The dynamic duo of Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman who brought us “Born to Believe: God, Science, and the Origin of Ordinary and Extraordinary Beliefs” and “How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist,” have served up another vital and necessary guidebook to our sustainable well-being, namely “Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict, and Increase Intimacy.” I had the opportunity to speak with the authors about their latest book. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
Brain World: What’s the big picture behind Words Can Change Your Brain?
Mark Waldman: Language is one of the most important tools we have. In fact, our newest research show that it’s essential for actually building the framework of consciousness itself. But compared to other species, it turns out that we’re very poor communicators, and we don’t even know it! We spend years teaching our children how to read and write, but we don’t teach them how to speak. We give them the basics, but by the time they reach 11 or 12, we say to our kids, “Okay, we’re done learning about speaking and listening skills, now let’s start to read books and study other things.” So it’s not surprising that most people still communicate with each other on the level of a 12 year old.
But a 12 year old doesn’t even have the neurological ability to experience empathy and compassion. These too are communication skills, and without them we can’t relate to how other people are feeling, or tell them about our own emotional needs. This why so many people in their 20s and 30s get divorced: they just haven’t even learned how to communicate what they mean by love. They don’t know how to “read” between the lines, to accurately perceive the emotional expressions on the other person’s face, or hear their feelings in the tone of their voice.
We wrote this book to help people to speak more honestly with each other, and to listen to each other more deeply. And we also wrote this book because the newest findings in neuroscience can teach us how to become better communicators, how to build deeper bonds of trust, and how to resolve conflicts without getting frightened or mad. We wrote this book to talk about the power of words, but we also want to make the point that words are the least important part of the communication process. In other words, there are seven other key elements that make communication effective.
The most important part is hidden in our facial expressions, and we have to learn how to study the other person’s face to see what they really mean. But staring makes people feel uncomfortable. But if we use a specific type of positive facial expression- a soft eye gaze and a half smile – people will automatically trust us. But the muscles controlling this facial expression are involuntary. In other words, you can’t fake kindness, but we discovered a really cool trick to develop that soft eye gaze and Mona Lisa smile. We just ask a person, before they engage in a conversation with someone else, visualize someone they deeply love, or recall an event that brought them deep satisfaction and joy. It’s such an easy exercise, and we train people to do it in our workshops.
First, we have people stand up and face each other, and then gaze at each other’s faces. Lot’s of nervous giggling goes on and 75% of the room will say it feels uncomfortable. Then we ask them to close their eyes and deeply relax because any body tension will be perceived by the listener as a threat. Finally, we ask them to focus on that loving memory. You’ll see this incredible expression of serenity appear on everyone’s faces, and when they open their eyes, everyone feels very comfortable with each other, like old friends!
BW: Do you find that a lot of the problem lies in the fact that people don’t know how to listen?
MW: Nobody ever taught us what to listen for. Again, it’s not the words that are most important, it’s the tone. And every single tone of voice conveys a different emotion. For example, you can say “Yes” a dozen different ways –loud, soft, fast, slow–and each one of these conveys a different meaning.
And then there’s the way we gesture with our hands and body. Without those cues it’s easy to misread the underlying emotions the person is trying to get across. So the eye gaze, the facial expressions, the tone of voice, the body language–all of these things convey far more than the words themselves.
BW: What happens when you have a conversation that’s conflict oriented?
MW: From my perspective, the slightest frown in your face will increase a conflict between you and another individual. If you can create a kind of soft Mona Lisa smile and gentleness in your eyes, we’ve seen that this creates a neurological trust in the person watching you. The more conflicted the situation, the more conscious you have to be aware of your tone of voice expressing defensiveness. The moment you create the defensive response to what the other person says it’s a downward spiral.
Andrew Newberg: There are always going to be conversations that you have that will have a certain confrontational tone about it. For instance, sometimes you have to talk to someone about a problem. Part of the goal here is to avoid it spiraling out of control into a truly negative interaction and turning it instead into something that is much more positive and ultimately constructive. How you hold yourself in the conversation, how you look at the person, how you engender a sense of intimacy and trust, even though it may be a confrontational topic or something problematic, is something that can end up in a positive way.
MW: What we try to show in the book is that in a conflictual situation, you have to know the basics of effective communication to start out with and that most people don’t realize that the way in which they normally talk is already creating subtle distances and defensiveness in the other person. As far as we can tell, the brain’s default mechanism looks for signs of threat in the world. If we see a face, we immediately identify if it is a frowning face or smiling face; is it a threatening face or non-threatening? Our brains enter the world in a state of anxiety and uncertainty. The first thing it does is it looks for a sign of threat because it is a survival-oriented mechanism. Once we see that then hopefully we can relax our defenses and go through deeper steps of intimacy in our communication process. We spend a lot of time in the book teaching a person to spend a few minutes before they walk into a conversation to create in their own face, body, tone of voice a very warm, welcoming and safe environment so that when a person hears their voice and sees their face they will immediately be put at ease. We want to eliminate the possibility of conflicts coming up.
BW: Tell us about the 30 second rule and why we should speak only one or two sentences at a time.
AN: That’s really based on the data we get in terms of the working memory of the brain–how much information the brain itself can hang onto at any one time. When you look at studies that have documented the capacity of the human brain, they show that the brain is really good at being able to hold onto 4-6 chunks of information or 20-30 seconds worth of information at a given time. So when you extrapolate that to a conversation and someone goes on and on talking for 15 minutes, you’re not going to hold onto any more than 30 seconds or a minute of that. The idea is to try and have conversations with people so you can be really sure they’re hearing the essence of what you’re trying to say in a very concise and brief way.
MW: If I simply say, “I love this apple pie that you made,” we can hang onto that. There is “I” as one chunk, “love,” “apple” and “pie.” Each one of these forms a little picture in your mind, identifies the person, and when you’re saying “you made,” we already have 7 chunks of information. That’s almost more than that person can grapple with. They have to think about the fact that you love the thing they made, what do you mean by love, your mind might be comparing apple pie to chocolate cake. There’s a lot of processing going on. But if we simply speak a brief short sentence and pause and let the other person respond, we’ll be able to know if they’ve actually heard what we said.
AN: It also refers to your previous question about conflictual situations. That’s where you really see people getting upset and then rambling on and on about whatever the problem is. What happens is the essence of the problem gets lost and you don’t realize why this person is not happy or why they’re not happy with you. Because they’ve just told you 15 minutes worth of stuff that your brain isn’t hable to hold on to whereas if they had just said, “I didn’t like the way you said this,” you would have something you can work with and then you can respond. “Well I said it because…” or “I didn’t mean it that way.” Now suddenly a confrontational discussion where everyone is on the defensive and no one’s really listening turns into one where you’re actually really listening and you’re working towards the resolution which takes it from being negatively confrontational to positively constructive.
MW: Brain science shows that when you make one simple negative statement, that creates a profound neurological effect throughout your brain, affecting your amygdala, releasing stress neurochemicals and that it actually drives you to make another negative statement and yet another one. When I teach this to mediating attorneys we go to the one sentence 10 second rule. You have one sentence to speak and we’ll go around the table. It doesn’t allow a person to immerse themselves in a rumination on a negativity that generates more negativity. And that brings in the 3-1 positivity ratio that put positive psychology on the map. If you have less than 3 positive thoughts for every negative thought or feeling you’ll end up becoming more angry, irritated, clinically depressed. Those people who can generate a 5-1 positivity ratio will have the most loving relationships and even in the business world the most thriving businesses.
AN: In terms of expressing and listening and all the other cues that go into communication, words are a small part. A lot has to do with your awareness of the other person and not being reactive. Trying to get a true grasp of what they’re trying to say. It will lessen the misinterpretation. But it also depends on the speaker. This flows into modern communication such as text messaging where you don’t have all those other cues…it becomes harder to truly know what the person is communicating. The only advantage is that it is a short burst of information. Twitter had it right!
MW: You have to have an experience of compassionate communication. That’s why we advise people to listen to our training CD or come to the workshop. When you slow down and your voice becomes more clear and a little bit warmer you begin to see that similar areas of the brain in the other person begin to light up. That’s what we’re calling neural resonance and other people call neural coupling.
BW: Do you offer seminars for business people?
MW: Our book has now been made a formal regular text book for all beginning executive MBA students at Loyola Marymount University. They’re taught these compassionate communication strategies within the first couple of months of class because they have to do teamwork games to develop effective business strategies. So it’s taken off tremendously in the business world. Lots of papers are coming out on the value of the the Inner Value Exercise where you take a few moments in the morning to focus on what your deepest most innermost values are which turns out to reduce individual stress for the entire day.
AN: The people in the jobs and workplaces where there is good communication, they work the most, they enjoy their work the most and it spills over to the bottom line, they’re more successful. There’s a lot to be said in developing the right kind of communication skills in the workplace to make for a successful business.
BW: Your 12th strategy is to “Listen deeply, without judgment”. Speak about the difference between evaluation, opinion and judgment. How do we remain compassionate when using all three?
AN: When we’re talking about listening in a non-judgmental way, part of the process is to get yourself into that consciously relaxed state so that you can pay attention to what the person is communicating and not judging your own reaction or their reaction so much as paying attention to what it is, evaluating it for what it is and then responding in a non-reactive, non-judgmental way. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have any opinions about it or a response that you want to weigh in on. But you are not thinking about it so much in a negative or defensive way. You’re thinking about what did the person really say to me, what do I think about it and how can I respond now in a way that gets my opinion across and communicates effectively to the next person what the next step of this discussion is really about. So the judgmental part is part of mindfulness, how we evaluate our own responses and applying that to how we look at what someone else is talking to us about.
MW: We’re basically applying formal mindfulness meditation to while you speak. In mindfulness you sit back and begin to pay attention to your own thoughts and feelings and you begin to realize that they constantly rise and fall in your own mind. You keep bringing yourself back to a state of your breathing and relaxation so you’re in the present moment. Our experiment began several decades ago. We wondered what happens if you do that (mindfulness) while you’re speaking to a person. So you sit there, you relax yourself, you say something that comes into mind spontaneously, you pay attention to your emotions, thoughts and feelings, you let them go and then you kind of respond intuitively to what the person just said. So you speak briefly. You stop. You take a deep breath and you come back into the present moment. You don’t try to get across a point or strategy because if you do that then you’re just focused on what you want to say instead of focusing on what the other person has just said. If you stay totally focused on what the other person has just said, even if it’s something provocative, you’re taking a small deep breath and relaxing, so that’s where you’re letting go of your judgment and evaluating. You’re listening to what your inner speech might say. You might evaluate “Is this an effective thing to say in response or might something better come in?” and we think that when you’re in this slow, relaxed state you tap into a brand new communication part of your brain. This would actually be the 13th strategy which would be to trust your intuition. You’re not just listening to your logical conscious mind where many judgments are being made constantly. You’re coming from another part of your brain that’s highly associated with feelings of kindness, compassion and social awareness. We’re deliberately using strategies that we know stimulate the kindness and compassion circuits in a person’s brain.
AN: As we get more into the technological world there’s always a greater interest in maintaining interpersonal communication. We know we still have to talk to each other. Everyone recognizes that. I come from a medical perspective. How do we talk to our patients with difficult situations, prognoses, end of life situations and how do we do that in as effective a way as possible. There are ways to train ourselves. You can become a better communicator. When you do these practices you literally change the way the brain works.