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"Sticks & Stones May Break My Bones ..." Are you communicating to empower or disempower others?

"…but words will never hurt me”.

In school do you remember saying that, or hearing someone else saying it? It used to be said in response to someone being taunted or even bullied. Do school kids still say that?

This saying is such a myth - the second part! ‘That words will never hurt me’, not the first part. Of course being hit with sticks or stones will hurt, but so will words. Words are one of the most powerful ways to create a state of fear or threat in someone else.

Everyday there are people going to work and feeling uncertainty, fear, and maybe even threatened by the people they are working with. And the people causing that response may not even be aware!

Sometimes we are fortunate when someone points out to us that what we have said has hurt them. In fact that happened to me recently when I received some feedback that something I had said during a presentation had made that person feel disempowered! Even though that was absolutely not my intent - I have to own the responsibility that my words created that. And I deeply regret that.

Usually though, we aren't told and we can go through life affecting how people think and feel (both good and bad).

When people feel threatened, they are in a state of anxiety or fear and experience an amygdala hijack – that part of our brain that keeps us safe by creating a ‘flight, fight, freeze’ response. This hijack floods us with cortisol and tells our brain to shut down our executive thinking areas, or prefrontal cortex, and means our ability to think creatively and logically is also shut down.

Any threat response will create this amygdala hijack.

I remember many years ago taking my twin toddler boys and my mother to a major shopping centre in Melbourne (I know…what was I thinking!). We were taking a break for lunch in a major food area, which was crowded with lunchtime shoppers. As I was ordering the sandwiches and drinks for us all, my mother (I thought) was watching the boys in their pram.

As I went to pay, my mother’s hand shot out in front of me so she could pay. I then turned around to ask what she was doing and noticed the pram was empty! The boys had disappeared while we were both distracted! Being a busy lunchtime, the staff were not able or willing to stop and help us look for them and I started to panic.

In fact, I was in a complete state of shutdown as cortisol was coursing through my body. The only sensible thing to do seemed to be to just lie on the floor and kick and scream to get some help (I didn’t do this fortunately). The good news is that they weren’t kidnapped; they hadn’t wondered into the car park next door; they had simply been attracted by a book shop and were down the very back of that store looking at children’s books. It was the most stressful five minutes of my life!

This is a reasonably extreme amygdala hijack, however people in the work environment can experience something similar when their boss says ‘I want to give you some feedback’. Feedback is one of those trigger words that can create a state of anxiety or fear and cause us to experience an amygdala hijack.

When we are producing cortisol, which is a stress hormone, our ability to access our Prefrontal Cortex and produce oxytocin is stopped.

Oxytocin is a feel good hormone. We often associate the production of it with childbirth. It's produced to develop bonding between a mother and their newborn baby. However we all, when we feel safe and trusted, produce oxytocin.

Judith Glaser, in her book Conversational Intelligence®, describes how ‘research in neuroscience suggests that oxytocin may play a dominant role in the brain and the heart as a regulator of our need for social contact’. When this is shut down, our ability to build social connections and access our executive brain is also shut down.

We have the ability to change how we communicate and can focus on having oxytocin producing conversations with people.

Building our awareness of this and focusing on down regulating cortisol producing conversations is key to great teams.

Next time you are in a conversation:

  • Build awareness of the words you are using so that fear and distrust are down regulated (cortisol producing behaviours) and engagement and trust are up regulated (oxytocin producing behaviours).
  • Focus on building rapport with the person you are conversing with to create a foundation for trust (even if the relationship has been difficult prior). Rapport allows us to create harmonious relationships even with people we don’t like or have a difficult relationship with.
  • Be conversationally agile to help people when they are stuck (see my  blog  about this).
  • Rather than telling someone something, create a curiosity mindset and ask more open questions to extend their (and your) thinking further.

And may you never hear anyone say again ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ and if you do you can correct them!

I'd love to hear how you go.

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