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Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones…But…Kind Words Create Trust

I remember being bullied on the playground as a kid. Somewhere along the way, I was taught this little chant. As much as I repeated it to myself, it never worked.

As I have traversed my way through the world of work, I have felt the effects of, let’s call it, ‘adult bullying’, or ‘name calling’ in a disguised and more sophisticated form. There have been occasions when I have been marginalized, outcast, and made to feel like what I contributed didn’t matter. I have been a victim of pejorative one-liners from less than empathetic leaders. I would venture to guess that at some point in time, we have all felt the effects of condescending statements, being dismissed or overlooked, or  blamed for something that was not our fault. We know, or least can imagine, what it’s like to not belong to the ingroup. All of these things have either demotivated us, or caused us to check-out, become less engaged, or leave for greener pastures.

We may not want to admit it, but we have done our fair share of the name calling. We have talked behind each other’s backs, dismissed or rejected others thoughts and ideas, or have exercised power over others in one way or another.

Here’s the reality of our Sticks and Stones jingle – ‘names’ hurt – even the adult kind.

There is a physiological reason for this. Put simply, our brains are social organs; we are hard wired to connect. Being left out, rejected, or otherwise cut-off from connection literally hurts our brains. Matthew Lieberman, M.D., a pioneer in the relatively new field of social neuroscience, explains that the pain we feel from being left out is more than just a metaphor. When we experience social pain, our bodies react with the same neurocognitive processes that are activated as when we step on a sharp object or break a leg. In fact, our desire to avoid social pain is our catalyst for connection.

Yet, we underestimate the effect of social pain at work. We think myopically that social pain is only related to personal losses and rejections. But the rejection and disconnection that regularly happens in the workplace is personal – the same neurological pain responses activate within us whether these experiences occur in a personal or professional setting. As much as we might consciously try to talk ourselves out of feeling bad by not “taking things personally” or repeating to ourselves that we “just don’t care” (the adult version of Sticks and Stones), it doesn’t work.

As humans, we are hardwired to detect the threats that lead to social pain. Our threat detection system is unconscious. According to the renowned author Judith Glaser, we unconsciously sense interpersonal threats in as fast as .07 seconds. Perceived threats from others may stem from a word, a look, a movement or personal differences (are you like or unlike me?), or personal experiences not even related to the present situation. Our amygdala sets off chemical reactions in response to threats, flooding our brains with the primary stress hormone, cortisol. The flood of cortisol impairs the rational brain and shuts down our ability to think or contribute in meaningful ways. Instead, we display reactive, aggressive or passive-aggressive behaviors; our tone and demeanor change as we adopt an intimidating posture to ward off the threats.

The result of our fight or flight reactions is disastrous for team effectiveness. Defensiveness, reactive behavior, aggression and other forms of adult name calling – with the resultant emotional pain – erode the very foundation of effective teamwork, interpersonal trust.

So, what can we do to stop the vicious cycle of social pain in our workplaces and on our teams if our response to perceived interpersonal threats, whether real or imagined, is automatic and unconscious?

First, it requires individual reflection and a personal reckoning with regard to what we we deem to be threatening – where do these thoughts come from, and how real are they? Second, we need to become more aware of our own physiological reactions to perceived threats, and how our resultant behavior changes and impacts others. Then, we can incorporate what I have found to be an impactful model for addressing the hard work of building team trust; Conversational Intelligence® (or C-IQ).

The C-IQ model tells us that the answer lies within our interaction dynamics. Trust and distrust, which occupy different parts of the brain, happen while we are conversing with others in real time. While hurtful words and actions – adult name calling – sends us into an amygdala hijack, the opposite is equally true. A conversation approached with respect and curiosity, that displays kindness and appreciation, enables the neurochemistry of all involved to produce dopamine – the happy hormone, and oxytocin – the bonding hormone. A conversation can shift from being “I” to “we” centered, opening up our respective executive brains for thoughtful and productive collaboration. We feel connected and aligned with others – and that makes our brains happy, and our teams, and ultimately our organizations, healthier and more successful.

So, how can we create healthier dialog within our organizations to move our teams toward more successful outcomes?

Teams can call on the basic tools of Conversational Intelligence, paying specific attention to the different levels of conversation that move us from distrust to trust respectively. Level I conversations (low trust) are transactional, but can devolve quickly into more telling or selling than informational exchange. Level II conversations (conditional trust) are useful for defending our positions, but can slide into the need for us to prove a point. The most productive conversational level, Level III (high trust), entails sharing and discovering together. Practiced regularly, Level III conversations have the potential to transform teams and organizations.

As it turns out, we are all in this mess called “being human adults” together. And as much as we try, we often find ourselves in situations that bring out the kinds of attacks that we witnessed and felt on the playground. We are all culpable, its part and parcel of our hard wiring. But we can mitigate our culpability by consciously shifting our conversations to activate ours, and others, happy hormones. Each time we converse with one another, we have the opportunity, and the choice, to connect, which in Lieberman’s words, is our superpower. With connection comes collaboration, and the ability to co-create and innovate. It’s what our brains need and what our teams require to operate effectively.

It just takes a bit of work, and a lot of kindness, respect and care for others.


If you would like to know more about Conversational Intelligence and how to implement the tools within your team and organization, we can help.  Contact us today for a free consultation:

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