The Brain Science of Effective Communication

Communicating information to someone does not mean they listen or understand. We hear but do not listen; read but do not understand. Teachers and parents know this struggle all too well. Yet, this is not limited to our childhood. Everyone one of us is guilty of this into adulthood and within our workplace. Luckily, since this situation is universal, across family structures, schools and work places alike, brain scientists have searched for solutions and explanations.

The explanation is a long one, but it can be boiled down to this: our brains a built to keep us alive. The strongest memories come from things that threaten our calm and well being. A person could sit at a bus stop for half an hour, seeing car after car pass by on the road without remembering anything about any of them. However, if a car drives past and the wheel goes off the road and up on the curve before it drives away, that person will have a clear memory of the car type and color. Simply put, our brains need a reason to remember.

The solution then, is to attract the attention of your listener or reader. We need a reason to retain information. Brain research says this can be done by offering a choice to target the decision making center of the brain. We can make our information easier to recall by delivering information in a consistent manner that allows memories to be easily encoded and stored. When talking for a longer period or writing a longer piece, repeat crucial information at the beginning and the end. Our brains focus better at the start and finish than in the middle.

Whether communication is written or in-person matters. Body language and paralanguage, which includes tone, pitch and voice quality, have a large impact on our perception of encounters. The sentence, “Hey, this needs to be done by Friday,” has a much different meaning when said casually than when said sternly. Researchers estimate that up to 38% of communication is perceived through paralanguage alone.

Seven main forms of communication are used when a person needs someone to do or to understand something. These are illustrated below using the example of communicating the need for coworkers to use a new protocol.

Ask “Please use the new protocol.”

This method leaves little room for interpretation. The listener or reader knows what is expected from them. Be careful not to imply a perceived choice. This happens when we add “would you” or “could you” to the beginning of the request. It gives the listener or reader the perception they can answer with a yes or no.

Suggest “You might want to use the new protocol.”

The writer or speaker has outlined a preferred choice they would like their listener or reader to make. They have implied permission to make a different choice.

Tell “We all need to use the new protocol.”

This method gives a single option for the listener or reader to choose. Direct statements create clear expectations for behavior with little perceived choice.

Imply “The new protocol is available now.”

The speaker or writer has not actually given a direction or asked for a response. Instead, it is left up to the listener or reader to infer the action steps they need to take.

Hope ” . . . “

This method is not spoken or written. They make the option they want people to use available, but do not point it out. For example, a manager wants employees to sign in when they arrive. The manager places a sign in sheet by the front entry, but does not announce the change. They hope people notice, then think through the options for action, and respond in the preferred manner.

Demand or Threaten “You must use the new protocol or else.”

An order can be effective by eliminating choice. Orders can also be ineffective by eliminating choice. In the absence of choice, refusal becomes the only alternative.

Force “The only option you have right now is to use the new protocol.”

Providing only one option ensure that option is used. It does not ensure that choice is agreed upon or valued which can result in push back.