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Jan Anderson, PSYD, LPPC

Learning from Our Worst Conversations

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

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 and 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.

Synchronicity also makes you more persuasive. When two people are positioned at a conversational distance, the electromagnetic signal generated by one person’s
can influence the other person’s
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 distrust?

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.

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, Glaser explores some common assumptions or “conversational blindspots” that can derail our 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. So 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.?

We will talk more about Emotional Intelligence in our next column. Stay tuned!