Communicate Better with Neuroscience

Have you ever had a conversation with someone, only to find out later that the person walked away with a totally different understanding of your meaning? Have you ever had this happen in a work environment? If so, you have likely seen the damage that can be done to a relationship because of a simple miscommunication. Within a team or office this damage can be contagious and is often highly counterproductive.

There has been plenty of neuroscience research done regarding communications and how the brain receives them. We know that the brain filters all incoming communications based on a number of factors. The Maritz Institute has done exceptional work in this space. They narrow the brain’s communication filters to four key components. These filters are; emotion, history, future, and social.

What do these filters mean in a working environment? Let’s explore using the story of Jan and Bob. Jan has just left a meeting with Bob thinking that she clearly outlined a challenge on his team that she would like him to address, and yet Bob thinks the meeting was meant to tell him how well the team is performing? A few things could be at play here and should be considered. Was Jan clear with her language and message? Was Bob in the right mindset to receive the message? If we apply the Maritz Institute filters to the conversation you will see things come into focus.


Emotional - Communications are absorbed and responded to based on the emotion they convey. To reach someone, you must be reasonable or the receiver will shut out the message. This explains why doctors are very calm when conveying difficult news. It can be extremely hard for someone to receive critical information about themselves or a loved one but by remaining emotionally neutral, there is a better chance that the patient’s brain will accept this news. This also illustrates why when people receive  difficult news it often takes a while for the information to “feel real”. If Jan and/or Bob were emotionally charged during the meeting it is highly unlikely that either one was able to present a message that the other’s brain could receive.

Historical - Past experiences have a huge impact on the way we receive communications. If a message is in line with a connection that has previously made in the brain, the receiver is much more likely to connect. In the corporate and marketing worlds this is evident in the concept of consistent and regular messaging. I am going to tell you what I am going to tell you. Then I am going to tell it to you. Then I will remind you that I told you. This approach creates a historical reference in the brain. For our story, I wonder if Jan has spoken to Bob about this concern before or if this is coming to him without warning. If Bob can’t relate this back to another conversation or to past performance it is unlikely that he recognized the issue.

Future - The receivers goals for the future, their expectations, play a major role in how they receive a message. Teams with clear goals often have much more consistent communications about those goals. This ties in closely with the historical filter our brains use. Have Bob and Jan previously discussed the expected outcome of the project? Have they agreed upon an action plan that they think will be successful? If their vision of the future is in alignment they will have similar filters for this current conversation and are likely to understand each other better.

Social - Current social (including economic) experiences play a large role in how the brain receives a communication. The receiver may interpret a communication differently based on his/her current status, their family situation, or their relationships with other team members. If Bob feels highly connected to his team, it will be very difficult for him to hear a negative message about their performance. Additionally, If Bob or Jan are currently distracted by social factors outside of work, the conversation may be better placed at a different time or even a different day.

With these four filters in mind, I am sure you can begin to see how Bob might have met Jan’s communication with cognitive dissonance, and how Jan may have presented a message that was difficult for Bob to absorb. Fortunately, we can all learn from Bob and Jan and think through these filters when we plan (and you should plan) critical communications with our teams.  

If you are interested in learning more about framing communications better in your organization, please contact Fringe to find out more about how we can help.

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