Paul considers himself a reasonably good communicator. He leads a team of eight, reports directly to the CFO and deals with a handful of established clients. Generally things go well. However, there are those times when it feels like there are gaps. Someone doesn’t understand, someone is not motivated or someone doesn’t respond as expected.

Many of us are reasonably good communicators and get through life without consciously considering our communication skills or the need to improve them. Yet, so much of our personal and professional success can hinge on how well we communicate with others. The good news is that neuroscientists are making discoveries about the brain that can teach us communication techniques to improve our relationships at work (and home), as well as permanently change our own communications habits to use these techniques regularly.

As Dr Evian Gordon, chairman of the Brain Resource Centre, says ‘ When you know your brain, you can train your brain, which can lead to optimizing your brain’.

Yet, so much of our personal and professional success can hinge on how well we communicate with others.

Getting to know your brain and the brains of those around you

Dr Gordon explains that for survival purposes our brains are wired to be on a constant lookout for threat and move towards what it sees as reward and away from what it detects as a threat. Research has also shown that the brain responds to social threats as strongly as it responds to physical threats.

A threat to the brain

A threat to the brain, whether physical or social will take energy away from our pre frontal cortex, our main area for processing incoming information, and send it to our limbic or emotional brain to move us into fight or flight mode to deal with the threat.

The brain moving into a state of threat can have huge implications in the workplace. It can also happen in an instant and literally leave you unable to think. It is no surprise that bad communication is a common trigger. How many times have you seen one bad email, a comment made in passing or one short discussion in a meeting send someone off the edge?

Knowing this could make speaking to anyone at work feel like a minefield, yet there are a few key things we can keep in mind to help make it an easier path to navigate.

Communicating with the brain in mind

Dr David Rock CEO of the Neuroleadership Group created the SCARF model as a reminder of five areas of social threat that can throw the pre frontal cortex off balance. SCARF stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

Each of the five areas are vital for keeping people out of a threat state, but ‘certainty’ and ‘autonomy’ are key considerations for daily communications. There are also a few simple techniques around both that you can apply in your everyday workplace conversations ensure that you are moving people towards a more effective brain state.

Predicting the future is rewarding for our brains and uncertainty creates a threat response. Yet, so often people are left in the dark around what is happening at work. Information is either intentionally not shared, details are inadvertently left out or intentions are not made clear. Having autonomy or choice has been shown to increase everything from motivation to life expectancy. The good news here is that even small simple choices make a difference.

Tips and tricks

Both certainty and autonomy can easily be brought into everyday interactions. Providing a clear outline of what is going to be discussed at a meeting, what your expectations are of others, or what you want to achieve from a specific conversation can all create certainty for the person you are speaking to. Providing even a small choice around the situation can provide an even greater feeling of reward. The difference between asking someone to meet you to discuss ‘something’ on Monday and asking them to meet you on either Monday morning at 10:00am or Monday afternoon at 2:00pm to review the project you are both working on and brainstorm ideas for next steps, is huge for the brain.

Studies have shown that even when people know they are going to receive bad news they experience lower levels of uncertainty than when they don’t know if they are going to receive any news. So, as contradictory as it sounds, asking someone to meet you and discuss problems with a project is likely to cause less uncertainty, and therefore leave them with a better functioning pre frontal cortex, than leaving it unclear. If you think the subject itself may cause a threat response in the person, providing additional choice can counteract that. Something as simple as offering a choice of meeting times and locations can all lead to a lower threat response.

It’s all about remembering how another person’s brain may be responding to what is happening and then communicating in a way that helps them think clearly rather than shut down thinking.


For further help with communicating with the brain in mind, download my free self-assessment and tips for brain friendly communication to help you minimize brain threat and maximize brain reward in all of your conversations.

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