The Neuroscience of Conversation

You are taking a walk outside on a beautiful sunny day on a break from work. You decide to meet your wife, husband, or significant other for lunch at one of your favorite restaurants. You hold hands, give each other an extended welcome hug, and bask in the trust that you have built with each other throughout the years. Sounds like utopia right? Well there is a reason why. When we feel trust and love for another person and stay in conversation that correlates to this trust, our brains release a chemical called ocytocin.

Recent studies have begun to investigate oxytocin's role in various behaviors, including social recognition, pair bonding, anxiety, and maternal behaviors. For this reason, it is sometimes referred to as the "bonding hormone".

Oxytocin is released only when we are in relationship entrainment, appreciating one another; staying in relationship in a way that is a lot like that utopian day at the restaurant with your wife or husband.

Now, let's fast forward. You go back to work and meet your colleague in the hallway. You are immediately met with feedback about your recent project with a really demanding client. Your colleague gives you immediate unwelcome feedback that is focused on what you did wrong. Your colleague says to you in an angry tone, "You didn't engage in that difficult conversation with the nightmare client, and I took the brunt of it. When are you ever going to start backing me up? I just can't trust you." Immediately you get excited and enraged; clam up and leave the conversation. What just happened? You think to yourself as you walk back to your desk, "I had this amazing lunch with my partner, and come back to so much stress. I really wish I didn't work here in this kind of environment."

At this moment, you have entered the stress-brain loop. The stress hormone cortisol is building up in your brain and wreaking havoc on your hippocampus which is responsible for the regulation of attention, perception, short-term memory, learning, and finding the right words to respond to such attacks. You freeze up, use unnecessary fighting words back, and fly off to a safer place by yourself.

Let's reframe the conversation now and rewind the tape to just after lunch. When you get back from lunch, your colleague greets you with an appreciative statement, "You know I really respect how much you love your partner. I think that is such an admirable quality about you." Let's go next door and have a cup of coffee or some other arbitrary liquid and talk over that really tough client account."

You go to the coffee shop, talk a bit about each others lives, friends, family, hobbies, and things you love. Puppies and babies are always a winner of a conversation and gets that Ocytocin flowing. Then your colleague says, "I have a suggestion for our next conversation with that difficult client. Would you be open to hearing it." You agree of course. Your colleague simply says, "During our next conversation, will you help me by supporting my statements? I have a good feeling that your support will help bring our client to a better place. And, we will really build a more trusting relationship with him." This feels pretty good to you. You are more open, and your colleague has taken a side-by-side stance with you as a partner rather than adversary. You are now ready to tackle even the toughest situation with your colleague.

We have a simple choice in life. Do we choose to appreciate and advise for the future or do we choose to degrade and not let go of the past. Neuroscience shows that if you choose the later, you will have chronic stress, inadequate sleep, poor nutrition, and continuous emotional distress caused by increases in cortisol.

It's your choice to live the way you want; cause chronic stress in yourself and others, or create an environment where everyone wins.

What are your choices? What are your experiences? Tell me more about your stories of how you helped reduce workplace stress or started the flow of cortisol in yourself or others.

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