We’ve all been there: You’re deep in conversation, and the volley is smooth, seamless, and satisfying, bringing you closer by the minute. But you’ve also been here: As you ramble on trying to get your point across, your partner cuts you off and changes the subject. The next thing you know, you’ve got a serious case of emotional whiplash. That’s because whether you’ve known someone for 15 minutes or 15 years, the way you both speak enhances trust, intimacy, and love—or the opposite.
Communication, after all, is the tool you use every day to build your closest relationships, and experts (as well as common sense) tell us that the right words, spoken in the right way, can work wonders on even the testiest interactions. The problem? Most of us think we’re good communicators, but research shows we’re surprisingly unskilled at it. Blame rushed e-mailing or a dearth of face-to-face time, but we’re not connecting as well as we can.
According to ground breaking work in the field of neuroscience, however, it’s easy to retrain ourselves to speak and listen in a way that stimulates sympathy and trust in the other person’s brain in a matter of seconds. So whether you’re talking to a friend, a spouse, or a colleague at work, these eight tips will ensure the best dialogue possible.
*From Words Can Change Your Brain, by Andrew B. Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman, copyright 2012. Reprinted by arrangement with Hudson Street Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
1. Breathe and stretch
When conversations are challenging, the person who can remain calm will benefit the most. That’s because stress generates irritability, irritability leads to anger, and anger shuts down your ability to get your point across. So before you enter any important dialogue, take a minute or two to enter a state of deep relaxation. Many brain-scan studies have shown that simple exercises—such as breathing slowly to a count of five, stretching your neck, and even faking a few yawns—can change your brain in ways that measurably improve your communication skills.
2. Generate 5 positive thoughts
Any negative thought you harbor can interfere with the parts of your brain involved in language processing, listening, and speech, leading to mutual defensiveness and distrust. Statements like “You let me down” or “I don’t like your tone” or even an eye roll can generate a fight-or-flight reaction in the other person’s brain.
To counter this, employ the 5-to-1 rule: For every negative feeling you hold about yourself, the other person, or the topic at hand, conjure five positive ones. Research has shown this to be one of the most important factors for predicting success in personal and business relationships.
3. Seal it with a smile
If you want to boost the success of your interplay, try accessing a pleasant memory or thinking about someone you love before you start the conversation. It will create a subtle, inviting facial expression that conveys kindness, compassion, and interest. When another person sees this, it stimulates a feeling of trust in her brain. The expression on the other person’s face will then unconsciously reflect yours—a process known as neural resonance—and this will deepen everyone’s sense of satisfaction. As researchers at Loyola University Chicago demonstrated, contentment gives rise to happier chats. Enjoyable memories will also release pleasure chemicals in your brain that will take you into even deeper states of relaxed intimacy.
4. See into the soul
Eye contact stimulates the social-network circuits in your brain, decreases the stress hormone cortisol, and increases oxytocin, a hormone that enhances sympathy. Looking at someone’s face—really looking—also means you’ll be better able to recognize the seven basic facial expressions (anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, contempt, and happiness) even though they may last only a second. This makes it easier to repair the damage before your loved one notices that the conversation was knocked off track.
5. Express appreciation
The first words you speak to someone will set the tone for the entire interaction, and a single compliment may be all you need to engender cooperation and trust. Complaints, on the other hand, immediately create a defensive reaction in the listener and will rarely get you what you want.
Our suggestion: Begin each conversation with a sincere compliment, and end with a phrase that conveys deep appreciation for the other person. Research shows that remarks received at the end of an interaction are especially effective because they linger in the other person’s mind.
6. Be brief
Whenever possible, speak a sentence or two at a time, and then pause and take a breath to relax. Why? Research shows that our conscious minds retain only a tiny bit of information. Then it’s booted out of working memory as new material is uploaded. If you must speak for a longer period of time, let your friend know in advance. This will encourage him to focus and ignore the intrusiveness of his own inner speech.
7. Build trust
When you finally get around to your big conversations with loved ones, coach yourself to speak gently. That means speaking slowly, which can deepen your partner’s respect for you, according to research published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
But your tone matters too. If you drop the pitch of your voice and speak more slowly, the listener will hear and respond with greater trust. This strategy was developed and tested in 2011 in the department of communication sciences and disorders at the University of Houston, and it has been used to help oncologists present bad news to patients in the most supportive way possible. When the doctors reduced their speaking rate and pitch, their patients perceived them “as more caring and sympathetic.”
8. Listen. No, really listen.
This one is harder than it sounds. Research shows that most of us begin to speak before the other person has finished talking. Even doctors, who are trained to listen carefully for important medical information, tend to interrupt patients within 23 seconds, long before a patient’s true concerns have been stated. To listen deeply and fully, you must train your mind to stay focused on the person who is speaking—not only on his words but also his facial expressions and body language. Of course, this takes some practice to get right. But even if the other person blathers on, try to respond to what was just said, as opposed to shifting the conversation back to what you want to talk about.
The best plan of all? Share these strategies with your partner and agree to practice them with each other. In just a few weeks, you’ll actually improve the communication centers in your brain as you build greater trust and intimacy with each other.