Some conversations just don’t go very well. You know the ones — you were completely blindsided by someone or totally lost it yourself.

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Conversations are not what we think they are. On the surface it may look like we’re engaging in a simple “ask and tell” trading of information, but neurological and cognitive research reveals something very different. From the moment we enter a conversation, the primitive part of our brain (the amygdala) goes on alert, begins to carefully map our “interaction patterns” and toggles through a series of hard-wired questions:

  • Do I need to protect myself? How?
  • Who loves me?  Who hates me?  Can I trust this person?
  • Where do I belong? How can I fit in?

In other words, protecting ourselves is hardwired into our brains.

Establishing trust has neurological roots, too. If you’re in sync with someone, your heartbeat reflects it, sending signals to the primitive brain that it’s safe to relax, open up and engage with that person.

That synchronicity also makes you more persuasive. When two people are positioned at a conversational distance, the electromagnetic signal generated by one person’s heart can influence the other person’s brain rhythms, according to the HearthMath Institute.

FEAR MAKES YOU DUMBER.

If we begin to feel distrust or fear at any point during a conversation, the primitive brain literally “hijacks” the higher brain, secreting “fear hormones” that shut down the executive functions of the pre-frontal cortex (PFC). The primitive brain has only one function — to protect us — and it has only four survivalist options: fight, flight, freeze or appease.

So nature has equipped us with exactly what we need in a life and death situation — the ability to respond instinctively and instantly — without thinking about it.

And yet… how many times have you wished you had that extra nanosecond? So maybe you could have down-regulated your defensiveness or defused the other person’s?

Here’s the deal: Fear cuts us off from the executive functions of the brain — no regulation of emotion, no rational thinking, no strategic social skills, no empathy, no judgment. Even if you’re trying really hard to listen and think rationally, it’s just not neurologically possible.

In other words, fear makes you dumber.

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WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM OUR WORST CONVERSATIONS.

Judith Glaser has done extensive research on how we can raise our emotional intelligence. In her book Conversational Intelligence she explores some common assumptions or “conversational blindspots” that can derail our best-intentioned interactions:

Assumption #1:  We remember what others say.
Fact: We actually remember what we think others say. Social scientists have observed that we drop out of conversations every 12 to 18 seconds to process what the other person is saying. Our internal listening and dialogue override the other person’s actual words.

Think of it this way: “I have learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” (Maya Angelou)

Assumption #2:  Meaning resides in the speaker.
Fact: Meaning resides in the listener… until you circle back to validate what they heard and make sure you both have the same shared meaning.

Think of it this way: “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” (Pentagon spokesman Robert McCloskey)

Assumption #3:  Others see what we see, feel what we feel and think what we think — or if they don’t… they should.
Fact: We are unable to stand in each other’s shoes when we feel fearful or upset.

Think of it this way: When we are in a state of fear or distrust, we can only think about protecting ourselves. Who feels like being transparent when you feel threatened? Who wants to understand someone else’s perspective when you feel attacked?

So what’s the antidote to the brain’s fear state? Is there a way to boost your emotional intelligence — your E.Q.?

E.Q. TO THE RESCUE.

Marriage researcher John Gottman observed: “When we compared fights between healthy couples in stable marriages with those that were in trouble, one difference stood out. The happily married couples used certain phrases and actions during an argument that kept the negativity from spiraling out of control.”

Gottman refers to these conciliatory gestures as “repair mechanisms,” and observed that they act as a glue to help hold a marriage together when it hits a rough patch.

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Here are four of my favorite emotionally intelligent repair mechanisms. Think of them as ways to talk others — as well as yourself — down from the ledges of distrust and fear.

1. Reframe.

The first time I heard an example of reframing, I had a “yeah, right” reaction: Is it a problem— or a challenge?” Is it a crisis — or an opportunity?  Uh huh.

Until I had a personal experience of reframing that resulted in a professional breakthrough. It happened when I stopped trying to overcome my clients’ “resistance” to “doing the work” and started getting interested in hearing from the part of them that wasn’t so jazzed about doing this counseling stuff. I began to actively seek out the concerns and objections of this “resistant self” in my clients.

The result? A dramatic decrease in hearing clients say “I’m too busy” or “I can’t afford it” —because we could now negotiate a plan that addressed their real objections and concerns.

2. Refocus.

Refocusing is a powerful way to defuse distrust and defensiveness.

One way to refocus is to respond only to the constructive or factual portion of the other person’s comments and edit out the nasty tone of voice, insult, or criticism that accompanies it.

John Gottman opines, “One reason some people have stable marriages may simply be that they are good at listening past the edge in their partner’s voice to the positive or at least grudgingly conciliatory message behind it. They respond to the repair mechanism rather than the bitter coating.”

You can also refocus by going in the exact opposite direction. Comment on what you’re experiencing or feeling right now: “I didn’t like it when…” or “When you said that, it hurt my feelings.”

One of the most powerful ways to refocus is to comment about the process of communication itself: “You keep asking me what I think, but every time I make a suggestion you say, ‘yes, but…’” or “Please let me finish” or “We’re getting off topic.”

3. Redirect.

Refocusing can help you redirect the conversation by saying something like, “Let’s focus on what we’ve got to do next” or “Let’s get back to how we’re going to make a decision.”

Redirect the conversation toward the positive by focusing on what you can do, not what you can’t or won’t do. Saying “I don’t have time for this stuff!” is very different from “I can’t dedicate that much time right now. How about after lunch tomorrow?” Instead of “I’m not going to listen to this!” how about “This is very hard to hear…”

4. Replace.

Here are my four favorite ways to replace trust-busters and with trust-builders:

1) Acknowledge the Other Person’s Viewpoint Before Expressing Your Own.
“I know you like to get right to the point and I usually want to hear all the details first, so…”

2) Reaffirm Your Basic Beliefs About The Relationship.
“I’ve always respected your opinion, even when we don’t see eye-to-eye on things.”

3) If You Can’t Think Of Anything Nice To Say, Do This…
If you can’t think of anything nice to say in a particular situation, ask the other person: “What do you most need to hear right now?” or “What would you most like to hear me say?”

4) Offer Sincere Appreciation And Praise — Frequently.
Don’t assume that others (your spouse, children, co-workers, employees) know you appreciate and admire them. You need to communicate it frequently. If that’s hard for you, try author Leil Lowndes’ tip on how to compliment people indirectly: “The only thing nicer than hearing a compliment is overhearing it.” So ‘talk about people behind their back’ when you’re saying nice things about them–Just be sure to say it loudly it enough for them to overhear it.

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It’s also worth a shot to ask for recognition. Here’s an example of how I tried this myself recently: I’m always running late. I got tired of feeling guilty and my husband having to drive too fast to get us to events, so I put in some dedicated effort and made noticeable improvement. However, my husband is not good at offering (or receiving) praise or compliments. The next time I got in the car, I handed him an index card and said, “Please read this out loud.” The card said, “Jan, you’re doing a really good job of getting ready to go on time. I’m so pleased and proud of you!” Here’s the funny part: I was surprised at how much I liked hearing it, even though it was scripted and “staged.”

HERE’S WHAT GIVES ME HOPE.
Social neuroscientists now believe that the need to belong trumps the need for safety.

That would certainly explain how we somehow get the guts to take a risk — to tell someone we love them, say we’re sorry or ask for help.

Here’s how I think of it: Our brains may be hardwired for protection, but our hearts are hardwired for connection and relationship. That gives me hope.