Neuroscience at work: how to have more productive conversations
Communication in a business environment can often go wrong, even when it’s carefully planned. To understand how to better express ourselves with colleagues, we must first appreciate the neuroscientific aspects at work – i.e. how our brains interpret information – before we can modify our approach.
You would think it is common sense that when we communicate with another person we speak directly to the part of the brain that is highly developed and makes rational sense of the world, the pre-frontal cortex - and this is indeed the case much of the time. However, communication with others often goes wrong.
Neuroscience shows us why and explains that this is not because of the involvement of the pre-frontal cortex but that something fundamentally different is going on in the brain.
Here’s an example: a manager is preparing for a difficult conversation with one of their team members. They’ve collected all the evidence to present, which shows that the individual’s performance isn’t quite up to scratch. They’ve thought carefully about how to rationally raise all the concerns and issues with evidence to the ready, and they’re aware of the potential negative impact.
It certainly sounds like all the planning has been put in place. Yet, immediately the team member is highly defensive, gets upset and goes on the attack. The meeting goes severely wrong from the start, and the objective to agree a solution and find a way forward becomes impossible.
Let’s take a look at this conversation from a neuroscientific perspective. For this we use our RICH communication model, based on the work of Virginia Satir, a pioneer in family reconstruction therapy. The model has now been developed by Mindbridge and adapted to include our new understanding of the brain’s function.
The brain works bottom up. The limbic system, sitting deep in the centre of the brain, is scanning for threat and danger and responding to our environment three times more quickly than our pre-frontal cortex. The limbic system is responding on our behalf before we can even begin to think about what’s happening.
When communicating in a business context, leaders and managers should consider the neuroscientific factors at play in a situation before making their approach.
Communicating based on the actual structure and order of processing of the human brain, the RICH model identifies the need for communication to start from the bottom- up.
- In the RICH model, the R stands for recognition. The purpose of recognition is to soothe and settle the limbic system, which controls our fight and flight responses. The manager can do this by showing recognition of the individual’s contribution and appreciating them as an individual.
- The I is for intention. Understanding the intention behind the words soothes the team member. Humans are emotional way before they are rational and we respond three times as quickly to emotion than to reason. Intention signals where the conversation is going. The manager will need to signal that this is going to be a conversation where there is a difficulty in regard to performance.
He or she will highlight that they need to work on solutions together, so that the team member doesn’t feel caught out by the purpose of the meeting.
The R and the I will help to settle and soothe the limbic system, our emotional brain, so that both the manager and the team member are ready for the intellectual part of the conversation.
Of course, the manager will need to bear in mind that the primal emotions are always on stand-by and ready to be triggered at any point.
- The C is for challenge + solution and addresses the issue that together the manager and the individual need to try and solve. The aim is to enable the conversation to move from the limbic system to the pre-frontal cortex, which controls our thinking and creative brain.
If the limbic system is highly triggered, unfortunately the cortex shuts down, and the conversation will likely take a down turn. The manager’s role here is to keep the conversation open, to offer up solutions and to engage the team member.
- The H stands for hope. This is where the manager paints a picture that ignites the reward systems in the brain. What does the resolution look like? What will a new behaviour feel like to the individual that enables their contribution to be really recognised and valued?
Of course, this part of the conversation needs to be completely authentic but an honest exchange of what is possible is a powerful way to enhance the relationship as well as address the issue. Hope releases dopamine, one of the happiness hormones, and fires up the reward centres in the brain.
The RICH communication model is simple but incredibly potent from a neuroscientific perspective tuning in with the way the brain actually works - from the bottom up.
This model can be applied in one-to-one conversations as we’ve demonstrated above. It can be utilised in a coaching conversation or it can be used in the flow of a meeting to stimulate creative discussions.
RICH in action: diffusing conflict and passive resistance
Working with one coaching client, we used the RICH communication model when two women in his team were locked in a conflict. Each one was coming to him independently and it was affecting performance. He likened it to trying to drive with the hand brake on.
His view of their relationship was that they just needed to get on with it and sort it out between themselves. To him it was just another frustration that needed to be resolved quickly.
Instead, he used the RICH model. He slowed right down and took his time to have two very potent individual coaching conversations.
He recognised and appreciated their frustrations. He signalled his intention to help them work together and build a cohesive team. He challenged them to find solutions and he gave them hope for a better and brighter future where each of their different styles contributed to team performance.
The RICH model gave him the opportunity to help them individually learn and grow together. They each felt valued, seen and heard. They had the chance to soothe their more primal emotions, responding to what felt like attack.
Then, the manager created the airtime for their cortexes to engage in finding solutions to the conflict and for rational solutions to come on stream after the emotions had been settled.
The relationship with the manager was strengthened as a result. Whilst they remained very different people stylistically, they learned to cooperate to access the differences in a positive way.
In conclusion, it’s worth remembering that when communicating in a business context, leaders and managers should consider the neuroscientific factors at play in a situation before making their approach.
Interested in this topic? Read Six neuroscientific insights that can help improve learning performance.
Kate Lanz specialises in consulting and coaching at senior levels including the Board. Kate has had a successful international corporate career, notably as an International General Manager with Diageo. She has successfully established single country companies and multi- country businesses, in both the branded spirits and beer sectors. When she...