If I could boil down everything I’ve learned in the last 30 years to have great communication in both your business and personal life, it would be what I’m teaching you today. These 3 things are the reason you’ve tried communication tools before and they haven’t worked. It’s because you’ve got to establish these 3 pillars first, and then you can create connection and understanding in all your relationships.
What I’m bringing you today are the tried and true – the things I end up repeating to every single client I work with, whether that’s coaching an executive to be more effective in their leadership or someone who’s trying to get their partner to understand them. You’ve heard me say these things before in various ways, but I’m bringing them all together here so you can shut out all the doubt and noise and come back to these like your mantra.
The 3 Communication Pillars
Communication Pillar #1: People Hear What You Mean, Not What You Say
One book I’ve come back to over and over is Timothy Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. He is one of the unsung heroes of our quest to learn about why we do what we do (and how to control or change it). He also wrote another book I love called, Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. Just so I can impress upon you how great these books are, supreme badass author Malcolm Gladwell said, “There are few academics who write with as much grace and wisdom as Timothy Wilson. I thought his last book Strangers to Ourselves was a masterpiece. Redirect is more than its equal.”
One piece of information that I’ve long used from Wilson’s research is the understanding that your conscious brain processes information at a rate of 50 bits per second while your subconscious brain processes information at a rate of 11 million bits per second. This means that whomever you’re speaking to doesn’t hear what you say, they hear what you mean. You can say all the right things but if your unconscious believes something else, that’s what the other person is listening to.
Have you ever been walking down a street and noticed someone walking towards you who gave you a “funny feeling?” Or maybe you were speaking to someone at work and they were saying all the right things, but you got the sense that they were full of BS? I know you’ve “had a hunch” that something’s going on with your partner even if they’re acting like everything’s fine. These are all examples of times that you’re picking up on that 11 million bits versus the 50. You’re “hearing” what someone else’s subconscious is putting out, versus what they’re saying consciously.
Remember that this is true the other way also. When you’re trying to communicate with someone else, they pick up on what your subconscious mind is communicating not what you’re saying!
So, maybe you’ve been working on your relationship. You’ve read a book, taken a workshop, met with a coach or went to counseling and now you’re trying out some new communication tool or strategy with your partner, Jane from Accounting or your dad.
Consciously you’re thinking, “Yes, this is really going to help!” But, subconsciously, there’s doubt and maybe some resentment. Your subconscious dialogue goes something like this with your partner: “We’ve had these problems a long time, it’s going to take forever to make changes and I don’t know if I have it in me!” Or the dialogue is something like this with that work colleague: “Nothing’s ever going to change because they refuse to do anything differently or see that they’re part of the problem!” Or, you’re speaking to your dad but thinking, “I’ve asked him so many times to stop being critical and he gets better for a little while, but then he ends up just doing it again. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Nothing ever works!”
All (or most) of this thinking is subconscious. You might notice it sometimes, but not all the time. Or, you think you’re aware of it fully but you don’t realize just how much it’s affecting your communication.
So, you forge ahead with the new communication tool, tip or technique you learned. However, unbeknownst to you, the other person picks up on your doubt, resentment, anxiety and hopelessness, which makes them not want to change because it feels the same. They’re picking up on your incongruity. They’re subconsciously thinking, “Sure, you’re doing some new things but how long is this going to last? I’m just going to wait it out.”
Then you don’t see the changes you want in your partner, coworker or dad (despite all these great changes you’re making) and you think, “See? Nothing works!” And you revert to your same old patterns, which leaves the other person thinking that they were right not to waste time trying to do anything differently. Sadly, it’s this cycle that keeps us coaches and counselors in business.
The key is to align your conscious and your subconscious before these conversations. You can do that by setting intention and doing calibration work and, because I love you, I’ve also got a great quick journaling exercise for you to align that subconscious thinking with your conscious thinking. (Scroll down to the bottom of this page to get it).
Communication Pillar #2: Your RAS is Keeping You Stuck
Close on the heels of what we just discussed is your Reticular Activating System or RAS.
If you’re reading this, it means you’re feeling stuck, frustrated, sad, anxious (or some other unlikeable feeling) about someone in your life (or maybe many someones). You’ve tried to communicate with them and have left the conversation feeling misunderstood or not heard. When this happens over time, you start to spend a lot of time focusing on the other person and what’s wrong with them. When you start thinking like this, you start to see the negative everywhere.
Essentially, you’ll start proving yourself right.
This happens for 2 main reasons.
You have about 100 billion neurons in your brain and each of those connects to about 10,000 other neurons. Basically, your brain works as fast as a computer that can process one trillion bits of information a second. You’ve probably heard things like you only use 10% of your brain, but that’s not true. You’re using the vast majority of your brain power daily. However, about 95% of your brain activity is subconscious.
Your subconscious mind takes care of your physical self and your mental self. It regulates your physical self through something called your homeostatic impulse. This is all the stuff controlled by your autonomic nervous system – breathing, respiration, heartbeat and your body temperature to name a few.
On the other side, your subconscious is also regulating your mental state. With all that information coming in, your subconscious is constantly filtering out what’s important and what’s not, mostly by bringing your attention to anything that’s repeated. Repeated thoughts are also known as your beliefs. The way your brain shows you things that confirm what you already believe is something we psychologists call the confirmation bias.
The confirmation bias means that your subconscious will search for and favor information that supports something you already believe and will ignore information that doesn’t support what you already believe.
So, repetition is your best friend and your enemy. The more you perceive something; the more you notice and feel it, the more priority your brain gives it. This works against you with things like repeated fears you have. These repeated thoughts create repeated feelings, which are then ingrained in your subconscious.
This rule applies to everything! If you’re setting intention with your partner every day, at first your brain doesn’t think it’s very important and doesn’t assign much to it. However, over time, as you repeat it over and over, the brain assigns more and more importance to it. Eventually, this can lead to a behavior change.
Now, back to the RAS – the RAS is a network of neurons located in the brain stem and it’s where most of your senses come in.
Your RAS is a filter between your conscious brain and your subconscious. Specifically, it takes instructions from your conscious mind and passes them on to your subconscious. You’re constantly giving your RAS instructions by what you’re thinking about – the problem is that you don’t even realize it.
So, if you’re thinking, “My partner is always judging and criticizing me,” the RAS hears this as the instruction or order: “Look for my partner criticizing me.”
Sure enough, your partner is “always” criticizing, you hear it constantly. The RAS is the reason you’ll suddenly notice a lot of pregnant women when you’re pregnant or the amount of Toyota Highlanders on the road after you buy one.
So, if you’re thinking
- “We don’t communicate because he never listens!”
- “I’m going to try, but I know what he’s going to say or I know it’s not going to work.”
- “The only problem at my job is that my boss is an asshole!”
You’re essentially telling that RAS to look for all those things and it will find them…. OFTEN!
And here’s the really scary part (in case I haven’t blown your mind enough): your RAS will also filter out anything that doesn’t match what you’re thinking! So, when your partner is loving, appreciative, thoughtful and kind you won’t see it! When your boss tells you what a great job you’re doing, you’ll dismiss it! This is why you get into those “they said/you said” arguments. “I don’t remember you doing that!” “You didn’t say that!” It’s because your RAS filtered those nice things out and you were left proving yourself “right” over and over. When this is working with your confirmation bias, you can see how it’s a losing battle.
If you want to communicate effectively, you’ve got to deliberately program your RAS by thoughtfully choosing the exact messages you send.
If you really want to effectively communicate with anyone, you need to shift what you’re focusing on and be conscious of the orders you’re giving to your RAS.
You’ll absolutely start noticing more of your partner’s great qualities as you shine the light on the positives instead of the negatives. Your brain will seek out the healthy and wonderful things your boss or sister is doing or saying as you reprogram your RAS.
As you enter any dialogue with these thoughts and this kind of alignment, the other person will pick up on it! (Remember those 50 vs. 11 million bits)! This is how effective communication happens. There’s a receptive “feeling” and intention and things start to flow and happen differently. Is it a perfect line? Of course not, but this process will absolutely yield great results as you practice it consistently (remember, repetition is your friend or your enemy – you decide)!
Communication Pillar #3: Take 100% Responsibility
Last but not least in our quest for effective communication is that you have to take 100% responsibility for whatever miscommunications or misunderstandings are happening in this relationship.
You co-create every single relationship you have. Now let me be clear about what I mean when I say 100% responsibility. I’m not talking about blame or fault. I’m not talking about taking on the other person’s responsibility in the relationship (that’s called codependency and we’re not going there)!
I’m talking about taking full responsibility to keep your side of the street clean – to stop blaming or acting like a victim. I want you to understand that you have full power to create the relationships you want and it boils down to having your boundaries set and keeping to them. Be a leader in all your relationships; be the dominant vibration in the room and set the tone for love and connection.