Neuroscience at work: how to have more productive conversations

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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.

RICH communication

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.

About Kate Lanz

Kate Lanz

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 stepped out of the corporate environment, Kate undertook a degree in psychology with a view to specialising in leadership consulting. Kate has a degree in modern languages, post graduate in international commerce, an MBA and a BSc. in psychology. She is also a qualified coaching supervisor.

She is currently completing a doctorate based on her research in applied neuroscience in organisations. Kate became fascinated by the brain at work post the financial crisis in 2008 when she noticed some clear patterns in the behaviours of her clients at the time. Kate started to look at the return on investment on the performance of some of the brains of the clients she was working with post crisis. Since then, she has embarked on doctoral research in the field and, in partnership with some of her clients, is investigating what it takes in the modern organisation to truly enable brain-friendly culture.

Kate has established Mindbridge, a consulting company specialising in applied neuroscience for business, where she leads a small, hand-picked team of professionals with the relevant experience and credentials. She has been actively researching applied neuroscience in organisations for the last six years and is engaged in some very exciting, pioneering work together with her client companies. Kate’s clients include AXA insurance, Pfizer, Morgan Stanley, Lloyds Bank, Smith & Nephew, IKEA, Ernst & Young, Deutsche Bank, Disney, Diageo, EDF Energy, John Lewis, Waitrose, Accenture, amongst many others. Kate also coaches globally on a wide range of general and tailor-made executive programmes at the INSEAD Global Leadership Centre. Over many years she has worked with international business leaders at INSEAD in Singapore, Abu Dhabi and joint programmes with Wharton and Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Kate was invited to join the panel of 50 coaches worldwide as a founder member of the World Wide Association of Business Coaches. Kate is an accredited member of the Association of Professional Executive Coaches and Supervisors. Kate has published numerous articles on coaching and book chapters on coaching supervision and team coaching. On the personal front, Kate has two sons who are both currently studying at University, they live in Bedfordshire and she recently dared to take up horse riding again after a long gap.


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