Without the elephant doing all the heavy lifting in every conversational moment, the rider couldn't speak “normally” at all.
The elephant mind has a system of mirror neurons that read every situation we are in. It can size up a person’s look and intentions – likeability, trustworthiness, competence, and aggressiveness in 100 milliseconds - far more quickly than we can think about it. Its amygdala evaluates this input against positive or negatively charged patterns stored in long-term memory and floods our rider mind with a stream of impressions, judgments as well as word and action choices. Actions include shifts in our tone of voice and the facial, hand and body gestures required to utter those words appropriately, in the next moment. The elephant is powerful and very fast.
The rider needs all of this just to react normally in a conversation. It needs to know what’s going on immediately and respond without hesitation - with flow (if we hesitate, people start to wonder about us). In fact, without the elephant doing most of the work behind our everyday exchanges we’d all look and talk like we’re part of the zombie apocalypse: halting and slow.
What does it mean to connect?
In fueling the rider, the elephant is also driven by two underlying purposes: to connect us to others when it reads a situation as safe and to protect us from them if it reads even a hint of threat to our sense of self. It has a repertoire of automatic responses for each situation.
In his book, social psychologist Matthew Lieberman reports experimental data demonstrating the importance of our need for positive emotional connection with others. He argues that we seek to fulfill this need before anything else. To do this we use a deeply learned habit of talk I call 'Connect talk'. The word itself neatly encapsulates the dance that goes on between our rider and elephant minds.
C. Courtesy Rituals: We consciously exchange greetings – with the appropriate level of politeness, friendliness, kindness and positive anticipation. Even before we speak again, the other person’s mirror neuron system is reflecting our intentions back to us via their facial gestures. It’s creating a context for our Elephant to read
O. Open Expression: We can express our first thoughts and ask questions in a friendly, relaxed manner, because our mirror neuron system reads
N. No Negative Judgment in the other’s intentions. Thus, the Elephant doesn’t feel fear and push the Rider to defend our sense of self. Instead, we expand our conversation into small talk using the
N. Narrative Form: We tell each other little stories about events, our work, our selves, or about others. We open ourselves up to the other - pay attention, ask questions and listen. As we do this, we are silently carrying out
E. Emotional Bidding: With these simple exchanges, we bid for each other’s support for our sense of self. And when the other
C. Collaborates by reciprocating not only the appropriate words, but also the appropriately positive feelings, we start to build
T. Trust: We are supported in the moment and, if this positive exchange recurs, we build up a store of positive emotional memories about the other. We recall these feelings the next time we meet. So we can start from connection - not vigilance.
Connect talk makes us feel safe. Without expecting it from each other, few of us would be able to take the psychological or physical risks of entering new situations. The Elephant needs to connect, but it also needs to protect us and it hates uncertainty.
When we enter a new situation we immediately begin with greeting rituals – some version of the simple “Hi, how are you?” form - spoken with the appropriate degree of warmth, enthusiasm and politeness for strangers, acquaintances or friends - and with at least a hint of a smile. We do this to demonstrate our normalcy and the others’ willingness to respond accordingly. In fact, this opening ritual is so vital that our elephant immediately becomes vigilant when people seem unable to “naturally” follow the structure of Connect talk. It sends hesitation messages to the rider – is the other is incompetent, dangerous, or just “not from around here?”
More important is our intuitive recognition that we’re not just exchanging words we’re exchanging emotional information. Famous couples’ researcher John Gottman calls it emotional bidding. He has developed a coding system that allows him and his colleagues to do in real time what the elephant does instantaneously - evaluate the emotional undercurrents of even the smallest exchanges between husbands and wives. In less than an hour of observation of small talk between a married couple, he can predict whether their marriage will last.
Connect talk is how we get to know others, become known by them, and learn to trust them. It is the:
1. Basis of all relationships
2. Conduit of trust that permits us to join others in common action, and
3. Foundation of effective managerial leadership
In my book, Mindful Management, I argue that this kind of talk underlies productive workplace relationships and ask why managers don't do more of it. The answer lies in the nature of the situation and the power of the elephant mind to protect us using our other deeply learned habit of response – Control talk. This is the subject of my next article.
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