Be it with friends and family or colleagues and bosses, we have all had the experience of scratching our heads as we realize that the important conversation we had a few hours/days/weeks ago had zero impact on the other person. You walk away thinking, “s/he/they just doesn’t care.” However, here is what I think may be going on sometimes (and probably more than just sometimes).
With important conversations you usually know this person well. Because of this long-term relationship, you engage them pre-loaded with an explanation for communication gaps (a “guiding assumption” about how to make sense of them). Here are some common ones:
- The other person…
- …doesn’t like me
- …has a different personality
- …is at a different level of maturity
- …is from a different race/culture
- …has more (or less) money/power/access
Let’s briefly explore each of these before turning to something you may not have considered:
- “They Don’t Like Me”
This might be true for some people, especially in a professional setting. In a personal setting, it is far less likely (but truer the younger you are, because young people tend to humor their peers more than older adults). However, if someone is listening to you in any context (and they are not distracted because it is an important conversation) then the chances they don’t “hear” you because they simply don’t like you is quite low. If you try my method below, and they still don’t “hear” you, then yeah, they probably don’t like you or they’re on the spectrum or… who cares? Stop having important conversations with them AND expect them to fully “hear” you. Alter your expectations instead of their opinion. You’re right – they don’t or can’t care in the way you need.
- “We have different personality types”
There is a problem with the widespread use of personality types, especially in business (DISC – which is just Myers-Briggs in drag; OCEAN – the “Big Five Factor” model; and Enneagram – the new kid on the block, growing in popularity). These are sold as a means to get colleagues to overcome barriers and communicate better. But more often than not, colleagues use another person’s type to “explain away” miscommunication (resulting in less communication, not more). If someone is “type-X” and you are a “type-Y,” you might reason that because this is a fixed aspect of their personality, why bother? And that is precisely what personality researchers say – that these are static lenses we use to interpret the world. Which is odd, because the research doesn’t back that up (people change when re-tested, so what is being measured?). And it can be harmful because most consultants hand over a “playbook” to managers when they leave to cash their check (and the ones that stay at least 3-6 months are keepers, because they care and want to help you implement a better culture of communication).
If you truly do have a difference in personality type (personally or professionally), this is no excuse for why someone doesn’t “hear” you during important conversations. Even teenagers know that their friends are different from them and will use analogies and examples to overcome the personality type differences. They may not always get the full message, but they are able to communicate that they care about their friend’s perspective.
So personality types are not fixed or static, but they provide an easy excuse for why you are not being heard. Don’t fall prey to this outdated, 20th century theory.
- “S/He/They is less/more mature than I”
There are two main ways to think about maturity: life experience, and level of development. These certainly overlap (and less so as we age), but they are not the same thing. For you psychologists out there, the difference, respectively, would be Eric Erikson and Jean Piaget. Erikson researched external lifespan-dilemma milestones; Piaget researched internal cognitive-dissonance milestones. Life experience is not a reason that someone doesn’t “hear” you; but the growth from overcoming existential cognitive dissonance might be.
If someone is more mature than you are developmentally, they will be able to “hear” you, because they have been transformed while overcoming such dissonance. For example, when adults stop trying to please everyone, and put themselves on their “list of people to care for,” and are willing to occasionally disappoint even close relations – they have moved to a new level of development (from “relationship maintaining” to “principles maintaining”).
The simple (difficult to swallow?) truth is that this person can hold more perspectives simultaneously in their mind than you can. On the other hand, if your level of development is one where you can hold more perspectives in your mind simultaneously than the other person, they cannot “fully hear” you. We accept this between children of different ages, but we have yet to accept this with adults at different stages (despite over 5 decades of evidence from adult developmental psychology research at places like the University of Michigan and Harvard).
However, my communication process can help you overcome these limitations – in both directions, from more-to-less mature.
- “We are from different cultures/difference races”
What a copout! Any adult who has the capacity to think in the abstract has the capacity to “hear” you during an important conversation. Whether or not they choose to “hear” you is different.
I grew up on the border between a majority Black & Hispanic town and a majority White town. I went to as many house parties as volleyball cookouts. I cared about all my friends, so maybe my perspective here is biased (maybe I was socialized differently than most). But cultural and racial differences can obviously be overcome. For thousands of years, the Silk Road between East and West established communications across different races, cultures, and languages. If people can do this while enduring the constant warfare between regions & religions, your friend/colleague should be able to “hear” you even if you ate their yogurt that one time.
I am torn about the racial/cultural difference issue. On the one hand, it is positive and empowering for people to identify with their race and/or culture. It is a necessary milestone of development. But it’s not the end of development. It is an illusion that we are entirely composed of messages we were taught while growing up in a particular race/culture. This problematic belief suggests that we are imprisoned, with no capacity to find a common humanity beyond social constructions. I reject this limiting belief and suggest that you remain curious as to its veracity if you ascribe to such notions.
- “They/I have more money/power/access, so we speak different languages”
If couples who speak different love languages can learn to “hear” one another, then anyone should be able to overcome the money/power/access differences that are inevitable in life. This one more than any other (except perhaps culture/race) can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Here is a thought experiment: do you believe that any successful entrepreneur held the view that they would not be heard because of differences in money/power/access? Of course not. Think like a successful entrepreneur, not like someone who makes excuses.
Solution: The Gut, Heart, Head Communication Hack
If you want to be truly heard, the best way to achieve this is to figure out if the other person is mostly “gut brained,” “heart brained,” or “head brained.” Yes, it is that simple. It is not a panacea; it does not guarantee that you will be heard as you would like to be. But you stand a far better chance of being heard if you use this method instead of personality type or any other way to overcome the communication barriers listed above.
Maybe you didn’t know that you have 3 unique brains? I’ll leave you to a Google rabbit hole to find the supporters and debunkers of this idea. It makes sense to me, as a former neuroscientist, former psychotherapist, and current executive coach. For example, the most successful hedge fund managers that I work with have and use the best “gut brains” I’ve ever seen. The most eloquent philosophers and psychologists I’ve worked with use their “head brain” better than others. And the most influential therapists, doctors, coaches, and parents use their “heart brain” more than others.
Have you ever had the thought, “They only ‘hear’ me when I get mad/sad/happy!?” Maybe it’s because they use their heart-brain more than you do? Have you ever had the thought, “How come they only hear me when I am cold and calculating?” Maybe it’s because they use their head-brain more than you do? Or what about, “How come they only hear me when I follow-through with clear actions on my promises/threats?” Maybe it’s because they use their gut-brain more than you do?
I’m a big fan of powerful ideas that don’t get enough attention. One of those is adult developmental psychology. Especially Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s pragmatic process that helps adults transform to their next level of development, the Immunity to Change method. But the gut-brain, heart-brain, head-brain field is new, and there is no single leader or movement to bring this simple, powerful idea to the masses. What follows is my attempt to start that process.
One issue with any new field is that researchers must make a choice about what, exactly, they want to study. And in our hyper-autonomous Western culture, “decision making” is the best way for consultants and coaches to get the attention of the market. Here is a popular article about that in Forbes. And here is an academic paper for those of you who are interested in the science behind this idea. So far, almost every article (academic and popular) has been about how to integrate these 3 brains within yourself (again, hyper-autonomy at play, nothing about interpersonal communications).
We will never learn to communicate better if we focus on getting “more integrated” within ourselves while avoiding difficult communications in an ever-more-complicated world. Being heard better is an attempt to bring more intersubjectivity to your personal and professional life; and the 3-brain theory – and maybe my 3-brain communication hack – can help us do this as individuals and as groups of people trying to communicate better.
Why Three Brains?
The short answer is “evolution.” During our extraordinarily hostile transcendence from the evolutionary constraints of predator-prey relationships, we humans needed specialists. Any group of humans composed of the three types of people that used either their gut-brain mainly, heart-brain mainly, or head-brain mainly would be much more successful than a group that had only one or two of those specialists.
The gut-brain is basically intuitive and focused on actions & results; the heart-brain is basically emotional and focused on bonding & compassion; the head-brain is basically logical and focused on analysis & creativity. Of course, everyone uses all three brains. But we do not use them equally. It was an evolutionary benefit to be a specialist in your small group, making sense of the world mainly from one of your three brains. Intuition helps you focus on what is happening right in front of you (focus: actual results, data); social bonding is the main reason that humans dominated the earth (focus: mutuality, culture); and creativity gave us the wheel and its resultant inventions (focus: innovation, growth). In general, mother nature creates through a process of differentiation and integration (physical mutations are one form of this; having a “main brain” with which you begin and end communications is another).
The table below helps you identify your preferred or “main brain”:
|Brain Type||Processes…||Self-Identifies As…|
|abstract/cognitive/creative||“I am thoughtful, logical, and analytical.”
“Let’s worry about constraints later… this is beautiful!”
|connective/emotional/bonding||“I am compassionate, interpersonal, and warm.”
“Let’s stop and reflect together… it’s the right thing to do!”
|realistic/intuitive/instinctual||“I am realistic, protective, and action-oriented.”
“Let’s make this happen now… we need to see results.”
Table 1: Which “Main Brain” do you mostly “Listen” With?
This table can help you apply solutions to be heard more clearly:
|Your Main Brain||Their Main Brain||A Communications Template for being Heard Better|
|Heart-Brain||“HEY! Solid Solutions =
Chance of Increased Empathy”
|Head-Brain||“HEY! Presenting Data =
Chance of More Growth”
|Gut-Brain||“HEY! Real Teamwork =
Chance of Better Results”
|Head-Brain||“HEY! Enhanced Mutuality =
Chance of Creative Solutions”
|Gut-Brain||“HEY! Creative Innovation =
Chance of Measurable Results”
|Heart-Brain||“HEY! Cutting-Edge Teams =
Chance of Increased Bonding”
Table 2: Better Communications Between the 3 Brains
To use the above tables, identify your “main brain,” then try one of the below approaches.
Communications Bridge-Building from an Integrated, 3-Brains-3-Solutions Mentality
If you are focused on actual results/data (gut-brain intuition), and your listener is focused on mutuality/culture (heart-brain bonding), you must make sure your message includes how their preferred meaning of empathy is increased with your preference for solid solutions.
If you are focused on actual results/data (gut-brain intuition), and your listener is focused on innovation/growth (head-brain creativity), you must make sure your message includes how their preferred meaning of growth occurs best when your preference for hard-data is gathered and presented.
If you are focused on mutuality/culture (heart-brain bonding), and your listener is focused on actual results/data (gut-brain intuition), you must make sure your message includes how their preferred meaning of results is linked to your preference for highlighting “real” teamwork (you might need a lot of data compiled and ready for this conversation!).
If you are focused on mutuality/culture (heart-brain bonding), and your listener is focused on innovation/growth (head-brain creativity), you must make sure your message includes how enhancing mutuality/culture leads to their preferred meaning of creative solutions.
If you are focused on innovation/growth (head-brain creativity), and your listener is focused on actual results/data (gut-brain intuition), you must make sure your message includes how your innovation/growth supports their preferred meaning of measurable outcomes.
If you are focused on innovation/growth (head-brain creativity), and your listener is focused on mutuality/culture (heart-brain bonding), you must make sure your message includes how their preferred meaning of bonding is amplified by your approach for motivating cutting-edge creators.
Whether you are broaching a sensitive topic with your in-laws, coaxing a loved one from a risky endeavor, or delegating to a manager, understanding how to be heard using your best guess of their main-brain will help you to be better heard. And even if your best guess is wrong, or if you are speaking with someone who shares your main-brain, the act of building both sides of the communications bridge is something they will feel and appreciate. Being appreciated for making the effort to build that bridge is the best way to increase the chances of being heard.
Conclusion: Occam’s Razor and the 3 Brains
It may seem strange to introduce an intersubjective-matrix of “3 Brain Communication Styles for Being Heard Better” as passing the test of Occam’s Razor (the simplest solution or theory – the one with less variables – is usually the correct one). But we don’t live in a world of single or even dual variables. The previous 200 years can be cast largely as an effort to reduce life to either/or thinking, or command/control management, or masculine/feminine styles.
But 3 is the new 2. Your meaning-making is not just about having 2 hemispheres in your head-brain; or the balance of “anima & animus” (masculine & feminine) in your type; or autonomy and community in your life. Historian of science James Gleick wrote the book “Chaos: Making a New Science,” which largely introduced the world to Chaos Theory (and inspired Michael Chrichton to create the character of Dr. Ian Malcolm in the novel Jurassic Park). Gleick goes into detail about how 2 variables over time can be predicted; but the introduction of 3 variables over time makes this much more difficult. (Consider driving onto a highway with 2 lanes instead of 3 – you know you’ll be frustrated over time with only 2 lanes, but 3 lanes offer you hope!)
I believe that using a frame of 3 brains when communicating helps us overcome the myopic assumptions of typologies, gender, culture, or any of the other usual suspects with which we have been indoctrinated. And thus, it may give you a new path to try rather than the same old, “he/she/they are just not LISTENING to me!” Differentiating your understanding of communications across 3 brains offers the hope you might need after a lifetime of frustrating communications, of not being fully heard.
Whether personal or professional, you stand a much better chance of being heard when you consider which brain YOU are speaking from, and which brain THEY are using to hear you. It’s a unique brain hack, one that is all about connecting with people (not just getting better yourself).
I have spent my life attempting to overcome the reductionism I was required to adopt in order to learn neuroscience. In a sense, I am returning to such reductionism here. However, if it helps us communicate better in love and work, then it is a reductionism that is worth exploring. This is a method with almost no downsides and many potential upsides. Therefore, I hope that you, dear reader, can learn enough about yourself and your colleague/partner/sibling/spouse to test it out. It might take a little time, but it will be time well-spent. You’ll soon start seeing the data, connections, or growth in which you are most interested. You stand to be better heard.
David Zeitler, Miami, 2022