New research into neuroscience reveals that the way we communicate and interact with each other is the result of the way our brains are wired.
The title of this article has now made me an unwelcome guest in the halls of countless universities across the globe and banned me entirely from dinner parties with communication consultants, trainers, and practitioners. While I will greatly miss my dear friends and colleagues for being the bearer of such radical news, I also hope to start a revolution that will change and ultimately improve the way we teach communication for years to come.
For the last 100 years, the study and teaching of communication has been based on a series of faulty assumptions that have gone unchecked and unquestioned by the majority of those researching and training in the fields of rhetoric and communication. In essence we have been brought up to believe that children are born as a “clean slate” and we learn to speak, read, and later write in the same ways that we learn to ride a bicycle, use a typewriter, or even change a light bulb. In other words we thought that children had to develop a series of skills and abilities to be able to communicate. As a result we teach people to become better communicators by developing and practicing various sets of skills (such as public speaking, relationship communication, leadership, and managing others).
But new scientific research suggests that communication is no more a learned skill than is walking, or sleeping, or grasping objects with our hands. In fact, our brains have been programmed over countless generations to communicate and we do this in very systematic, organized and efficient ways.
In the same way that all normally developing children will learn to crawl, then stand up, then walk (with a few exceptions that are so unique, parents often brag about it for decades afterwards), children will learn to cry, then mimic sounds, then repeat words, then speak on their own as well (think of how many baby books have a place for “baby’s first word”). Of course, there are variations to these patterns of norms: children take their first steps at slightly different ages, and eventually develop their own unique ways of walking. But taken as a whole, these developmental milestones are systematic and predictable.
The same is true of communication: human being’s brains are programmed to communicate, to speak, and to interact with each other in very methodical ways.
Individually we may have our own different styles of communication, after all each of us has our own distinctive sets of experiences from childhood that influence how we interact. The research shows we are more highly impacted by the way our brains are organized than our upbringings. Most people who have raised children can attest to this from the experience of having a child who behaves radically different from his or her parents. And we all know some siblings who, despite being raised in the same household with the same parents have drastically opposing personality styles, interests, and behaviors.
If public speaking makes you nervous, it is not because something is wrong with you or you lack skills and experience (although experience certainly helps). It is because our brains are hardwired to make us very cautious of speaking out in front of others. Up until the last century, members of any society were highly dependent upon others for their food, health, and safety. Doing anything that could jeopardize our ability to “fit-in,” and ultimately get us ostracized from the group could mean certain death in traditional civilizations. As a result natural selection has favored the brain that fears speaking out in front of others. So your genetic makeup developed your brain to be adept at protecting the body that it’s attached to. Researchers who study the fear of public speaking (known as Communication Apprehension) found that preparation of a speech made no difference in how nervous people were when delivering it (Beatty & Valencic, 2000). The fear of public speaking isn’t a flaw, its cognitive perfection.
In fact, the ways in which we communicate are so patterned and predictable that every single one of us is guided by only five differences that are predisposed by how our brains are wired to make sense of the world around us and ultimately direct our behaviors. Each of us has dominant areas of our brains that guide and direct our communication patterns and techniques and the methods with which we approach our interactions. The challenge lies in the fact that each of these five communication types are so different that when people from one group interact with people from other groups we can experience misunderstandings and frustration that they aren’t communicating the way we do.
Therefore the most important skill in communication comes from understanding how our brains function and direct our interactions. Once we learn and understand those subtle variations in our brain functions we can use that information to first better understand others and then to reprogram our own brains to be able to better adapt to those we come in contact with.
Being able to better connect with others will allow us to ultimately become more persuasive, more influential, more connected, and more understanding of our families, partners, coworkers, clients and friends. People who are more understanding are better spouses, better managers, better salespeople, and better leaders. Being better at those things will make us happier, more fulfilled, more successful, and make our lives richer.
So while it seems convenient to suggest that there are certain ways to communicate that are better than others (and certainly there are things we can do that should be considered ineffective), the reality is that humans are hard wired to think, interact, and communicate in systematic ways. However not all of us have the same dominating system that guides our interaction. As a result there really is not “one right way” to communicate but in fact numerous “right ways” depending on the individual. Ideally what we do is improve our understanding of others and ourselves and use that knowledge to strengthen our connections and enhance our relationships.