How keeping your distance can get you closer to what you want

bridge“Step away from a problem,” “eyes on the horizon,”  “a bird’s eye view,” “remove yourself from a situation,” “burn your bridges” – we have many expressions in English that indicate spatial and psychological distance.  When we physically or mentally increase our distance from whatever we are dealing with, it changes how we perceive things and make decisions. Employing the mind trick of distance when you present or process information can result in greater impact and better decisions. This is not about distancing yourself from people, but rather finding your own “observer” or “distant self” that can help you connect better with people and ideas. Here are five ways to benefit from distance:

1. Lean back to make a task seem easier.  Increasing the physical distance from a complex task also increases the psychological distance.  A task seen from a greater distance appears easier.  After you present a problem, try moving the whiteboard away from the audience or have the audience members change their seats to increase the distance from the spot that represents the problem. It may boost abstract thinking and creativity. Taking a break can have a similar distancing effect.

2. Be a fly on the wall. Self-distancing can help people look at a negative experience with less anger and aggression. Rather than immersing yourself in a stressful situation, switch to the role of an observer. Replaying a negative scene as if watching the events unfold from a distance and happening to the “distant” you can buffer from the negative outcomes of rumination. Role-play is another form of self-distancing that encourages different perspectives.  If you are a speaker or presenter, it is helpful to think about the appropriate level of self-immersion that you want to create for your audience.  A distant perspective can help the audience deal better with topics that can trigger strong emotions and aggression.

3. Use the distance to bring your points across. When you tell a story, move with purpose to create a picture of your content. The action in your story should prompt your movement.  Where can you place all your characters and everything else on the stage to create a sequence of scenes in your mind?  You can bring your audience into the scenes by moving purposefully as your story progresses. Your movement can also create a timeline of the past, present and future. What is the sequence of the events that occur in your story?  As you describe the sequential events, you move accordingly.  Remember that your audience reads the timeline from left to right, so you should do it from their perspective (backwards for you).  Apparently, the future feels closer to us than the past. This reduced psychological distance may help us better prepare for future events.

4. Match the psychological distance of your message with the timing of the decision. Gergan Nenkov of the Carroll School of Management in Boston investigated the persuasiveness of messages presented to consumers at different stages of decision-making process.  Consumers in a predecisional mindset were more likely to be persuaded by psychologically distant messages that focused on the future and distant others.  In contrast, consumers in a postdecisional mindset who looked for ways to support and implement their decision were more likely to be persuaded by messages that talked about the present and the self.

5. Keep it cool. There is a link between cold temperatures and social distance. For example, social isolation or emotionally chilly memories can actually make people feel cold.  It turns out that cooler temperatures also reduce the so called “egocentric anchoring” when people unintentionally project their own perspective onto others.  So, if you want to promote mutual understanding and perspective-taking behavior, keep the room temperature cooler.

5 ways to power up your words and ignite the brain

brain speak“All words are equal, but some words are more equal than others.”
~ George Orwell, “Animal Farm”

Words have power – some more than others. Neuroscience research sheds light on how words captivate our brains. We know that traditional language regions, like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, are activated when the brain interprets words. Surprisingly, however, narratives stimulate many other parts of the brain. For example, when researchers in Spain showed subjects the Spanish words for “perfume” and “coffee,” their primary olfactory cortex lit up.  Similarly, words describing motion activated the motor cortex. It appears that words can cause the brain to create a vivid and real experience of whatever is described to us. Here is how you can power up your words to ignite the brains of your audience.

1. Write and speak for the senses.  Whenever you describe a scene, think about the sights, sounds, smells and textures it can evoke.  Close your eyes, imagine the scene and describe it in the words that appeal to all our senses. Sensory words can make your descriptions more vivid.

Be mindful of the “word aversion” phenomenon described by University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman as “a feeling of intense, irrational distaste for the sound or sight of a particular word or phrase, not because its use is regarded as etymologically or logically or grammatically wrong, nor because it’s felt to be over-used or redundant or trendy or non-standard, but simply because the word itself somehow feels unpleasant or even disgusting.” Certain words – ‘moist’ being the worst offender – appear to trigger word aversion for more people.

2. Use concrete details in your descriptions. Provide enough detail for your audience members to help them visualize the scenes of your narrative, but remember that too much information can be boring. Our working memory is limited and can be easily overwhelmed with lots of detail. Don’t overuse adjectives and adverbs. While they seem to be descriptive, they are often vague.

Here is how vividly Sarah Ban Breathnach describes dreams in her book “Something More: Excavating Your Authentic Self”: “Dreams can also be like a collage, an artistic composition made up of various materials, such as paper,  fabric, and wood. Our dream collages can be as illogical as snippets of conversation spoken by a woman balancing a tepee on her head as she’s chased by a pack of llamas.”

3. Compare sensory impressions.  Comparisons can turn abstract concepts into something tangible that we can all relate to.  You can use comparisons when you describe sounds, colors, sizes, flavors, smells, and textures.  Here are some examples:

“She spoke of fruit that tasted the way sapphires look…”
~ Toni Morrison, “Paradise”

“The bed linens might just as well be ice and the clothes snow.”
~ Robert Frost, “The Witch of Coos”

4. Employ metaphors.  Our brains often blend reality and symbols. Metaphors activate sensory cortical areas in the brain that process touch, hearing, and vision. Metaphors can trigger emotional responses and influence decision-making more profoundly than abstract concepts. Beware of the power of metaphors. They can either clarify an issue or mislead by triggering a visceral reaction that may overcome rational judgment. Here are some examples of metaphorical thinking:

“It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood.”
~ Robert Frost, “Birches”

“The rain came down in long knitting needles.”
~ Enid Bagnold, “National Velvet”

5. Highlight novelty, surprise, and contrast.  Our brains prefer stimulation to boredom.  “There are three things which the public will always clamor for, sooner or later: namely, novelty, novelty, novelty,” wrote Thomas Hood. The brain is motivated by curiosity and the search for patterns. Washington State University neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp calls this the “seeking” system of the brain.  It motivates animals to search for food, and it causes human brains to seek out information, experiences, connections. When the brain is busy searching, it increases levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is responsible for the sense of purposefulness and focused attention.  Interestingly, these neurons become even more excited when there is no pattern to be found or when the expected pattern is broken.  Novelty fuels the brain’s urge to search. Contrast and surprise captivate the brain because they violate routine expectations and patterns. They capture attention as the brain tries to reconcile the incongruities.  Here are some examples of novelty and surprise:

“The writer of originality, unless dead, is always shocking, scandalous; novelty disturbs and repels.”
~ Simone Beauvoir

“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”
~ George Burns

“Wear a smile and have friends; wear a scowl and have wrinkles.”
~ George Eliot

How do you power up your words to link and sync brains? When you listen, which words carry more power for you?