Why Our Brains are Hooked on Being Right – via HBR

I’m preparing for my “Summer O’ Conflict”, which basically means 5 weeks of Conflict Resolution training.

Conflict is fascinating, but as someone who watches and coaches Improvisers I have to say that the choice to start a scene with conflict is all too common. Some know it’s an Improv Pet Peeve of mine –  and I try to get at the root of why this is a common choice for so many of us.

I believe there is something about choosing conflict that keeps us safe. It gives us a problem to solve, but also keeps us from truly connecting and playing in the unknown. We can snap into ‘conflict mode’ quicker than ‘connection mode’.

This article from HBR sheds light on the neurological responses involved in conflict:

“In situations of high stress, fear or distrust, the hormone and neurotransmitter cortisol floods the brain. Executive functions that help us with advanced thought processes like strategy, trust building, and compassion shut down. And the amygdala, our instinctive brain, takes over. The body makes a chemical choice about how best to protect itself — in this case from the shame and loss of power associated with being wrong — and as a result is unable to regulate its emotions or handle the gaps between expectations and reality. So we default to one of four responses: fight (keep arguing the point), flight (revert to, and hide behind, group consensus), freeze (disengage from the argument by shutting up) or appease (make nice with your adversary by simply agreeing with him).”

More More More…

Further more, when we argue, and we win, we want to keep winning and keep arguing.

“That’s partly due to another neurochemical process. When you argue and win, your brain floods with different hormones: adrenaline and dopamine, which makes you feel good, dominant, even invincible. It’s a the feeling any of us would want to replicate. So the next time we’re in a tense situation, we fight again. We get addicted to being right.”

We run the risk of conflict not only being a choice, but a habit…one that we are neurologically rewarded for doing well in.

When Improvisers introduce conflict just for the sake of having something to do on stage, I stop and ask them to tell me what the conflict is really about. Often times they don’t know.

From competition to conversation

Improv is a team sport, just like so many businesses. Similarly, conflict is not necessarily a bad thing, it can be productive and important.

What worries me is the instinctual choice to fight instead of doing the harder work…listening.

If we can view conflict as a conversation instead of a competition, remove the idea of winner versus loser, right versus wrong and instead push towards agreement and the notion of being changed by the other person, then I’m more interested in your dynamics, and your scene. Our brains would like that too:

“Luckily, there’s another hormone that can feel just as good as adrenaline: oxytocin. It’s activated by human connection and it opens up the networks in our executive brain, or prefrontal cortex, further increasing our ability to trust and open ourselves to sharing. Your goal as a leader should be to spur the production of oxytocin in yourself and others, while avoiding (at least in the context of communication) those spikes of cortisol and adrenaline.”


What’s the drill – May 23: What’s your listening ratio?

What’s your listening ratio?

With the increased reliance in social media, emails, texts, etc we’re taking in more information with our eyes, than perhaps with our ears.

We’re putting a lot of the focus of communication on what we read, and perhaps not enough on what people say in conversation.

Great cultures, great customer experiences, and great interactions grow from listening.

What’s your listening to talking ratio? Consider, is it 2-1, proportionate to having two ears and one mouth?

Sit down regularly with your team and find out what is going well and what isn’t.  Try to spend more time listening than talking. Listen with all of your senses.

Take an extra step and go beyond what you read. Be curious, ask questions, engage.

And, then listen.


What’s the drill – May 2: A simple exercise to boost your listening skills

How many conversations are you a part of every day? And, how many times have you found yourself a part of several conversations at once, and you struggle to keep an ear in all of them?

Try this simple and easy exercise to work on your listening skills. All you need is a group of 3 people.

Choose one person to stand in the middle. The two people on either side  carry on simultaneous, separate conversations (each on a different topic) with the person in the middle. It is the goal of these two people on the side to get the person in the middle to pay attention to their conversation.

The person in the middle works on their listening skills by staying present and engaged in both conversations at once.

After you do this once, notice the tactics you used to get the attention of the person in the middle. See you if you can try again but keep your voice at a normal level.

To the person in the middle, notice what happens when you agree and “yes, and” what the other people say, as opposed to engaging in arguments or a discussion. Is it easier to pay attention and stay a part of the conversation this way?

What’s the drill – April 18: Listening for potential

Here is one way to apply a positive psychology mindset to the every day conversations we have.

The next time someone ( friend, co-worker, or relative) comes to you with a problem – think about what you listen for.

Try to listen for potential.

Identify the basic problem they are describing and then, help your partner to decipher what action or mindset will make it better.

When we listen for potential, we are focusing on the solution instead of the problem.

This solution-based approach was spear-headed by my esteemed colleague Paul Z. Jackson and aligns nicely with positive psychology, growth mindsets and the tools of an Improviser.

What’s the drill – March 2nd: Communication is a two-way street

How many times have you heard organizational leaders utter the phrase, “we have to communicate more” – in response to employees not understanding or getting on board with company initiatives or projects?

What’s the drill for today reminds us that communication is a two-way street.  Often, employees are more concerned with whether or not management is listening to what they have to say.

To achieve stronger communication, remember that maintaining and creating a back-and-forth dialogue is important.

Can you turn your company updates into town hall meetings? Can you create more time for back-and-forth discussion (beyond an annual survey?).

Get on the road to better communication. But remember to look and listen both ways.

What’s the drill – Feb 29: To succeed at customer service, learn this skill…

Here is perhaps the most important secret to providing quality customer service…and it doesn’t involve formulas, spreadsheets, or surveys. Better yet, this secret skill is trainable and applies to all sorts of industries and sales scenarios from high-end products to restaurants:

Learn how to read the room.

Take this article from the Wall Street Journal which profiles the training initiatives of several U.S. chain restaurants. For them, the secret to quality service is the ability to read the table. Staff is heavily trained on listening and observation skills including non-verbal communication/ body language cues.

A decision to invest in heightening listening and observation skills can have a positive effect on your bottom line, especially when the result is more personalized and individualized customer service:

“Called “having eyes” for a table, or “feeling” or “reading” the table by restaurant workers, it’s how the best waiters know what type of service you prefer before you tell them. From fine dining to inexpensive chains, restaurants are working to make service more individualized as the standard script is sounding dated…” 

“Even chain restaurants like Denny’s, T.G.I. Friday’s, and Romano’s Macaroni Grill are focusing more on personalized service by training staff to note body language, eye contact and offhand remarks, hoping to make service feel less mechanical”.

“We changed ‘suggestive selling’ to ‘situational selling’,… Instead of offering every breakfast guest one additional item, say biscuits and gravy, waiters are taught to adjust their offer depending upon the guest.”

An improviser is always working on heightening their observation skills. Not only are they skilled at flexible and agile communication, but they must make sense of a large amount of information within seconds and know how to engage and continue the scene. Consider adding some Applied Improv training to your next customer-service and sales training initiatives and apply it the next day to your next customer service interaction.

TOOL: Listening

So far we’ve added these important tools to our toolbox:

1. Empathy

2. Connection

3. Play

4. Strong Offers

5. Obvious instead of clever statements

What happens when you don’t feel listened to? What are the consequences?

One of the greatest tools an Improviser possesses and a tool that builds empathy, connection, along with trust and support is the ability to really, truly, listen.

To listen as an Improviser means to be fully present, in the moment, and to pay attention and observe everything that is being said and done on stage. It means to take care and support our partner because what they have to say is crucial to making sense of the unknown, and to co-creating a scene together.

Professional development training which infuses experiential training allows participants to build their listening muscles and increase these skills through habit-building and tie-back to real-world scenarios.

An improviser is also skilled at active listening = not merely hearing, but being affected by what they hear.  Improvisation guru and famed instructor and performer Rebecca Stockley teaches this mantra:  “everything my partner says is fascinating”. Repeating this mantra reminds us to be affected by what our partner says and to not let any offer or idea pass us by or be easily dismissed.

It’s true that for many of us, we listen better once we’ve said what’s on our mind. Unfortunately, if we are concentrating on what we’re going to say, we’re not listening as actively as we could. Adding some Improvisational tools to our training toolbox helps us to stay present in our conversations, add an element of give-and-take, relinquish control and to build listening muscles that extend beyond roles of customer service, sales, and leadership.

Listening is a skill that directly affects our ability to communicate and collaborate.

Not only are these tools must-haves for our toolboxes, but they can also be applied and “built upon” in a myriad of ways.

Begin with a strong offer, and then listen actively to build connection and empathy.

Now… what did you say?