In conversations, human brain function is both a blessing and a burden. Brain function is a blessing when it enables us to communicate what we think and care about and listen to the same in others. Brain function is a burden when we automatically jump to the conclusion that what others are saying or doing is a threat. These conversation exchanges are when we have “knee jerk reactions” like interrupting or criticizing them, defending ourselves, or simply checking out. Because the brain has so much to do with what we think and how we feel, it plays a starring role in conversations with friends, coworkers, and neighbors. Isn’t it fascinating that many of the challenges to crucial conversations lie within our own brains and we can do something about it!
If you want to engage in successful and meaningful conversations (ones that are less combative and more collegial, even fun) it helps to know a little about the brain and brain function. The brain is a finely interwoven organ made of a series of nerve cells known as neurons. Our neurons form a series of networks through which information and energy flow. They are like a series of electrical circuits within the brain and body. These interconnected networks of neurons, along with the entire nervous system, enable us to do most everything we do as human beings.
If you’ve had the opportunity to learn anything about the brain, you’ve probably heard about the alarm bell within, called the amygdala. The amygdala is there for our protection and survival and quickly notices anything that might appear to threaten our sense of well-being. When this alarm is triggered, we get scared and swiftly move to protect ourselves in some way. You might have also heard about the executive functions in the prefrontal cortex that help us reason, make decisions, and most importantly for conversations, manage impulsive behaviors, like the three F’s: fighting, fleeing, or freezing. The amygdala and prefrontal cortex are two important parts of the brain and brain function. However, in this essay I want to focus on how interconnected and dynamic all the networks in the brain are and how knowing this can give you an advantage.
Three particular networks are instrumental in whether our conversations with friends, coworkers, and neighbors work well or not. The Switcher, the Storyteller and the Executive (more about these below). They determine whether we react with one or more of the three F’s or respond by attending to others and engaging constructively with them. When we react with one of the three F’s, the way we think and behave is likely to push people away and evoke reactivity in them—this is the burden part. Conversely, when we attend and engage with people, we pull them towards us—this is the blessing part. We get to choose which we want to develop: the burdens or the blessings. However, choosing between the burdens and the blessings, between reacting and responding, is not as easy as it is to simply write these words. Choosing involves learning to manage the brain’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tendencies.
It’s taken me a while and lots of practice to consistently respond to others by attending to and engaging with them constructively. Despite years of practice, I still can react. For most of us, it takes a lifetime of practice and brain activity exercise to consistently respond. When someone interrupts, contradicts, or discounts you, what do you choose to do?
How the Three Brain Networks Interconnect
Let’s call the three brain networks that play starring roles in meaningful conversations the Switcher (Salience Network), the Storyteller (Default Mode Network), and the Executive (Central Executive Network).
Here’s how you have likely experienced these networks in action. When someone interrupts or disagrees with you, what happens? Do you feel hurt, angry, scared, or shocked? The Executive is trying to figure out what to say while the Switcher is probably ping ponging energy between the Executive and the Storyteller that is spinning judgmental tales in your head about you (“I didn’t say that clearly.”) and others (“They just don’t get it. They don’t want to listen to me because…”)
When the Switcher and the Storyteller are active, it’s difficult for the Executive to get a word in! This makes it hard to switch from reacting to responding. Four moves can help us make this switch: pausing, paying attention to body and breath, asking “learner questions,” and listening with curiosity and caring.
Four Moves to Build the Brain’s Blessings
Pausing. When we feel reactive and don’t pause to make conscious choices about what to say and how to say it, it is likely we are going to say something we regret. This often occurs outside of conscious awareness, under the power of the older, deeply embedded networks of the brain like the Switcher and Storyteller. Have you ever spoken in conversations with friends or others out of fear or anger in ways that damaged a relationship or created a going-nowhere-good conversation? Or, have you ever remained silent, pretending momentarily that you didn’t care, that also caused harm? I know I have done both at various times and regret that I wasn’t always able to mend things after the fact.
Paying Attention to Body and Breath. While pausing, bring your attention to body sensations and breath. Focus your attention on the breath moving in and out of your body and the sensations of your feet on the floor and your seat on a chair. Paying attention to your breath and body, calms the Storyteller and Switcher, allowing easier access to the Executive brain function. I invite you to take a moment to pause right now for a few seconds. Sense your feet on the floor…your seat in the chair…and the breath moving in and out of your body…notice how you are feeling at this moment.
With access to the Executive, you are better able to choose whether you want to speak, what you want to say, and how to say it. You might even choose to stay silent until you can speak with curiosity and caring. You make the breath and body conversation exchange allies when you pay attention to them.
Asking Learner Questions. You can also tap into the functions of the Executive brain function by asking what Marilee Adams calls “learner questions.” Even in the most challenging conversations, switching, from what Adams refers to as a “judger” mindset, to a “learner” mindset can change the dynamic of an interaction from mini or major combat to constructive collaboration. Marilee Adams’ Choice Map™ helps us know which mode we are in: judger mode (“What’s wrong with me?” or “What’s wrong with them?”); or learner mode (“What are others thinking, feeling, and wanting? What do I/we want for ourselves, others, and the situation?) When I notice I am stuck in a judger mindset, my go-to question to switch to a learner mindset is, “How else could I think about this?” What question could you ask yourself? It could be as simple as “Am I in judger mode? Is this what I want to be doing?”
Listening with Curiosity and Compassion. Each of us brings a unique world of experience and point of view to conversations with friends or others. The only way to understand others is to ask learner questions and listen. If you’ve had occasion to learn about listening, you already know that it involves understanding the situation from someone else’s perspective. You can only do this by not talking, restating what you hear them say to make sure you understand what they mean, and asking learner questions to deepen your understanding of their experience and viewpoint. This does not mean you will agree with them. If we can at least understand one another, we have a better chance of finding a way forward.
Strengthening the Brain’s Blessings to Conversations
Practice these brain function exercises in calm conversational waters so it is easier to apply them in rough ones. You can learn to disrupt downward-spiraling, judging, defending, attacking and going-nowhere-good conversations. They occur more often than they need to. You can learn to apply the brain’s blessings while avoiding its burdens by pausing, paying attention to your body and breath, asking learner questions, and then listening with curiosity and caring. These will help you and others shift to thoughtful, life-giving conversations for your organizations and communities. If we aren’t doing this, then what are we doing?