to go back and do another project Aristotle and do some heart rate variability measures. Yeah.

[00:45:14] Michael: right? To ask the whole work environment to create that, I think is a big ask.

[00:45:19] Carolyn: Yeah,

[00:45:19] Michael: But to ask individuals within a work environment to take some responsibility for their own state, I think it is reasonable, especially if they understand that the more they can tap into their own sense of physiological safety, the healthier they are, the more vibrant they are, the better their life is, all of those things.

[00:45:42] Carolyn: One last question for you, Michael. If, if, if there’s a team, um, so many teams are in this place where they’re working hard, they’re burning out, they’re living in that, um, fluctuating between, uh, threat and danger, like full on shutdown, how does a team that is stuck in that place find their way out?

[00:46:12] Michael: Well, they have to come together. So to me, the only way into physiological safety. The only way to actually playing instead of fighting, instead of feeling overwhelmed is to acknowledge first and foremost, acknowledge, meet, meet every body,

[00:46:35] Carolyn: Mm. Mm

[00:46:38] Michael: where it is. So we got, we have to be honest.

We have to acknowledge that this is where we are. This is the culture that’s feeding into that. And now how do we help every body? Begin to cultivate the resources they each need. And some of those are universal, but some are unique to each individual. What does each individual’s body welcome as grounding, as reassuring, as comforting, as quote safe.

And then how do we interact in ways that feed that collectively? Right. And, and that part of that’s the why. Why are we doing this? So the why falls into that too. So there’s so many great people who have been saying wonderful things for really, really a long time. To me, the why, the, the, the psychological safety, the, the agreements between how we’re going to interact, they’re all getting to the, trying to get to the same place.

It’s just that one more piece is now what can I do? What can I do to actually help my own physiology move out of fight, move out of defending, move out of protection, and begin to trust again that it’s actually safe to feel safe. What do I need? What do I need? And then once I start to know what I need to feel safe, now what do I need to start to feel safe with you as my teammates? you as my colleague,

[00:48:16] Carolyn: Right.

[00:48:18] Michael: because what we’re really trying to get to is we’re trying to get to a body, a nervous system, those very primitive networks that are really grounded in survival. We’re trying to get those networks to actually trust that it’s safe to feel safe with each other.

[00:48:32] Carolyn: Right.

[00:48:33] Michael: being who we really are, while being authentic, while being as, uh, Brene Brown would say, while being vulnerable.

Because when you actually feel in your body safe, it isn’t vulnerability. It’s not vulnerability. It might look like emotional vulnerability. It might look like psychological vulnerability, but it’s not physiological vulnerability. It doesn’t trigger that physiology. In fact, it’s liberating. It’s like woof.

It’s actually, if we had a heartbeat monitor on, we’d see more variability. We’d see more of an optimal breathing, more of an internal environment, supporting wellbeing when we become accessible, which might look like we’re being vulnerable, but it’s not

[00:49:17] Carolyn: Right.

[00:49:18] Michael: we truly are grounded in physiological safety.

And that is the quest. That’s when someone is in the zone, When we see someone in the flow state, that’s what’s, that’s where they are. There’s no more fighting. There’s no more defending. There’s no more protecting. And then they’re free and they’re expressing their highest potential. And I’m not suggesting we can always tap into that, but we can closer and closer and closer individually and collectively.

[00:49:45] Carolyn: So that is, that’s true belonging then.

[00:49:48] Michael: Absolutely.

[00:49:49] Carolyn: If I come back to Brene’s work.

[00:49:51] Michael: That’s through belonging and that’s this, I have this little loop. I don’t think I shared it in the course of your, the safety connection,

[00:49:58] Carolyn: Yeah. I saw it. Yeah.

[00:50:00] Michael: trust and belonging. That loop, that is the play zone. That is the flow state. That is relationships. That’s health. That’s wellbeing. That’s healing.

That’s healing.

[00:50:12] Carolyn: Yeah.

[00:50:12] Michael: That’s transformation. That’s all of those words.

[00:50:16] Carolyn: Um, Michael, I am so grateful to have found your work. Um, so I did the Polyvagal Certificate. I also did your Playzone Certificate as well. Um, and you never know, I’d probably, you know, probably be knocking on your door later this year to do the next level of, of Playzone. Um, thank you so much for accepting my invitation and just for, for the work that you do, it really is, um, There’s so much potential to help transform our relationships.

[00:50:46] Michael: Uh, you’re welcome. And, and I want to support the work you’re doing because I think it is essential.

[00:50:52] Carolyn: Yeah. Thank

[00:50:53] Michael: you for doing, doing what you’re doing.

[00:50:55] Carolyn: So, um, to wrap up first question, uh, where can people find you? We’ll put these links in the show notes as well, but what are, what are some places?

[00:51:03] Michael: So two places, my website, uh, the playzone. com and on psychology today, the, uh, pressure paradox. I write a monthly, a monthly column on that and which I’m really having fun with. And the goal of that is to really explore a lot of what we talked about,

[00:51:22] Carolyn: Yeah.

[00:51:22] Michael: how there is this sense of pressure in essentially every role that we play in life.

And why that’s natural and why that’s pitted against what our biology craves and needs. So that those two places would be great.

[00:51:37] Carolyn: Beautiful. Well, we will make sure we put those links in and, uh, to end off, uh, are you okay if I ask you the three evolved questions for each of the guests? All right. Well, the first question has to do with self awareness. And so if you could share, um, an anecdote and experience, a short sort of revelation that you had along your journey in life that took your level of self awareness from here to a whole new level.

[00:52:07] Michael: Well, it really was just the first time that I read one of Steve Porges books on polyvagal theory. So I can remember I was, it was actually over Christmas. And it was on Christmas day. Actually, I got the book the day before Christmas and I just started reading and I was devouring the book and I read essentially all Christmas day.

And that was like a level of awareness that I hadn’t had. And it was all into the physiology and it was all in how my body. Had responded to the challenges I faced, particularly as a kid and how I naturally began to find I had had more of an immobilizing experience that collapsed that shut down and I’ve started to find ways again, intuitively to mobilize.

I was lifting weights, I was ports and I, and as I did that, I got really aggressive and really, really angry. And then I met this family and this girl and they contained me

[00:53:13] Carolyn: mm,

[00:53:15] Michael: safety and trust and belonging that it turned into play. So it was this awareness in that moment that why I was developing that book is I was putting together my, my whole trajectory and I was like, Oh my gosh, this is.

That’s what happened. I was on a trajectory of really getting aggressive,

[00:53:34] Carolyn: right,

[00:53:35] Michael: And I’d come out of shutdown, but I was really getting angry and aggressive because I wasn’t finding safety.

[00:53:41] Carolyn: mm,

[00:53:42] Michael: And this family and this girl and this whole relationship was just such a, a, a, gigantic cocoon of safety and belonging

[00:53:53] Carolyn: mm,

[00:53:54] Michael: that highly mobilized unsettled kid and it just turned it into play and joy and love and appreciation and it changed my whole trajectory in life from that point on.

Um, and so that was a big, huge moment of awareness.

[00:54:10] Carolyn: mm, wow, thank you for sharing that.

[00:54:12] Michael: power of, of, of that.

[00:54:15] Carolyn: Yeah. Oh, thank you. Um, second question is around, um, Um, regulation or, uh, self, self regulation, um, what cues, what rituals do you rely on to help you be in the state that you want to be in?

[00:54:37] Michael: So, and you may have already learned this since you’ve gone through some of my work. But it’s a real simple one that I often teach, and it’s called the habit of safety, and it’s still my go to. So, when I walk into a new environment, or into something like this, where we haven’t really formed a trusting relationship yet, I really pay attention to the features that my nervous system, that my body welcomes.

[00:55:04] Carolyn: Hmm.

[00:55:05] Michael: Right. So if I like, and where I orient this zoom, I look out a window and I see an oak tree and I have a plant over here and I have a candle over here and I, so I have it deliberately created. So that it’s feeding what my nervous system welcomes between smells and sights and, and trees and nature and, and all of that.

In addition to looking for cues from you, all of that. And then simultaneously feeling if I need to feeling my feet, feeling my breath, listening to my own voice. And so the habit of safety is no matter where I am, no matter what’s going on, no matter who I’m interacting with. Which is what you mentioned early ago.

Are there still features in the environment? Are there still cues in the interaction? Or are there internal cues that I can really pay attention to?

[00:56:02] Carolyn: Hmm.

[00:56:02] Michael: That help reassure my body that actually life is okay. You’re actually, this is okay. Right now, you’re okay. You’re safe.

[00:56:10] Carolyn: and I really appreciate the fact that just because you teach it and you know this stuff doesn’t mean checkbox done. It’s an ongoing we have to partner with our nervous system all the time

[00:56:24] Michael: the time. I’ll make sure to you. All the time. Yeah. It’s an ongoing process. It doesn’t mean now at the same time, the more that you do this and the more that you stay aligned with your physiology and meeting our bodies where they are, the, the, the less triggered sometimes the less the trigger, but I still get triggered and maybe the quicker recovery maybe, right?

So it’s not that we want to live a life where we’re just this even Steven. And that to me is blah, I love having extremes and, and from those having big emotions, whether it’s sadness or joy, right? So to me, it’s, it’s not about, it’s not about stopping the emotions or negating the emotions is about actually having some agency and awareness and, and riding with them sometime they’re awesome.

It might be really bittersweet, but they’re

[00:57:26] Carolyn: yeah, they make life life

[00:57:29] Michael: Exactly.

[00:57:30] Carolyn: Now, my last question has to do with music. Um, it’s a amazing co regulating element. Um, what is a song or genre of music that helps you feel connected to something bigger than yourself?

[00:57:46] Michael: Ah, well, there’s a particular song it’s called with me all along.

[00:57:52] Carolyn: Hmm.

[00:57:54] Michael: The artist I think is bronze radio or something, but I’ll, I’ll share with you so that people can listen to it, but it’s a song with me all along and it’s a wonderful song. It’s beautiful lyrics and message, but there’s something about the sound and the song and the words that just immediately drops me into a deep state of contentment.

And connection

[00:58:16] Carolyn: Oh,

[00:58:16] Michael: and then if I want to be more playful in the world, I really I really just love all kind of cheesy 70s music and particularly particularly like the bg’s That’s the genre. So so that sort of stuff to me is just full on playful drives my wife bonkers You know, she she’s much more into the classic rock and that stuff and I love pulling out the real kind of cheesy 70s Yeah.

[00:58:44] Carolyn: You know, my favorite secret hit of the Bee Gees, and I think it’s from the eighties, not the seventies, which brings me back to my competitive nature, um, is You Win Again. Do you remember that song? Yeah. I, there was something about the beat in that one.

[00:58:59] Michael: I just love the Bee Gees. Yeah. So anyway, those are, but the with me all along is just a deep connecting kind of song. And you can, you can look at those lyrics as I’ve been with myself all along, right?

[00:59:12] Carolyn: All along.

[00:59:14] Michael: has always been here all along, or you can look at it as, as a friend, right?

With you all along and, or as a spirit, whatever. So it has many, many meanings depending on where I’m at or. Or anything so

[00:59:28] Carolyn: Beautiful. Uh, well, I’m sad that our time is drawing to a close. Um, thank you again for coming on the show and I hope IRL in real life one day, Michael, I hope to meet you and, um, yeah,

[00:59:42] Michael: We’ll make that happen. Definitely

[00:59:43] Carolyn: right. Thanks again for coming on the show.

[00:59:46] Michael: Thank you, that’s great

[00:59:49] Carolyn: Your leadership journey is one that has ups and downs, and it will continue to have ups and downs. And I hope through this conversation with Michael, you have new insight now around the biology of those ups and downs. And By understanding your physiological state, by learning about neuroception and by learning how to construct a container of safety, you can give new information to allow your leadership journey to continue to have those ups and downs, but you can do it with more agency, hopefully with more joy, and hopefully those Thoughts or emotions that don’t help us perform at our peak level.

Hopefully you can find your way through those with more ease, more grace. And like we said earlier, really let biology work with you instead of against you, I’d really encourage you to check out Michael’s website, the play zone. Um, you can also check out, um, more about Polyvagal Theory, um, at pvi. com, the Polyvagal Institute, which is the institute that Stephen Borges founded.

Um, he’s the founder of, uh, Polyvagal Theory. And if you want to work with me, um, because I bring a polyvagal informed lens into everything that I do now, um, you can find me at carolynzuora. com. Thanks so much for tuning in and I look forward to seeing you again soon. And Hey, while you’re finishing off this podcast, would you mind just going and leaving a rating and a review?

It would really help it out. Help my podcast out. Thanks. Bye.

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