Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict and Increase Intimacy
Guest post by Dr Rob Long for the thinkers out there. I highly recommend Rob’s new book “Real Risk”
This is the title of a wonderful book by Newberg whose research confirms the nature of brain plasticity and the importance of framing and priming language. The book demonstrates how the words we use affect the wiring of our brain, called neuroplasticity. What this means is our brain is constantly rewiring itself in response to our social, psychological and physical experiences.
We know that the brain can create new neural networks following mild brain damage and that people can recover functionality following an accident. What we now know is that social and psychological experiences also trigger the brain to rewire in response to continued stimulus, even words.
When I founded the Galilee Program in 1996 I was unaware of just how strong words could change my brain. At the time I was also doing work in detention centres and associating most days with extreme abusive and offensive language. It wasn’t until two years later that someone told me I had changed. If it had not been for the strength of that person, I just would have drifted on thinking I was the same. I had discovered, with the help of a reflective community, that rather than having an influence on these high risk people, they had highly influenced me. A year later I decided I had to leave that sector and have a break. I periodically return to work in this sector but know it’s a tough gig. I am currently supervising some Managers in the mental health sector and I take my hat off to them. I think it takes a very special kind of person to work in the ‘at risk’ sector for an extensive period of time and not be highly influenced by it. Some like my brother Graham, recently nominated for an Australia Day award, can work in this sector all their lives, but not me. I think people like Graham, CEO of the Wayside Chapel Kings Cross, are the exception not the rule.
The research by Newberg shows that most of us are influenced by the words we use and hear. This has significant implications for risk and safety people. Politicians know that the constant use of spin changes the way the population think about issues, parents know that certain words at home change the ethics of home life and leaders know that words matter in conversations and presentations. Obama’s ‘Yes we Can’ speech or Martin Luther Kings ‘I Have a Dream’ speech are good examples. I wonder if risk and safety people know that words matter? How are risk and safety people trained in communication, consultation and conversation skills? Why is it not a foundation of their training?
The popularity of ‘zero’ language and negative risk language ‘primes’ a population to frame risk and safety through the lens of failure. This is why cynicism, skepticism, pessimism and double-speak (see recent article on the indicators of a toxic safety culture) are so destructive for developing a culture that can be trusted to own risk and safety. The excessive doubts of cynicism erode trust and creates division in relationships. Trust is not just the foundation of relationships but the foundation for learning, understanding and managing risk. Trust is essential for cultural functionality.
Zero language promotes distrust, because all perfectionism, absolutes and fundamentalism drives distrust, especially when it becomes the spin of an organisation. Some organisations have actually taken the word ‘safety’ out of their language and now only have ‘zero harm managers’ and ‘zero harm meetings’. I wonder how one can be positive when your very job description pushes the word ‘safety’ out of use and the focus of the job is on the unachievable? I wonder what the brain wiring does when the constant use of the language of ‘zero’ primes the demand for absolutes, as applied to fallible people? When you know you will get in trouble for reporting harm, what would you do? Surely ‘zero’ primes cynicism and double speak? Surely, ‘zero’ primes distrust and authoritarianism? No wonder zero organisations ‘prime’ cynicism and are not safe.