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"That's not what I meant to get across!"

"It's your fault that I couldn't understand you!"

"Nobody can work for someone who communicates as badly as he does!"

For years--centuries actually--common and everyday statements like these have shown that most people think of communication as something one person does TO somebody else.

 The dominant picture is of a truck hauling one person's ideas to where they can be dumped into another person's head, like a load of potatoes.  When we think this way,

  • we believe that a communication problem is one person's fault, so we blame them for screwing up
  • we think that we can improve our own communicating by crafting better messages that
    • have more data to support them
    • use more examples
    • are expressed in more effective words
    • are broadcast louder or to more people
  • we downplay the crucial importance of effective listening

 And we don't focus on what's going on between us.

New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) shows how communicating is a thoroughly co-laborative process.  We do it Together; it always involves U&ME; it's like a verbal and nonverbal Bridge.

Previous research showed that, when communication is successful between adults, their brain activity becomes increasingly synchronized, which itself demonstrates collaboration.  Verbal-nonverbal talk produces this effect.

A six-person research team wanted to find out if the same synchronization happened between pre-language infants and adults.  In both video and live interactions, adults who looked at the infants while singing with them AND infants who looked at the adults both affected their communication partner's neural activity.  As the authors put it ". . . social signals could act to bring brains into mutual temporal alignment, creating a joint-networked state. . . ."  (V. Leong et al., "Speaker gaze increases information coupling between infant and adult brains,"

This research underscores how important it is to maintain direct eye contact with even pre-language infants.  They notice when you're looking at them, and although you may not be aware of it, their eye contact affects what's going on in your brain, too!  You're both affecting each other's brain activities.

Another study tested the involvement of interbrain synchrony in pain alleviation.  It showed that "hand-holding during pain administration increases brain-to-brain coupling. . .that mainly involves the central regions of the pain target ['s brain] and the right hemisphere of the pain observer."  (P. Goldstein et al., "Brain-to-brain coupling during handholding is associated with pain reduction, "  

The better the observer's empathic accuracy, the more the two sets of brain activity are coupled, and the more effective the pain alleviation.

This research tells us that when we're trying to comfort someone who's in pain, it helps to hold their hand while empathizing with them.  Touch is another kind of nonverbal communicating that increases the extent that our brains are synchronized.

The real-world payoff of these studies is to provide scientific evidence to support the claim that communicating is a mutual process, NOT something one person does "to" another.

We're reminded that listening and empathizing are as important as speaking clearly and using examples.  

We're reminded of the importance, all the time, of nonverbal activities like eye contact, facial expression, touch, and tone of voice.

 When there's a problem in our communicating, we look at what's gone on BETWEEN us, not just at one person's actions or inactions.


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