The neurochemistry of our conversations


Sometimes, during a 360° feedback assessment, my clients will have trouble understanding how a single poorly managed conversation or a single loss-of-control situation can take on so much importance. They also place too great an emphasis on the negative comments received from the people providing feedback rather than on the positive ones, which are often more frequent.

Why is it easier to forget or discount all the positive conversations?

Why do some negative conversations or comments stick with us, having a longer-term effect than we’d like them to? 

 Author Judith Glaser explains how neurochemistry plays a big role in this phenomenon. When we face criticism, rejection or fear, or feel left out or discounted, our body produces high levels of cortisol, a hormone that shuts down the thinking portion of our brain. This hormone activates our instinctive reflexes and protection behaviours, such as the “fight or flight” response. We become more sensitive and reactive. We often perceive the judgement or negative comment to be harsher than it was in reality, triggering painful ‘playbacks.’ The effects of cortisol can last up to 26 hours or more, much like taking a sustained-release tablet. The more we brood about our fears, the longer the impact, imprinting the negative interaction on our memory and increasing its effect on our future behaviours.

Thankfully, positive conversations and comments also produce a chemical reaction in our body. They stimulate the production of oxytocin, a hormone that activates networks in our prefrontal cortex, causing us to feel good and enhancing our ability to communicate, collaborate and trust others. However, our body metabolizes oxytocin more quickly than cortisol, making its effects less dramatic and shorter-lasting.

As managers and professionals, we therefore need to be mindful of the chemistry of conversations, if we want to create the desired impact. In addition to analyzing the frequency of positive versus negative interactions (different studies show a 4 to 1 and even a 6 to 1 ratio in achieving effective and satisfactory interpersonal or team relationships), we need to focus on behaviours during these conversations that will increase oxytocin levels rather than cortisol ones.

When we need to provide someone with feedback to enhance their performance or behaviour, the conversation we have, however difficult, can lead to a constructive change. The trick is to exhibit behaviours that will stimulate oxytocin production. For example: show a clear interest and intention to help the person, speak truthfully about your concerns, ask open questions to stimulate discussion and curiosity and to understand and learn, paint a picture of shared success, and keep an open mind.

Demanding results and providing constructive feedback in an inclusive and comforting manner limits the production of cortisol and stimulates production of oxytocin. Gaining awareness of behaviours that will open us up and foster relationships of trust, and intentionally choosing to enact them, will make our professional and personal interactions more successful.

Source: The Neurochemistry of Positive Conversations, Judith Glaser, HBR Blog Network, 2014


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