We’re only just beginning to understand how the mind works. As communicators, we still need to leaven our smugness when, say, a speech goes well, or a meeting, or a conversation, with humility. That’s because the huge majority of our communications are unconscious – and most of us are unintentional, unaware, unconscious communicators.
I’ve been working with clients for three decades on becoming more conscious – more intentional – in communications, and I believe we have only scratched the surface. New insights come almost daily – it’s an incredibly fecund period for developments in neuroscience – but those insights should also serve to remind us how little we still know and even less control.
I work with people to decide on the persona they want to put across in their conversations, meetings, and presentations, and even our ability to talk about what that means is still limited. When I ask people how they would like to be perceived, they use language like, “authoritative, funny, expert, approachable, confident, humble,” the list goes on an on, but I’m always struck by how impoverished our language is to talk about this very important business of how others take us.
Mostly what people do is list positive adjectives – because who would list negative ones – and then we discuss what their behavior is likely to inspire now, what the gap is, and how to get to the desired state. How to be more empathetic, or confident, or authoritative, or funny, or expert for an audience.
It’s slow, painstaking work. Take empathy, for example. How do you appear to be more empathetic? What does that mean, exactly? Presumably, the word inspires a thought about being sensitive to the feelings of others. How do you project that quality from a stage? Or across a room? Is it a tilt of the head, a hand gesture, a posture, or something you say? And is everyone struck the same way by your attempts at appearing more empathetic?
Now comes a study that finds that you can actually increase people’s empathy – specifically for others’ suffering – by having them touch rough sandpaper.
That little bit of discomfort makes us more aware of discomfort in general, and thus more sensitive to others’ potential discomfort.
It’s a fascinating study, but what it shows us is how little we actually understand about a feeling like empathy and what drives it. If a momentary encounter with sandpaper can make people measurably more empathetic, how deep-seated is that feeling to begin with? And more importantly, how driven is it by our physicality rather than what we normally think of as our psychology?
And given that we can increase people’s empathy, what implications does that have for increasing people’s perceptions of empathy?
What it shows is several things, each of them an important step in understanding how people communicate – and thus speak, meet, and converse.
First, it shows us how connected our physical experiences and our mental experiences are – and we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of our understanding in this way.
Second, it shows us how unconscious most of our attitudes are. When you make me rub my finger on rough sandpaper, I become more empathetic, but not because I’ve consciously thought something like, “Oh, that sandpaper is rough, therefore I should be more sympathetic to others’ pain.” It’s rather an unconscious and emotional connection. The physical opens us up to the mental, rather than the other way around.
And finally, it shows us how tribal most of our attitudes are. We experience empathy, and all those other adjectives I listed earlier, as attitudes toward others, and that others have toward us.
We like to think of ourselves as self-directed, individual, and conscious. What we’re learning is that humans are instead connected, unconscious and tribal beings. We need to learn new communications approaches accordingly.
We’re gathering the tribe for a one-day workshop on powerful public speaking in Boston on April 22nd. There are still one or two spaces left, so let us know right away if you’re interested.