The Elusiveness of Good CommunicationDec 07, 2019
There’s a reason effective communication has remained in the top 5 issues in relationships and organizations. We have been treating it as if it is a transaction: I say something, you receive the message and interpret it, then you respond back. We point at one another and blame someone for not communicating effectively or we blame the other for misinterpreting or not understanding. With this model, communication becomes a problem to be solved. But, it’s not.
The Foundation of Communication
Consider for a moment that we are almost always in conversation with ourselves or others. Language allows us to create meaning in the world, assess experience, and predict. When it comes to our inner dialogue, language allows us to rehearse what we’re going to say, worry about what we said or did, critique what just happened, judge others and ourselves, make up stories, judge what’s going on, run through possible solutions to problems, assess the level of threat in a situation, project onto others, and worry about or plan the future. This inner world of dialogue has an effect on us and influences our mindset, which governs the kind of communication we have with others. If we want to improve our communication and be effective in our conversations, mindfulness about the influence of our words and their affect on us and others is essential. So, let’s take a look at how our words are affecting us.
Words Influence Our Mindset
Our nervous system has two primary functions: (1) to keep us safe and alive and (2) to enable us to connect, think, and create. The first function is dominant. Anytime we are threatened, our nervous system activates our protect functions: fight, flight, freeze, or appease. There is a whole biochemistry associated with this. Stress hormones are released—cortisol, norepinephrine, and testosterone. These hormones boost energy and oxygen to the muscles and away from the higher order centers of the brain: the prefrontal lobe and the neocortex. If we need to flee a saber tooth tiger, this an effective solution. However, it is most ineffective if we are instead facing a boss who’s expressing disappointment in our performance or we need to have a crucial conversation with a child. When we communicate from a place of high stress or fear, we have limited access to the parts of our brain that enable connection, creativity, and higher order thinking. We are bound to communicate ineffectively.
One of the primary threats in relationships and the business world is the threat of being excluded, ostracized, and rejected. Belonging is one of those basic human needs; without the tribe we die. When we have a strong sense of belonging and feel secure in our relationships and position within the organization or the family, it is easier to face stress without getting hijacked into protecting ourselves. This sense of belonging stimulates hormones that shift the brain chemistry in ways that gives us access to the prefontal lobe and neocortex. When we have access to those parts of the brain we can connect with others, access emotional intelligence, be creative, learn, and engage in critical thinking. This is what we most need for effective communication, especially in those stressful situations. So, how do we shift our brain chemistry?
To foster effective communication means being in charge of your own mindset before beginning to speak.
- You are in charge. Understand your ability to communicate effectively is influenced by your neurophysiology. Understand you are NOT your neurophysiology. You can influence it.
- Practice awareness. As soon as you experience the need to protect and defend yourself, PAUSE. Take a deep breath.
- Then, get curious. Ask questions that help you shift the way you are thinking:
- What are the facts and what am I making up?
- How might I take the lead in turning this into a learning opportunity?
- What else might explain what the other person said or did?
- What information might I not know?
- How can we make the most of this situation?
- What questions can I ask that will expand the opportunity in this situation?
- What’s most important right now?
Just the act of asking these kinds of questions begins to change your brain chemistry. Curiosity is a positive emotion, associated with the prefrontal lobe and neocortex. When you communicate from this more whole brain place, your communication is naturally more effective. As you access emotional intelligence you are able to relate better, which means your body language, tone of voice, and the words you use are more likely to support connection, creativity, and critical thinking. You speak from a mindset where you can relate, learn, and expand possibilities for action. And such communication is its own positive feedback loop. The more you ask these generative questions, the more positive the interaction. Your ability to come from a whole brain mindset supports a shift in mindset for the others in the conversation as well, influencing their ability to communicate more effectively.
It’s Up to Each of Us!
If you’re after better communication, make sure you’re not trying to practice transactional communication. Communication is an “inside job.” Practice managing your stress responses with generative questions and positive framing and you’ll find more effective communication comes naturally.
Cheri Torres is an author and speaker. As Lead Catalyst at Collaborative by Design, she helps HR directors and corporate executives retain top talent and improve performance through effective communication. Order your free conversation toolkit and her book, Conversations Worth Having, from www.conversationsworthhaving.today. Learn more about Cheri at www.cheritorres.com