Words Can Change Your Brain

MRW: 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 able 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.

MRW: 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 to 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 to 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!

MRW: 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?

MRW: 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 nonjudgmental 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 nonreactive, nonjudgmental 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.

MRW: 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.

For more information on “Words Can Change your Brain” visit markrobertwaldman.com and andrewnewberg.com.

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