The Neuroscience Behind Building Relationships and Why They Matter

This post originally appeared at Emergenetics International.

Ever walked into a room for a networking event and looked for someone you know? I have. When I don’t see someone I immediately recognize, I start to look for someone who looks friendly or approachable. When I do see someone I know, I watch his or her face to see if I can drop in on the conversation. Often my look will catch that person’s attention, and we start talking. We’re social beings, and we constantly carry on neural conversations with one another even before we open our mouths.

Certain neurons in the brain are believed to make up the neurological underpinnings of imitation, emulation and empathy. Located in the brain’s social system, motor command neurons fire when we reach out to

pick something up. A subset of these neurons, roughly 20 percent, also fire simply when we watchsomeone perform the same task. Isn’t that amazing? According to V.S. Ramachandran, Ph.D., of The University of California at San Diego, the mirror neuron is different from the motor command neuron because when it fires we’re actually adopting another point of view. Dr. Ramachandran believes that the mirror neuron is also the foundation for culture and how we’ve learned and grown over the millennia. For example, animals learn to adapt fur coats over thousands of generations to adjust to the climate. However, a child could watch his parent kill an animal and make a fur coat and learn that skill in that moment in time. The abilities to imitate, emulate and identify make our culture Lamarckian–the philosophy that an organism can pass on characteristics that have been acquired during its lifetime to its offspring.

Think about the organizations we work for. They’re also Lamarckian in nature. Learning spreads horizontally across the organization as well as vertically through legacy initiatives. Organizational culture is a living system that organizes people, adopts beliefs and creates behavioral structures we all follow. We choose the organizations we work for because the culture feels familiar to us. It might be subconscious, but psychologically speaking, we’re attracted to behavior that we understand. Within these structures we tend to copy and identify with our leaders because of a natural desire to please and belong.

Last month I wrote about Jack, the c-suite executive who wanted to affect change across his organization. He is one of the rare executives I’ve worked with who isn’t afraid of change. He’s more concerned about his people as they navigate the change process to adopt better patterns of behavior. He wants to ensure that they’ll be well taken care of as they move toward the nimble organizational culture he envisions. He believes this will help his team better respond to a fast changing economy. Before he starts though, he needs Peter, the CEO, on his side and for people around them to see that Peter supports this change initiative. This is why the relationship between Peter and Jack is so important. Building relationships is the genesis point for creating change. In today’s culture we can’t make strides without working well with other people, thus the quality of our professional relationships is essential. Understanding the neuroscience behind them helps build awareness of our behavior.

Let’s take a deeper look at Peter, the CEO. He’s youthful, smart, logical and very focused on building a sustainable business that will deliver positive returns in the long term. He believes he’s redefining his company in the marketplace. The press agrees and has been hot on his tail for the past six months. His senior team consists of ten executives, of which Jack is one. Jack stands out as a front-runner to eventually replace Peter. Jack knows this and has worked hard to put himself in positions so he can learn directly from Peter. Peter has reciprocated to Jack.
Peter is considered a people person, although Jack is more talented at understanding people’s points of view and working them into decisions. This has worked to Jack’s advantage as he built rapport with the senior team and his division. He’s described as a divergent thinker who looks for out-of-the-box solutions to problems. The senior team values, respects and trusts Jack. Some try to emulate his style. Traditionally, Peter and Jack have enjoyed a solid, positive relationship.

However, little issues were cropping up and the senior team was starting to notice differences in how they communicated. For example, in good times, Peter may have had an idea and Jack would pick up on it and tweak it to their business needs. Now the conversations go nowhere. Or Peter would start to grill Jack on decisions he’s made rather than trusting, as he had before, that Jack knew what he was doing.

Both men were under emotional stress because Jack’s division was lagging in sales in several key markets. Jack and his team had tried everything to no avail. He hates having to package the message and Peter doesn’t like to do it either. They were both stressed over the same issues and each one wanted to be right. Instead of keeping the problems behind closed doors, word was spreading that Peter and Jack were in trouble. If they didn’t turn their relationship around, it would inhibit progress because it would affect others’ ability to focus on their work. These two men hold leadership roles in the organization. If they’re arguing, the focus will be on them rather than important market trends that are affecting the health and outcome of their business.

My solution was to teach them both something simple about their brains to help them understand why relationships are so important to their business. In Peter’s case, I talked with him about the neuroscience behind building relationships, how we’re constantly reading one another and how the quality of our relationships teaches everyone around us how to imitate, emulate and empathize. Peter changed the course of his relationship with Jack in one instant. He went to Jack’s office and asked him what he needed. He didn’t talk behind a closed door, and others heard what was said and saw the two men smile. This not only relaxed Jack and his team, it put the men back on track in their relationship.

This engagement was one of the most satisfying ones I’ve ever experienced because both Peter and Jack have open mindsets and were willing to take a chance to change their culture in order to turn their business around. It’s working, and I look forward to reporting back in with an update. And remember, the Emergenetics Profile is an excellent resource to use to build rapport among teams. It gives people a framework for understanding their personal behavioral styles and behavior tendencies. Knowing these things can go a long way in helping folks develop best practices for building relationships in the workplace.

Tom’s Infectious Laugh and Happy Life – The Neuroscience of Happiness

When we dedicate ourselves to being happy, we change our brains for the better.

Recently Tom Magliozzi of “Car Talk” passed away due to complications from Alzheimer’s. I loved this man’s laugh. Although I’m not what you would call a diehard car person, his gift to disarm and connect with people drew me to the show on a regular basis.

Tom was dedicated to living the life he loved, and the catalyst for that took place on a busy Boston freeway when he was in his early 20s and nearly collided with a truck. The experience propelled him to resign from his job and to become, as he called it, “a bum.” He and his brother, both MIT graduates, eventually partnered in a series of business ventures—from the Good News Garage (the name makes me smile) to “Car Talk.” And I’m delighted they did because their voices, and especially Tom’s laugh, were chicken soup for my soul after my father passed away.

What was it about Tom’s laugh that brightened my day? What does it take to increase happiness? And what does happiness do to the brain?

We have the power to increase our happiness throughout our lives. It’s a matter of choice. And when we dedicate ourselves to being happy, we change our brains for the better because the function and structure of the brain is connected to our emotions and behavior. The old school of thought posited that our brain changed but lost vitality over time. This couldn’t be further from the truth. (I love that neuroscience has advanced so much over the past 20 years that we’re able to see how the brain evolves, and better understand how systems link together.) The new school of thought says that we can engage our body to change our brain, which, in turn, changes our body.

When we partake in an activity we love, like dance, yoga or even sex, the insula deep in our brains tracks signals (sensations) from our body and transmits them back to the brain. The more the insula is activated, the more it thickens and produces additional grey matter—created when neurons wire and fire together. How cool! It’s neuroplasticity in action.

Science has also shown that the insula is part of the brain’s social system and central for empathy. When we feel another’s emotions, we actually engage the same neural circuits as the other person and feel the same feelings as well. The bottom line is that the more in tune you are with yourself, the stronger your insula; the happier you are, the more strongly you experience connections with others. It makes me happy to think that listening to a show I loved and partaking in Tom’s laugh made my insula create more grey matter.

Since we know what makes us feel good, that begs the question — Why do we spend so much time thinking about negative things? Why do we choose to play and replay movies and messages that are self deprecating and harmful to our sense of self? Negative thoughts leave neural information behind which can poison how we feel about ourselves and affect the way we connect with others. Interestingly, our brains have a natural bias toward negativity. Thanks to our ancestors who were extremely adept at survival, we have adapted to approach what’s safe but avoid what’s risky. For example, man has learned to dodge the rock and pick up the carrot; however, he’ll look for the rock before he goes for the carrot. Yes, he needs food to live, but if he doesn’t stay clear of the rocks he won’t survive to pick up the carrot. This negative bias is very effective for passing along genes but not necessarily beneficial for our quality of life.

So what can you do to increase your happiness factor and sense of connection with others? Here are some ideas:

1. Take notice of the good things that happen.
Soak up the good stuff and turn positive experiences into wonderful memories. Since we’re wired to focus more on the negative, take an active note of the positive things that happen to you during a day.

2. Remember that what wires together, fires together.
Think about something good that happened for a few seconds and allow it to seep into your being and become part of you. Takes a few seconds.

3. Finally, become aware of how you affect people.
If you lead people, watch your verbal and non-verbal language. You don’t want to set off alarms in others. Focus on developing rapport and helping people feel safe around you.

On one of those days that’s not so good, I’m going to remember Tom and his infectious laugh. I know it will put a smile on my face and warm me up inside. And if I create more grey matter along the way, I’m all for it.

The Neuroscience of Communication: Your Lens of Leadership

The more senior a leader becomes, the more important it is for them to adapt to the communication styles of those working for them.

Here’s another blog post that originally appeared at Emergenetics International.

Whether we like it or not, people determine our effectiveness and competence in less than one millisecond. After that, it’s all over. Moreover, when people are forming an opinion of us, verbal communication only accounts for 7% of what they remember. I don’t know about you, but this piques my interest. The truth is, we are watching behavior all the time and creating lasting impressions based on it.

Over my 15 years of coaching, I’ve consistently found that leaders are not adequately aware of how their behavior affects the people they lead. Additionally, many have a hard time understanding why they must adjust their approach in order to increase trust, rapport and effectiveness. To lay the foundation for change two tools have proven handy with leaders – the Emergenetics Profile for awareness and explaining the neuroscience of language.

Think about the three Emergenetics Profile behaviors: expressiveness, assertiveness and flexibility. For me, these behaviors represent the heart of the Profile, and are a critical tool when helping my clients understand how they appear to others. During coaching, I use the Emergenetics behaviors to explain how one’s action can create an unintended perception. For example, I coached a marketing executive in a large engineering firm. Sara was outgoing or silent depending on the situation. Her behavior perplexed her colleagues because she was either engaged or aloof. As a result, her trust factor decreased and uneasiness about her grew because people didn’t know who would show up.

By learning about her behavior, Sara realized that when she was responsible for a meeting or had a vested interest in an outcome, she would be outgoing, expressive and would drive to a conclusion. When she was a meeting participant and unfamiliar with the content, she was more withdrawn, pensive and flexible. I asked her to experiment with language. For example, she could lightly joke to colleagues about how she was more silent in some meetings, and explain that at times she needed to reflect before sharing. After a month, people reported feeling more relaxed around her. They said Sara was in a better mood. We were successfully able to shift people’s impressions and slowly she reduced the chasm of misunderstanding generated by her non-verbal behavior. As a result of her newly gained awareness and change in behavior, she was promoted to the c-suite.

We want our thoughts and words to match our actions so that we’re giving people an accurate picture of our intentions. This can be challenging, but it is possible when we have a framework from which to work.

Let’s take a step back and look at brain science to see how it might affect behavior. Communication is created through language, and we tend to take this ability for granted. Language makes us unique among all species. If we lose language, we lose our ability to interact with other human beings.

The rich field of the neuroscience of language identifies the neural signals deep in the brain that create the seeds for what we think of as language. However, that’s not the whole story. The way we learn language is deeply entwined with environmental experiences and culture. One elegant study by Boroditsky and Gaby (2010) illustrates this very clearly. People were asked to arrange a set of pictures depicting a temporal progression of events (i.e., a person at different ages). Western, English-speaking people (Americans) always arranged the cards from left to right, relationship to their body. However, Aboriginals from the Pormpuraaw tribe, arranged the pictures in absolute space, in relationship to the rise and set of the sun — east to west. They completed the task consistently this way even if they were positioned in different directions in the room.

This study illuminates what makes science sublime. It shows how language plays a causal role in how we think.First we learn language, then we position our language in context to our culture, and finally we think. In the case of the Aboriginals, they always knew their position directionally and then they could respond to the task. One could extrapolate from this that learning a new language is learning a new way of thinking. I would argue that when we work with a diverse workforce, we have the opportunity to learn how each person communicates in relationship to their background and to their specific organizational culture. I tell my clients it’s like learning many different variations on the same language.

Let’s look at another real-world scenario. Steve is a leader in a financial firm, and his division is floundering because he’s resistant to change. When he brought me in, he told me he was open to changing his communication style, but he consistently employs language indicating that he wants other people to change their approach first. He has more seniority and thinks others need to adapt to him.

I submit that it’s the other way around. The more senior a leader becomes, the more important it is for him to adapt to the communication styles of those working for him. The leader needs to actually demonstrate nimble communication. This motivates people and creates rapport because they feel heard and valued. I asked Steve to do two things: 1) Ask at least three questions of the people working for him to empower thought and decision making; and 2) Continually play back to folks what he hears. This helps everyone reflect on how they’ve communicated and ultimately creates better understanding.

It took nine long months, but he turned his attitude around and inspired his people. At the end of our engagement, he said he realized how difficult communication was, and he recognized that it was the tipping point for his career in the company. Today the division is a well-oiled machine and collectively they’ve increased revenue by 20% over the past year.

Knowing how to assimilate by understanding verbal and non-verbal communication is super important to leadership success. Therefore, leaders, never stop reflecting on the feedback people have given you about your behavior and watch people’s reactions to you. Ask yourself: Do your people trust you? Do your clients? Are you projecting one assimilated message? Ask your trusted advisors to observe your behavior and actively seek ways to become better navigators of your own personalities. Above all, keep your communication lenses highly polished to enhance success.

Boroditsky, L, Gaby, A Psychol Sci. 2010 Nov; 21(11): 1635-9