There are very few things that are universally interpreted, but a smile, and making someone feel “felt” are key symbols, across most cultures, of acceptance.  So, why not use them in the workplace?

If you’re like most leaders, there are a few people in your workplace to which you can’t get through; it’s like your talking to a wall. Everything you say bounces off their ears and doesn’t sink in. You’ve tried persuasion, you’ve tried rewards, you’ve even tried pleading, you’ve even shouted, confronted, and reprimanded, but nothing is working.  You think you have nothing left to give, but wait…you actually do.

Compassion, or making people feel “felt,” is a universal action that humans like to feel, especially in a conflict. When a leader simply listens, asks, mirrors and reflects back to others what he/she hears, he/she will likely start to get through to people, no matter how difficult they can be.

Before you get through to someone, you have to get inside his/her head, and that starts with the 3 concepts that I’m about to explain:

  1. The three-part brain
  2. The “amygdala hijack”
  3. Mirror neurons (and the mirror neuron deficit)

I know what you’re thinking…this isn’t an anatomy and physiology course, but I promise this is a simple concept you can master, so let’s start with number 1: the three-part brain.  Our brains evolved from lower animals: first, the primitive reptilian brain, which is responsible for split-second survival reactions; second, the middle mammalian brain, which is the seat of emotions; and third, the upper primate/human brain, which sifts through data from the reptile and mammal brains, analyzes it, and makes practical, ethical decisions.  While these brains must work together, they also work independently, especially during times of stress, which can cause people to be hard to “get through to.”

This leads us to concept number 2: The Amygdala Hijack. Have you ever tried to talk to someone in a highly stressed-out emotional state? The words “calm down” seem to get them even more riled up. Well, that’s the Amygdala talking. It’s the part of the primitive brain that keeps adrenaline pumped and emotional reactions high. You can’t talk to someone in this state. You have to pull out some major empathy cards, or try to talk when he/she has calmed down.

Lastly, the third concept is mirror neurons. The brain’s “mirror neurons” are nature’s way of teaching us to care about other people. When they fire, people can “mirror” the feelings and emotions of others. Many CEOs and managers feel they give their best, only to be met day after day with apathy, hostility, or worse, no response at all. Their brains don’t get enough mirror neuron receptor activity. In other words, there’s not enough empathy going around the office!

Now that you know a lot more brain physiology than you can even handle, let’s get to the 3 rules that will help you get through to even your toughest critics.

1.     Move from “Ahhhhh!” to “OK”

If it’s a fender bender or a work crisis with an employee, make a conscious decision to get out of your primitive and mammalian brains and move on up to your primate brain with these quick phases.

“Ahhhh!” (Reaction Phase): “This is a disaster. I’m screwed. What just happened? It’s all over.”

“I’m doomed!” (Release Phase): “This is a huge mess. 
I’m stuck with it. Why does this always happen to 

“Oh, Jeez!” (Re-Center Phase): “All right, I can 
fix this, but it’s not going to be fun.”

“Oh, Well…” (Refocus Stage): “I’m not going to let this ruin my life/career/day/relationship. Here’s 
what I need to do right now to make it better.”

“OK.” (Reengage Phase): “OK, I’m ready to fix 
this. Let’s go.”

2.     Filter Your Filters

It’s human nature to size up people and judge them based on filters that often relate to gender, age, ethnic background, education, and looks. These filters and predetermined beliefs get in the way of clear thinking and being empathetic. So, make an effort to check and remove these filters and examine how well you truly hear what someone is saying.

3.     Give The Feeling of “Felt”

This is truly the universal gift. Get your mirror neurons firing and put yourself in the other person’s shoes to change the dynamics of a relationship in an instant. You’ll go from trying to break through a brick wall to having a breakthrough that leads to cooperation, collaboration, and productive communication. Ask a person how he/she is feeling, try to understand that feeling, and you’ll have a better chance of your message getting through.

Ask Yourself:

  • Are there any people in your life/at work with which you constantly have a difficult time communicating?
  • How could you better approach the person/conversation to decrease his/her stress and the overall confrontation?
  • What “filters” do you need to remove to improve your listening?
  • How can you make a person feel “felt?”