We’ve all been there: In your mind is a clear, thoughtful plan of action. You communicate your plan of action to your co-worker, and they promptly do something completely different.
When this happens, our first response is usually something to the effect of, “How could you possibly?…” or “What were they thinking?” These two questions are going to be instructive for us as we learn how to improve our communication skills using brain science.
Before we dive into these two questions, let’s break down what “communication” actually means. Communication is something that we’ve been using our entire lives, so why would we need a lesson about it, you might ask? Because most of us don’t actually have a solid understanding of communication. By and large, most people believe that communication is the process of sending information to another person — but that idea is incomplete.
Communication is about sharing or exchanging information with one another. In other words, communication is about a message being sent and a message being received. In other words, if a message is sent but has not been received, communication did not take place.
“How Could You Possibly…?”
It is important to acknowledge that when we ask “How could you possibly…?” either internally or externally, we’re not actually asking a question borne of curiosity, rather we’re making a passive aggressive judgment about what we think of them in that situation; because the subtext of that question is, “You’re an idiot.” Think about it. When you believe that you’ve communicated clearly (because the message sounds perfectly logical and well thought out in your head) and someone does the complete opposite, we believe that there must be something wrong with them. This is the result of a couple of universal brain science principles that I call “The Principles of Human Understanding.”
The first principle is called the “Illusion of Certainty.” This is our brain’s propensity to project certainty even if there is none. So, we quickly transition from, “I see it this way,” to “It is this way.” Or, “I believe that this is the best way to do it,” to “This is the best way to do it.” Those may seem like subtle differences, but if your opinion stops being your opinion and starts becoming a concrete rule, then anyone who doesn’t follow your rule must have something wrong with them. Of course, this is an illusion. Holding on to this concept that the way in which we see the world is not always the way the world actually is, will reshape how we view our own communication.
Instead of saying, “You heard me wrong,” or “How could you possibly think that’s what I meant?” we could fundamentally change the trajectory of the conversation by saying, “What about the words I said or the way in which I said it, made you hear it that way?” Then — and this is the critical part — actively listen to what they say. The temptation is to find the error in their response and respond with reasoned rebuttals to specific points, outlining the flaws in their thinking; subtly reinforcing that they are in fact, an idiot. Resist this temptation. This is the principle that I call, “The Fight to Be Right.” We often fight to reinforce that we are right; or that they’re wrong.
Instead of fighting to be right, we can try to remember that the person we are communicating with believes to their core, just as we do, that they are perfectly reasonable and rational. This brings us to the second question.
“What Were They Thinking?”
Oftentimes when this question crosses our mind, it’s not a curious one. Rather, it’s another passive aggressive judgment of another person’s intelligence because underneath it lies the assumption that all humans think the same way, and therefore reach the same conclusions. Since the person at hand didn’t reach the conclusion you intended them to, something “must be wrong with them.”
The main problem with this thought pattern is that we are insulting another person’s intelligence. Not overtly, but it comes through in our tone and in our facial expressions. When people feel they have been insulted, they often get defensive. A defensive reaction is a physiological response to threat that can be observed in all animals, including humans.
While we are in the midst of a defensive reaction, our bodies reduce resources to frontal lobes (or the areas responsible for executive function and creative problem solving) and increase resources to the amygdala (or the area responsible for emotion and the stress response). Said another way, when people are defensive, they are less likely to receive and accurately interpret the message that you are hoping to send.
What if we instead embraced radical curiosity? Rather than judging someone’s intelligence when they don’t understand the message we’re trying to get across, we instead try to understand what they were thinking to arrive at their conclusion? Were there holes in our delivery? Were there details that are ubiquitous to us, that we neglected to share with them? Were there expectations or context that we have the benefit of operating under, but they do not? Were there extenuating circumstances that shaped the conversation beyond the words that were said?
In almost every circumstance, there is something that we could have done differently to increase the likelihood of our message being received in the way we would have hoped.
When we understand the brain science of communication, we often find ourselves in a situation where we “always have to be the bigger person,” which can be exhausting. But this is the paradox of enlightenment. The more that we know, the more enlightened we become, the likelier it will be that we will be the only one who can see the opportunity to communicate better; the only one who will work to understand rather than being understood. While this can occasionally feel like a burden, if the goal is truly to improve communication, then this is a burden that we have the opportunity to bear.