And communication makes or breaks everything you do. Everything.
So this might be a little bit important to you (and to everyone around you), maybe. I don’t know. You’ll have to decide that for yourself.
In case you missed my last blog post, there are four levels of communication that work like a gradient from Devastatingly Crippling to Explosively Empowering. Most people work in the first two levels almost exclusively, only breaking out into the higher forms by accident now and then — unless they have invested loads of time and thought and training into developing the skills necessary to deliberately avoid the toxic airs of the first two and live in the fresh, catalysing airs of the second two.
I want to teach you about those first two, at least right now. Why? Because you need to start somewhere; because the rest is too big for this article (it will be coming soon, though, don’t worry); and because they are the foundation for every improvement you can make in communication.
I can’t even aspire to the herculean attempt it would take to exhaustively elaborate the entire depth and breadth of even this vastly smaller scope, though. I am here merely to show you something – something simple, something small, something you can do right now. The whole art and science of communication will have to wait.
If you haven’t read my last blog post, go read it now, seriously. I am building on what I said in there, and although this post will help you even if you haven’t read the other one, it will make a whole lot more sense. So go read it. One… two… three… Go.
So here I go! …you may need to hold onto your hat.
The first two levels of communication are Pretense and Sincerity (last chance to read the other post!), as you should remember. The last two are Accuracy and Authenticity. There is one, huge, fundamental difference between these two halves of the communication spectrum, and that difference is what I am going to spend all my time in this post talking about.
The difference is a little thing called bioreaction.
I am guessing you probably have never heard that word before this moment, at least in this context, which is fine ’cause this definition isn’t in the dictionaries yet. I didn’t make it up, the Communication Catalyst guys did. And it really does make a lot of sense.
Bioreaction is basically a biological system that has a single goal in mind: deal with threats fast.
That’s it. And that is really a super valuable system to have, especially if someone leaps out of nowhere at you and slashes at you with a knife. You need to respond fast. And the normal system the brain uses for making decisions is waaaaay to slow for what is needed. So what the brain has is a special spot devoted solely to this function: it is called the amygdala.
What this bit of your brain does is filter outside input for perceived threats, and as soon as it sees one, take command of the brain and choose one of four options for a rapid response. It is lightning fast at this (well probably faster than lightning, but you get the idea).
But here is the thing: it has only four options. Which makes sense… it can’t be spending time filtering through all the millions of possible reactions to pick just the right one. So it has four preprogrammed premises for action that it chooses from.
These premises for reaction to perceived threats are: Fight, Flee, Freeze, and Appease.
Simple, right? Perfectly simple. God is really good at designing these things. So basically what the amygdala does is takes a perceived threat and evaluates it based on these four options to figure out which would best deal with it.
For example: if a big huge guy leaps out of nowhere and slashes at you with a knife.
Appease is out – the guy is already committed to the attack, and no time to hand him a cookie.
Freeze is out – that knife would plow through you like butter.
Fight is out – taking on that giant would probably get you killed worse than before (if that is possible).
So obviously the best recourse is to flee the scene at rates exceeding human probability. It’s your best shot at living.
See how this works? Handy, isn’t it?
But notice how I have been saying perceived threats this whole time? There is a reason for that. See, the amygdala can’t actually know if something is a threat or not until after it has already passed. Which isn’t the right time to respond to it. So it has to guess based on your experience and filters whether or not something is a threat, and then act on that perception of reality.
The problem is when it is wrong. When it thinks something is a threat… and it really isn’t.
This happens all the time in communication. Why? Well because in communication you are opening up a part of yourself to the other person. It is a fundamental and inescapable fact of every relationship you have. That in and of itself can be perceived as a threat to some people (stage fright, anyone?). But if someone does something that happens to look even the slightest like an attack on you as a person, it doesn’t matter if it was intentional or accidental, real or fake, true or false – the amygdala will pick up on it and limit your whole brain to those four options: fight, flee, freeze, or appease.
None of which are going to help in the slightest to resolve the perceived conflict.
Conversations are a work of collaboration and sharing of mutual value, not a fight. And even if someone is attacking you, the four bioreactive responses aren’t going to make it better – they will almost inevitably make it worse!
Those first two levels of communication, Pretense and Sincerity, are built on bioreactive responses. That is why they are so damaging to your effectiveness and to your friendships… and to your friends.
Pretense is where there is a direct conflict between what you think and what you are saying and doing. Generally this is characterized by things like lying, evading, and withholding information. These actions come directly from the motivations of fighting, fleeing, freezing, and appeasing. Most people who do these things aren’t being malicious at all (they might not even be conscious of it at all): they are merely defending themselves. Mistakenly, yes, but mistakes are common and easily forgivable.
So if someone is behaving with these towards you, first forgive them, and then choose to not respond in kind with a bioreactive response of your own!
Sincerity is pretty much the most common place for people to reside in. People think it is a good place. They justify it in tons of ways (often defensively, with bioreactions, haha). And honestly, I don’t blame them. Getting sincerity from someone is a huge blessing (it’s loads better than pretense), and expecting more borders on meanness (accuracy and authenticity are a ton of work to develop).
But it still isn’t the best, and it still cripples your success. Teams can function on sincerity, yes, and so can friendships. But they are walking on ice. Their boat is leaking. They are up a stream without a paddle. Okay I’ll stop.
Sincerity is an honest report accompanied by the conviction that what you believe to be true is true. Basically it is untested opinion pretending to be reality.
Just like the amygdala, isn’t it? It responds to perceptions as if they were real, and then acts on them without testing to see if it is right. Good for some situations – bad for communication. The idea of someone who is sincere is to be honest and defend their honest position.
The problem is that value isn’t being generated, and people get hurt and opportunities get lost forever. Why? Because opinions isolated from the experience and learning of others is crippled in its search for truth. You don’t want to be wrong, and so you don’t learn. And in the process of bioreactively defending your position, you trigger other people’s amygdalas, and you create an atmosphere of defensive animosity rather than one of collaborative friendship.
So what do you do? Well the first step is to start noticing when your amygdala fires up, and then take your brain back over from it, so you can choose to learn rather than spit out a bioreaction. This takes a lot of practice, but it is completely worth it.
Basically you just need to ask a question that the amygdala can’t answer. Train yourself to notice the signals that a bioreactive decision is being made (for example: your jaw might clench, your eyes look at a certain corner of your eye, certain phrases go through your head, or you start to use one of the bioreactive responses), and then introduce a consideration beyond the amygdala’s scope.
Such as purpose. Or value. Ask yourself what your fundamental purpose is that you are there for, and then ask what would be the most valuable thing you can do in this situation towards that end. Ask yourself what purpose the other person is there for, and then look for a way to provide value to both his and your purposes.
That’s deep. That’s tough. That is transforming. It will explode your potential and the potential of everyone around you. Try it!
And yes, again, I wasn’t able to really go as deep as I would have liked to, but again, you get to ask questions. So have at it.
P.S. This post was originally posted (with some slight differences) on the Holy Worlds Christian Fantasy Forum. I honestly believe that community is one of the best in the world. So check it out.