A Prominent Neuroscientist’s Take On Workplace Conversation

Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, the Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College, recently published a book entitled Words can Change Your Brain co-authored with  Loyola Marymount University communications expert Mark Robert Waldman).

Compassionate Communication

The authors discovered a valuable strategy called Compassionate Communication, a 12-step strategy that allows anyone to create a special bond with whomever they are speaking that aligns both brains to work together as one. In this unique state—free from conflict and distrust—we can communicate more effectively, listen more deeply, collaborate without effort, and succeed more quickly at any task. The following comprises key points of an interview with Dr. Newberg conducted by Steven Kotler in Forbes:

Q1: What are the forms of communication?

While we usually think about language, both written and spoken, as the main way of communicating, research shows that we communicate in so many other ways including facial expressions, eye movements, body position, and body language. For example, a recent brainscan study found that one can tell, by looking at a CEO’s face, if he or she is trustworthy, has strong leadership skills, and is financially successful in governing the corporation.

Q2: What are the most important things being communicated?

While we always need to be able to communicate our thoughts and ideas to others, in business, it appears that being able to communicate your values and vision may be just as important. For example, researchers in the management department at Drexel University in Philadelphia recently conducted a 100-year profile study of 75 CEOs of major league baseball teams. Those who encouraged confidence and optimism in their teams won more games and attracted more fan attendance. And they showed more concern for others than for themselves. But CEOs who showed signs of conceit, vanity, and egotism won the fewest games and attracted the least number of fans. Here we see that kindness and positive support makes all the difference in the workplace. For example, Marcial Losada, the director of the Center for Advanced Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan, showed that in the business world, the most successful teams of individuals were those who were the most positive when communicating to each other.  Such values are essential to communicate in the workplace.

Q3: What Is The Value of “Making Money”?

Interestingly, making money rarely shows up on an individual’s personal or professional values list.  So why do so many people equate money with personal satisfaction, even though the research is clear that social satisfaction is more rewarding?  Neuroscience provides a possible explanation.  It turns out that monetary and social rewards stimulate the same neural circuits in the brain.  Every time a person contemplates his or her personal and social values, it stimulates the same reward circuit in the brain.  This research strongly suggests that focusing on your inner values can be both pleasurable and rewarding, and that it should neurologically reinforce behaviors that are associated with the values individuals believe in the most.

Q4: Why Is Focusing on One’s Inner Values So Important for Effective Face-To-Face Organizational Communication?

Harvard business professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, considered by many to be one of the 50 most powerful women in the world, recently posted a blog entry about the importance of directly addressing values in the boardroom: “In organizations that I call ‘supercorps’—companies that are innovative, profitable, and responsible—widespread dialogue about the interpretation and application of values enhances accountability, collaboration, and initiative”.

Dr. Kanter finds that when people share and discuss their deepest values in the business world, it strengthens the alignment of the entire group.  Employees’ personal values become integrated with the company’s policy, and this helps to guide the ethical choices of the corporation.  Discussing business values openly, Kanter argues, eliminates the need to impose impersonal and coercive rules.

The organization becomes a community united by shared purpose, which reinforces teamwork and collaboration.  People can be more readily relied upon to do the right thing, and to guide their colleagues to do the same, once they buy into and internalize core principles.  People can become more aware of the drivers and impact of their behavior.  And, as I have seen in leading companies, active consideration of core values and purpose can unlock creative potential.

Q5: Is it important to bring the value of compassion into the art of negotiation?

Creating a sense of compassion as part of the negotiating practice in business may have profound effects. Deborah Kolb, at the Simmons College Graduate School of Management, emphasizes the importance of showing deep and genuine appreciation when negotiating with others: “Appreciative moves alter the tone or atmosphere so that a more collaborative exchange is possible.” This, she adds, helps to insure that all bargainers establish a common trust, away from “unspoken power plays and into the light of true dialogue.”  And remember: the more you communicate in a warm, supportive, enthusiastic, and genuinely caring way, the more you will be perceived as a transformational leader.

Overall, the evidence shows that developing improved communication techniques, particularly those that rely on personal values and also compassion, can have a potentially dramatic effect within businesses. Such communication may be able to enhance the success, cohesion, and productivity of a business. We have begun to develop and test specific approaches to improving communication and describe these approaches in our book, Words Can Change Your Brain.

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