Cristina Escallon is a leadership development and culture change expert, group coach and public speaker. Her focus lies on leadership development and culture transformation, working with individuals, families, executive teams, boards and organizations around the world. She combines a rational, creative and intuitive approach, e.g. using neuroscience while working with emotions and team dynamics. She is a speaker and guest lecturer at London Business School, on various leadership topics, including neuroscience, amongst others. As of 2018 she is offering open courses to make the work accessible to a much broader group of people. 

Cristina and I got to know each other through our profession a couple of years ago, as we both are working as facilitators of transformation. Her ability to explain the role of our brain in the process of transformation in an understandable way is just awesome. 

My conversation with Cristina is about the connection between transformation, comfort zone, fear and vulnerability. She shares with impressive openness her own transformation story and insights from a neuroscientific perspective. Enjoy the read!

Cristina, thank you for taking the time to talk to me, I have been really looking forward to this conversation. So, let’s just dive in. 

What does transformation mean for you?

Transformation is about a disturbance that comes into our system and changes the system. Think about the grain of sand in the oyster… 

I think you and I think of transformation in general as a positive, creative, resourceful process.  But it is important to acknowledge that transformation can be experienced differently.  It can be both conscious (intentional) and unconscious; positive or negative.  

For example, a child who experiences very difficult events or receives very negative messages early on, can become untrusting or begin to believe they are not worthy. That is an unconscious, unintentional transformation.   Later in life, they may realise that was a story they believed when they were too young to know better, and now they see that is not the truth.  That realisation is the beginning of a conscious, positive transformation; it is almost the undoing of the unintentional one.

From a neuroscience perspective, there is a simple way to think of it. Everything we do – e.g. a physical movement, a thought, a feeling –you could map to a neural pathway. So, feeling happy is a particular set of neurons firing off in a sequence; feeling sad would be a different sequence or neural pathway.

Transformation effectively means rewiring your neural pathways, like laying down a new road. Shifting mindsets or behaviors is tough because it takes energy to physically lay down that new pathway; the brain will always find it easier to revert to the old path, just as it is much easier to drive down a road than start digging a new one up. When you’re tired, when you haven’t slept, when you’re stressed…. Your brain will definitely want to revert to the ‘existing road’ vs go off piste

So transformation is about making that conscious choice to go down the new pathway enough times, so that it strengthens and finally becomes your new primary ‘road’, while the old one wanes out.

Can you share a story of your own in which you have experienced a fundamental transformational shift that contributes to who you are today?

I guess for me, many transformations are linked to the country where I grew up. As you know, I come from Colombia, which is the most beautiful country in the world, physically, but also in spirit, and the people are incredible. It’s also a country that was at war, effectively, for decades; I think almost from the time I was born. There were a lot of issues and conflict between drug lords, the guerrilla, the paramilitary. There has been so much violence.  And it’s a very unequal society, with one of the highest Gini coefficients in the world.  

A very profound transformation story involves my best friends at school. At the age of fourteen or so, the three of us saw the movie Dead Poet Society and really caught on to the “carpe diem” theory.  I guess we already had that spirit in us, but the film really crystalized it and probably reinforced how we wanted to live. 

Much later in life, in our late 20s, one of those friends, Clara Ines, got engaged. She and her fiancé went to the place where they wanted to get married.  I think they got a bit tipsy and he became a bit aggressive. He tore up his bills in front of the manager, they left the restaurant and drove back to Bogotá on a Sunday night. This was at a time where the city was in very high alert because there were rumors that the guerrilla might invade and attack the capital. As they came to a toll booth, her boyfriend drove through without stopping or paying, as they had no cash left after the incident at the restaurant. The toll booth personnel alerted the police, a small station further up the mountain.  As the car was getting close, the police told him to stop (he denies that) and upon seeing he wasn’t going to do so, the police fired and hit her. She died in the hospital about half an hour later.

Tragic as this story is, and one of the two saddest moments in my life,it has left me with a reinforced gift: the belief in living as fully as I can in the present, not taking life or anything for granted. Clara Ines was a true believer – and ‘liver’ of this philosophy. And she died being very happy. Her death and hear approach to life really reinforced “carpe diem” for me. It’s not that I am careless, but I do try to live my life consciously, enjoying the small things (the flower, the leaf, the bird, the beautifully set table) and also wanting to make every week be meaningful, joyful and creative; so that if it turns out to be my last one, it was a good week to go on.  This perspective makes it fairly easy for me to prioritize and know what to say yes and no to. 

So, what makes a week meaningful for you?

To have sparked humanity – either for someone towards themselves or in relation to others.  To have supported someone in a crisis. To have helped change something positively (big and small things). To have had ‘quality time’ with friends or family. To have spent time in nature.  To have done some of the things I love- play tennis, garden, dance, cook.  To have learned and taught something.  To have created something. (Btw, I don’t need to do all of these in a week, just a few will make it a meaningful week!)

What interconnection do you see between transformation, comfort zone and vulnerability?

Transformation happens in the space between comfort and fear. If you’re too comfortable, you’re not transforming. But if you go into a dangerous zone of too much fear, then you’re paralyzed, and you won’t get that positive transformation we talked about. So, for me transformation and growth are happening in that sort of space in the middle where you’re uncomfortable enough and you allow vulnerability, but fear is not so big that it stops the growth. 

What are the neuroscientific insights regarding this interconnection?

We say that fear is the base of all human emotions. And there’s a very clear evolutionary reason for it. The human brain has three different layers: the reptilian brain, the mammalian brain and then the neocortex. 

The reptilian brain, which is all about survival (fight, flight, freeze) is like a very old and stable software- reptiles have been around for 300 million years. 

The mammalian brain brings added functionality around emotions and socialization. They have been around for 200 million years.

What distinguishes us is that, in addition to the reptilian and mammalian functionality, we have the neocortex, which developed less than two million years ago.  It is the ‘executive function’; it allows us to think about the past and the future, make complex decisions, etc. 

It is a part of the brain that consumes much more energy. The brain prefers to process things on the reptilian part of the brain because it is a ‘software’ that uses much less energy.   

The brain will basically look at everything and check: is this a threat or is it a reward? And for survival reasons, we are better off focusing much more on the negatives, mostly on fear.

But here is the problem. The reptile is out there in the desert happily basking in the sun. Suddenly a snake comes to attack it and it freaks out (flight, flight, freeze). Stress skyrockets for a while, but then the reptile can sunbathes again for another 10 days before a stress returns. We humans get stressed regularly, several times per day, and our system doesn’t recover in the sun for ten days in between. So, we’re overstressed all the time and our brain overreact to fears- thinking everything can be a ‘snake’.  We are operating on efficient but outdated software. Hence the excessive fear and stress that pervades our society today and is the source of so many issues.

What would be your most important recommendations on how to deal with fear in transformation processes?

I think the first thing is to pause, to breathe deep.  By doing so, we reduce the heart rate, take metabolic resources away from the (overly) emotional part of the brain and give them to the part that allows us to think deeper, tune into our heart and intuition, and start to generate helpful insights.

We can then use a skill that makes us a unique species:  we can observe ourselves as the fear and self-talk unfold. It’s like being a fly on the wall of our own life. Just by naming and observing the emotion, we can reduce its power if it is overwhelming our system. We can then start to ask ourselves inspired questions, generate insights, new perspectives and make choices that are more in line with who we are and what we want more of in our lives.

That is a way of dealing not just with fear but any situation:  a way to grow or transform.  So, we first need to pause; then bring things to our awareness, generate an insight, make a choice, and then stick to it and repeat it over and over until a new pathway is created that ‘debunks’ the old one. That is transformation. 

According to your own experience, what role does resilience and self-care play in a transformation process? How do you take care of yourself?

If we live our work and do our own processing of our situations, this automatically enhances resilience and is the best selfcare I can think of. As they say on airplanes, ‘put your mask on first’… 

And do the things you love. Spend time in nature. With people you love. Splurge on flowers if they make you happy (I do!). And do the things we know but often don’t do- sleep enough, eat healthy, exercise. COVID times have been a gift in that respect for me.  I have never had such a healthy lifestyle- while working just as hard.

How would you describe the essence of your work today?

My purpose is to ‘spark humanity’. And it has a very deep and wide meaning for me. 

Sparking brings joy, light, sparks. And yes, it can create some ‘heat’ and tension at times. I believe both tender and tough love are important to help us grow.

Humanity for me is both with ourselves and towards others.  I care deeply and wholeheartedly about humanity as a whole, about my country (countries- I am a British citizen as well), about groups of people who suffer or are discriminated in any negative way, about all the special people in my life.  I feel things deeply in my heart, like the death of George Floyd or Eric Gardner in 2014 in New York (that is a chapter for another time… and is an area I am proactively trying to work with- anti racism).   Perhaps because I don’t have children myself, I have spare capacity to care about other people, about humanity…

I always look at people and feel curiosity to understand them.  Even when people do ‘bad’ things; there is always a story behind every behavior. It doesn’t mean I condone what they have done, but I do seek to understand why they are that way.  Only if we can understand the deeper why, can we find ways to transform society in the longer term.

So, coming back to your question, the essence of my work is to help people look at, and get curious, about themselves and others; to rewire in a way that is enriching and helpful to their lives, those around them, nature, and contribute even in small ways to make this world a better place.

What are the moments in your work in which you observe real transformation happening?

The biggest transformations happen when people, generally one person, ‘goes for it’, and truly and vulnerably opens their heart. It’s almost like they put aside their fears (or hold them, but not so tight they can’t let go), step out of the comfort zone and allow their process to flow (obviously carefully and skilfully facilitated). These moments can be very transformative not just for that person, but also for those who are seeing it happen. They might realize that this person just voiced some of the things they feel themselves; or they become aware of something new, about themselves or others.  So the person who opens up is giving a gift to others while having the courage to do their own work.

The one thing I then always like to bring into the room is like a ‘gift back’ to the person by asking everybody in the room to share how they feel when the process is over. Usually, the words that come out are think like gratitude, respect, admiration, humility, etc.  It is the moment it becomes apparent that vulnerability is strength, not weakness. 

I believe transformation in groups can almost have a multiplier effect and make the transformations deeper in a much shorter period of time.

If we meet again for another conversation in a year from now – in the meanwhile you have been super happy and satisfied with your contribution to the world – what are you telling me that you did?

I will have helped advance the antiracist conversation (and actions) in several of the professional and personal communities I belong to. I have started that, but we have such a long way to go.  I observe how many people are super uncomfortable to get into that conversation, but it is essential if we want anything to change.  

I will have been able to help different people, different groups – e.g. social entrepreneurs; families, starting with mine included; my corporate clients; teenagers, and other people for whom lockdowns and reduced social interaction is exactly the opposite of what they needed in this phase of life – to navigate the pandemic crisis in a helpful way. I think this will go on for much longer than many envisioned; and the world will be forever different to the one we have known so far.  So the level of collective grief will be huge over years to come (not to mention the direct impact of COVID-19). I believe the emotional consequences of it may be far deeper even than the financial or health impact.  I am trying to help people develop resilience amidst this strange new world we are getting to know. We have a unique opportunity to evolve, grow and learn, but it is not an easy path to walk. It’s a whole new world. And it gives my work even more meaning.

What do you believe in?

Humanity, love and the wisdom of nature.

The power of the (head) brain, the heart and the gut together. 

What do just few people know about you?

As a kid my big complex was that I was very short, and I suffered a lot because of it (in fact, part of that hasn’t changed, I am still short; but I no longer care). 

Many people also wouldn’t know that I am an engineer, but actually wanted to be a painter.

Cristina, thank you so much for your openness and insightful stories, it was a pleasure having this conversation with you.