Everything we do, every thought we’ve ever had, is produced by the human brain. But exactly how it operates remains one of the biggest unsolved mysteries, and it seems the more we probe its secrets, the more surprises we find. – Neil deGrasse Tyson
What do we know about our brains?
Dedicated people have spent and will spend lifetimes trying to understand that, working to generate science about what happens in the brain and how it works.
But there are some things that we can see for ourselves.
There is clearly something about the human brain that is different from most animals – we have extra bits that do things most animals don’t seem to bother about.
If we know there is a difference, how does that helps us understand the way we communicate?
Animals and their responses
The natural world encourages its inhabitants to focus their attention on developing the ability to stay alive.
In the wild most creatures learn to develop a healthy distrust of anything new.
They spend time looking for food, avoiding predators, marking and defending their territory and finding a mate.
Many species evolved to live in groups and some developed the ability to use sound to signal intent.
Birds sing to attract mates, monkeys call to warn others of approaching danger and lions roar to warn off contenders.
It’s tempting to superimpose human feelings – fear, anger, lust – onto animals but whatever it is they actually experience what we can see is that they use sound to express themselves.
And that sound making is not about reasoning and thinking but about making it clear what their feelings are about the situation – there’s danger approaching, I’m ready to mate, you’re in my space.
Realising that sound is first and foremost about feelings may help explain a whole lot about how humans miss the point when they talk to each other.
And you can first see this happening with children.
Children and their responses
A child’s brain comes with the newer components that make up a human brain, but at the beginning they’ve not been programmed yet.
A child responds instinctively from the moment it’s born – seeking food, crying when scared or hungry or tired, and quiet when it feels safe.
Once again, sound is inextricably linked to feelings in a baby and it that strong link remains as the child grows up.
If you have children you will know that you spend most of your time trying to help them get better at managing their feelings – and you know how they feel because their volume levels go up.
The few moments after a child wakes up, you as a parent wait for the first request to come in.
“Can I watch TV?”
If you say “No,” there’s an instant emotional reaction – a foot stamp, a frustrated outburst, maybe tears.
Children aren’t shy about showing you how they feel.
As we get older, these feelings don’t disappear – but we get better at hiding the way we feel from others.
Adults and their responses
We help our children and spend our time as adults working on taming our brains, managing our reactions to things that cause us to feel in certain ways.
We learn how to do this from others, from society.
We learn by watching what the adults in our lives do, modelling their behaviour.
Often, however, do we learn to manage our reactions or do we just learn how to hide them better under learned patterns of behaviour?
We learn, for example, that if someone attacks us we should call the police instead of fighting back.
That doesn’t stop us feeling angry and wanting to attack – but the layers of socialisation, the programs we have loaded into our brains over time help us respond differently.
As adults, we may learn how to mask our feelings with a veneer of behaviour – and the way we do that is often through language and habit.
Societies have developed habits over the years like having norms for what they consider good habits.
They’ve also come up with language that helps them express themselves more effectively.
But we still can’t control the kind of reactions and feelings people have when they see what we do or listen to what we say.
For example, you may have grown up with the idea that it’s good manners for a gentleman to hold a door open for a lady.
A modern, independent woman, however, may feel like she doesn’t need any man to open a door for her – that’s a patronising way of saying that she can’t do it herself – and gets angry at the gesture, which was intended to be good manners.
Or take a statement like, “Pass the salt.”
For a native English speaker, that’s rude – where’s the please?
People who speak languages where there is no separate word for please – where politeness is built into the structure of the language itself – find it hard to understand that they’ve caused offence simply by translating what they want to do into the equivalent English form.
With communication, feelings come first
If you want to get better at communicating with others and, in particular, getting better at listening, you have to realise that the sounds we make show the feelings we have first and foremost.
The thinking and rationalisation comes later.
The right word, the right reaction can cement a lifelong friendship while a stray word, the wrong gesture can permanently dent a relationship.
And the only way we can really understand the others around us, from our children to our co-workers is to take the time to listen to them.
And there are very few models that tell us how to do this effectively.
We should start looking for some.