What world-class communicators do differently: 3 lessons from neuroscience

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You’ve probably met a fair share of crazy people at work. The constant whiner, the chronically negative employee, the bickering team members, the client who seems to take special pleasure in making your life miserable. When you talk to these people, there’s just no getting through; it feels like hitting a brick wall, again and again. No amount of logic, reasoning, persuasion, bribes and bargains, threats and pressure, nothing seems to work. So what do you do?

In his bestselling book Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone, Dr. Mark Goulston describes this situation as a hostage crisis.

“You can’t get free”, he says. “You’re trapped by another person’s resistance, fear, hostility, apathy, stubbornness, self-centeredness, or neediness — and by your own inability to take effective action.”

Dr. Goulston is a clinical psychiatrist. At one point he noticed that the same techniques he used to mend broken marriages and help suicidal patients worked just as well in other realms, realms like hostage negotiations and poisonous workplaces. When he sat down to think about it, he realized that despite the vastly different contexts in which they occurred, social violence, personal squabbles and workplace disputes have something in common: they are all about people trying to get through to one another in a stressful and highly emotional situation. Which means that at the bottom of all these seemingly different cases you can find the same brain chemistry and emotional mechanisms at play.

Over the past 30 years, Dr. Goulston has culled insights from both neuroscience and his own practice to teach FBI agents and Fortune 500 business leaders how to solve intractable people problems. In his experience, such problems often get out of hand when we apply too much pressure at precisely the wrong time. Think of a car going uphill: the more you upshift, the more the road resists you, you lose hold, the car slows down and sputters.

“But downshift”, says Dr. Goulston, “and you get control. It’s like pulling the road to meet you.”

Something similar happens when we can’t get people to do what we want them to do. We push harder, we argue, we shout, or we swing the other way, pleasing, pleading, cajoling. In short, we upshift. And the other person responds with even more resistance, lashing out, becoming defensive, shutting us out.

A better way is to downshift, to stop talking and start listening so you can discern the emotions under the seemingly crazy behavior. When you shift your focus down to the root cause, to the raw emotion, you create traction that pulls the other person towards you. And that’s when you can get through to them.

We’ve all experienced the power of emotions, of course, but it’s still easy to overlook it. It’s fuzzy ground. But if you look at the science of what goes on inside the brain when emotions run high, you begin to understand how moles turn into hills and conflicts escalate into crises.


Imagine you could peek under the hood at a cross section of your brain. What you’d see right away is a curious oddity that helps explain why communication breaks down. Peering at your own grey matter, you’d notice that you have not one but three brains laid on top of one another. There’s the outer layer — the neocortex, which we usually think of as our brain. It’s the most recent, most evolved part that controls our higher-order functions, all that intellectual brilliance and impeccable manners we like to show to the world. But there are two other, much older parts wrapped around each other below the neocortex: the reptilian, or lizard brain which triggers our survival instincts and fear responses; and the mammalian brain, our emotional center, the seat of all feelings and moods, and also memory.

The upshot of this arrangement, Dr. Goulston says, is a kind of Jekyll and Hyde situation where one moment you are a perfectly reasonable human being and the next you’ve turned into “a cornered snake” or “a hysterical rabbit”. Because our neurology hasn’t caught up with modern times, our lizard brain sees potential threats everywhere and when it does, it flicks a switch that diverts resources away from our brain and into our limbs, to prepare us for fight or flight.

Our ability to think and reason is switched off.

This means that if you are talking to someone and this person is in the grip of a powerful emotion, they literally cannot process your message. They are not thinking, they are acting on raw emotion and base impulses.

The best thing to do in this situation is to recognize that and to somehow move people form lizard or mammalian brain back to human brain it before you deliver your message.

Here are three ways to do exactly that.


1. Make the other person feel “felt”

Look around your office and you’ll probably see at least a couple of smart, high-achieving people who can’t stand to be in the same room with each other.(…) If you’re in sales or customer service, think about the clients who seem more interested in making you miserable than in getting service. In each case, look behind the façade and you’ll probably spot a failure to “feel felt.”

It’s hardcoded into our DNA, this need to feel understood, or “felt”, by others. And when it’s not met, people act out. Rage, resistance, and even more mysterious afflictions like procrastination and underperformance at work are often just a way of saying “I’m having a hard time and nobody gives a damn.”

But faced with such situations, we often do precisely the wrong thing.

We tell the other person oh you are overreacting or stop acting like a drama queen or okay, let’s calm down here. And what’s the message we are sending? That we are not taking them seriously. That their problems are silly and don’t matter to us. And so to the other person we are just like everybody else. Why should they listen to us let alone do what we want them to?

The key, counterintuitively, is show that you empathize by acknowledging their negative emotions.

Empathy doesn’t mean that you approve of their behavior. It only means that you can put yourself in their shoes and understand where their anger or fear or frustration is coming from. Then you mirror it back to them so they feel “felt”.

Here’s a classic technique adapted from hostage negotiations that shows how this can work in practice.

First, attach an emotion to what you think the other person is feeling, for example frustrated or angry or afraid.

Then, when you have a chance to talk in private, say: I’m trying to get a sense of what you’re feeling and I think it’s frustration (or anger or fear).
 
Or say: I’ll bet you feel that there is no way you’re going to be able to do what I’m asking you to do, isn’t that true? Then wait for the person to agree or to correct you.

Keep doing this until you go over all of the emotions you think are playing out. For example, you can follow up with: And I’ll bet you’re hesitant to tell me straight out that you can’t get it done, isn’t that also true?

This does two things:

a) you show that you’ve put yourself in their shoes, and

b) you get them to say yes repeatedly, which creates a positive momentum, a cascade of yesses.

Then dig deeper. Ask them: How frustrated are you? Or: And the reason you’re so frustrated is because. . . ?

Then sit back and listen. Don’t interrupt. Even if you don’t like what comes out, even if it stretches the truth so much that you have to jump in and set the record straight, don’t.

Remember, this is just another person’s subjective experience of the situation. You don’t need to agree with their story, you just need to hear it out. Think about saving the relationship versus winning the argument.

Finally, ask the other person to suggest a solution. Here are three good questions to ask: Tell me — what needs to happen for that to get better?

What part can I play in making that happen?

What part can you play in making that happen?


2. Make the other person feel valuable

This strategy works best for whiners and chronic naysayers whose sole pleasure in life seems to be to go around spreading doom and gloom. Making them feel “felt” isn’t enough. Here’s Dr. Goulston:

One thing most of these high-maintenance, easy-to-upset, difficult-to-please people have in common is that they feel as if the world isn’t treating them well enough. In essence, they don’t feel important or special enough in the world, usually because their awful personality has gotten in the way of success.
They’re starving for attention, and if they can’t find a good way to achieve the sense of importance they crave, they’ll look for a bad way. (…) In short, these people are driving you crazy for a simple reason: they need to matter. Want them to stop driving you crazy? Then you’ll need to satisfy that need.

Here are two practical examples for doing this.

Say one of your employees Anita likes to barge into your office and vent at will about some minor thing that apparently ruined her day. You know full well that her gripes aren’t real; she just likes to unload on innocent bystanders. You can politely tell her to go away, but that will only make her more frustrated and you’ll have a ticking bomb on your hands. Or you can listen to her, waste your time and lose your sanity. But there’s a third option.

Next time she comes around say to her:

Anita, what you’re saying is too important and I want to give you my full attention, which I can’t right now because I’m in the middle of something that I’ve got to finish. So what I’d like you to do is come back in two hours when I will have five minutes to give you all of my attention, and then I can help you with what’s on your mind. But in the meantime think of what you want to tell me, what you’d like me to do, and whether it’s possible given the reality of our company. Also, think about whether it’s fair to everyone it affects and whether it’s in line with what we’re trying to accomplish. Figure those things out, and I’ll be happy to help make it happen.

This technique works for two reasons. One, you give Anita the attention she craves. And two, you neutralize her by asking her to come back to you only when she has specific solutions to her problem, which she won’t because she never had a real problem in the first place.

Here’s another technique. This one is best reserved for situations where you have an authority over the other person.

Imagine, says Dr. Goulston, that your sales rep Bill bursts into the office and goes:

BILL: What do I gotta do to get a frickin’ purchase order okayed around here? All the frickin’ people here don’t know what the f#%& they’re doing! They’re all imbeciles and they’re all incompetent!”
YOU (in a very calm, serious tone): Do you really believe that?
BILL: Believe what?
YOU: Do you really believe that absolutely everyone who works here doesn’t know what they’re doing and that they are all — each and everyone — imbeciles and incompetent? Are you saying that there is not one single person who works here who knows what they are doing?
BILL: Well not absolutely everyone is incompetent, but it really is difficult to get things when you need them.
YOU: No I mean it, Bill. If every single person who works here is incompetent, we have some very big problems, and I’m going to need your help in rooting them out and solving them.
BILL: No, c’mon, you know, I was just really pissed off. Not everyone is incompetent.
YOU: I understand you were pissed off, but I really need your help to solve this problem. When do you think we could do that?
BILL: No, really. I’m too busy. I was frustrated and getting things off my chest.

Here’s what happened here. Bill is venting. It’s obvious that he doesn’t literally mean what he says. But when you take his claims at face value and ask him to stand behind them, you stop his venting dead in its tracks. You make him realize that he’s blowing things out of proportion and you won’t have it. The key to pull this off, though, is to make sure that your tone is calm and serious or he may feel attacked and bite back.


3. Help the other person exhale

You can break through frustration by making people feel felt and you can handle chronic whiners by making them feel important. But these techniques won’t work on someone who is extremely angry or upset.

The first thing to do is give the other person breathing room to let the emotion out of their system. In Dr. Goulston’s words,

Only exhaling enables people to experience and express their feelings — like draining a wound — in a way that doesn’t attack others or themselves. It’s the only response that relaxes stressed-out individuals and opens their minds to solutions from other people.

Here’s how to do this in practice:

First, let the person vent and don’t interrupt.

Don’t object, don’t argue with their experience, don’t defend yourself, don’t casually jump in to set the record straight. The point here is to let the other get it all out, to drain the wound, so try not to cut the process short.

As they unload more and more, they’ll begin to calm down. They’ll also feel exhausted. It might seem like the perfect time to take your turn and speak, but it’s not. “This is not to be confused with a relaxed state”, Dr. Goulston says.

The difference between exhausted and relaxed is that when you’re exhausted, you feel empty and tired and you’re not open to input. (…) Talking right now is the rookie mistake that most people make. If you start to talk now, the other person will close down because he’s too exhausted to listen.” What you should do instead is encourage the person to go deeper. Say “Hmm” in a “tell me more” sort of way and just listen.

This is hard. It goes counter to our intuition. If someone is shelling insults at you, how can you not talk back, not defend yourself, not show them your own creative capacity for verbal abuse?

But what if you pause at that moment and remember that it may not be you the other person is mad at, but the world, for not treating them the way they want to be treated.

What if you remember that it may not, in fact, be the other person who is screaming at you but their evil emotional twin?

Maybe then you can catch yourself and just listen. Maybe you can stop banging on the brick wall and just let it melt away on its own.


Photo credits: 
Pexels.com, Pixabay.com
The image at the top is courtesy of Michael Dowd at http://thegreatstory.org/home.html