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The Brain Alchemist

5 practices for resilient communication

by Anastasia on February 14, 2013

rubberbandballResilience is the ability to bounce back.  Resilient communication allows us to bounce back from any negativity, perceived threats or attacks that may happen in the course of a social interaction.  A good visual for it is a rubber band ball – a bouncy ball, made by wrapping rubber bands around its core. Each individual rubber band can stretch to a certain point but it can’t bounce as well as the collection of those rubber bands.  Similarly, there are stress and tension points in most important conversation.  A certain amount of tension is not a bad thing if we know how to use it to create breakthroughs and moments of growth and solve problems. But if we snap in a conversation because of too much stress or we feel detached, communication falls apart and we lose resilience.

Resilience allows us to survive, thrive and grow through challenges, conflicts and tensions. Resilient communication can feel vibrant, honest, sometimes vulnerable, but also liberating because we can fully express what we mean and be respectful and hear what others have to say without jumping to conclusions or feeling defensive. By expressing our own vulnerability, we offer others space to open up too.

Resilient communication  works with the brain to enhance its natural capacity to search for solutions while stress and inflexibility can cause the so called “tunnel vision” in our thinking.  Resilient communication encourages creative tension – the push and pull of ideas that creates the environment for new possibilities and perspectives to emerge.  Here are 5 practices that promote resilient communication. Notice how they build on the natural tension and contrast that are present in every interaction: “us” and “others”; conformity and autonomy; voice and silence; self-expression and self-control; status-quo and change.

1. Zoom in on the common things you share with others, zoom out of the differences. We tend to be threatened by people with opposing beliefs. Our brains are wired to filter out information that does not support our own views. The confirmation bias causes us to give more weight to the opinions that we agree with. Therefore, we naturally gravitate towards people like us. The advantage is that we feel safe.  The downside is that we are limiting ourselves to what we already know and feel comfortable with.  To overcome this tendency, get out of your comfort zone and get to know people who are different from you. Be curious and open minded about what you may discover. If you feel secure in who you are and what you stand for, you can extend the same sense of safety to others.  By acknowledging the shared humanity of all, you can show respect to those who may disagree with you.

2. Choose dissent over groupthink.  It is hard to go against the group and rock the boat because maintaining and enhancing status and social standing is a reward to the brain. When people realize they might compare unfavorably to someone else, it triggers the release of cortisol and other stress-related hormones and activates the brain areas that process emotional pain, the amygdala and posterior cingulate. People exhibit a surprisingly strong tendency to conform under group pressure even when the ultimate conclusion seems clearly wrong, as shown in experiments conducted by psychologist Solomon Asch back in the 50s. The opinions expressed by the group can influence our own perception. The good news is that it takes just one voice of dissent for a different perspective to be heard. Encourage what psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls “adversarial collaboration.”  Good decision-making requires resilient dissent.

3. Be slow to talk and in a hurry to listen. Effective leaders and influencers master the art of listening, and they understand that people want to be heard. Active,  empathetic and resilient listening is a rarity in our fast-paced world, and it’s not as simple as it sounds.  Even if we know how to listen, we often don’t do it for a number of reasons. Next time you talk to someone, watch for the common listening barriers that block a good conversation flow and may cause misunderstandings:  relying on the predetermined attitude and assumptions; jumping to conclusions; completing other people’s thoughts; selective listening and paying attention only to what you want and expect to hear; ignoring body language.  Listen with a compassionate heart and an open mind.

4. Control your hot buttons to have cool conversations.  As strong negative emotions begin to get hold of your whole inner being and highjack the thinking part of your brain, call them out:  “Anger.” “Panic,” “Fear,” “Defensiveness,” etc. Putting feelings into words disrupts the amygdala activity in the brain that can cause a fight-or-flight response. Label your negative emotions to tame them. Take deep breaths in conversation to relax and bring more oxygen to your brain. Take a break if the emotions become overwhelming. Be mindful of your physiological and emotional responses. Be present and aware.

5. Create chaos to open possibilities. Our brains are wired to search for patterns and create a sense of predictability and certainty to keep us comfortable in our environment.  A real change often requires the disruption of the existing patterns and the exertion of mental resources that the brain tries to conserve.  Build your tolerance for ambiguity to become a better collaborator and problem-solver.  People who aren’t comfortable with ambiguity and want to make quick and firm decisions are also prone to making generalizations about others.  Ask questions to make a leap into the unknown and push yourself to the edges of your comfort zone. Rebel against your own linear thinking. Questions are the power tool of creativity. They drill through the surface into deeper layers of meaning and understanding. They shape and guide our thinking. Flip the assumptions and connect the opposites.  Distance yourself in time, space and perspective to improve decision-making.  As Margaret Drabble wrote, “When nothing is sure, everything is possible.”

Resilient, brain-friendly communication and practices that support it were a topic of my recent interview at The Texas Conflict Coach Radio, hosted by Pattie Porter.  You can listen to the podcast here or below.

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