A few months ago, our 9 year son was having a really rough night. His anxiety had gotten the best of him and he was terrified to go to sleep. After much work and patience, he finally fell asleep at 10pm, only to awake again at midnight. From the minute he woke, he fell right back into a state of terror and was up for hours.
Do you know the book, Just go the f%#* to sleep?
To say that I felt frustrated is an understatement.
In these moments, it can be easy to lose sight of the reality of the situation. My son was struggling. He was doing the best he could to fall asleep and was simply unable because anxiety had hijacked his brain.
This hijacking of the rational brain happens to us adults too. We can be deep in discussions at work, wrought with anxiety about a big project that is due, upcoming changes, something a colleague or superior said, or even something that is going on at home.
This can lead us to slip into a reactive state, where we respond instinctively and reflexively rather than with focused intention. We are no longer in an Integrated Brain State. In these moments, we may have slipped into the Reactive Communication Zone.
When we are in the Reactive Communication Zone, , our emotions are intensified, as if someone has put them on a loudspeaker. It can become difficult to think clearly. It becomes more difficult to consider various solutions to a problem, a state that Michelle Garcia-Winner refers to as Rock Brain. We may get stuck in a cycle of negative thinking. Others may become frustrated with us when we are in the Reactive Communication Zone because we become more difficult to reason with, having been completely overtaken by our emotions.
When someone is in the Reactive Communication Zone, before any functional communication can occur, the focus needs to be on returning to an Integrated Brain State. The Integrated Brain State is the only state where truly receptive communication can occur.
During that sleepless night with my son, I somehow managed to mostly remain in an Integrated Brain State.
The next exhausting day, in a tiny voice from the back of the car, my son and I had the following exchange:
“Mommy, it really helped me what you did last night”.
“That you stood next to my bed and took lots of deep breaths to help me take deep breaths”.
“Oh yeah, did that help?”
“Yeah, it calmed me down so I wasn’t so scared anymore. And then I fell asleep”.
The only thing I had done with my son that night was to remain calm, to feel empathy towards him, and to guide him through some deep breathing.
Sometimes, even as adults, all that is needed when we have slipped out of an Integrated Brain State ourselves is some time, empathy and a few deep breaths.
Think back to work meetings that you have attended. People slip in and out of an Integrated Brain State fluidly throughout the day. It is fairly likely that you have slipped into the Reactive Communication Zone yourself in a meeting. Or, at the very least, that you have observed others in the Reactive Communication Zone.
The energy in the room often intensifies as one or several people slip into the Reactive Communication Zone. People listen less and become more impatient, more demanding. Tensions peak. People become defensive and start feeling the need to justify decisions. We become more frustrated and judgemental. Some people shut down entirely.
Sometimes, the only thing needed to bring everyone at a work meeting back into an Integrated Brain State is some time, empathy, and a few deep breaths, exactly like what worked for my son.
The next time you find yourself in a meeting where either you and/or others in the room are slipping into the Reactive Communication Zone, try asking for a short break. Choosing to use this time to practice mindfulness will help to reset everyone into an Integrated Brain State.
If you’re interested in learning more about how an increased awareness of your own Reactive Communication Zone can improve communication outcomes within your workplace, check out my corporate workshop Shrink the Reactive Zone: Master Stress-Free Communication at Work.
Learning to manage our Reactive Communication Zone is a foundational skill for effective communication. Placing the focus on keeping all communicative partners in a receptive mode of communication, or an Integrated Brain State, is much more productive than focusing solely on improving how we choose to speak with one another.
Learning actionable skills and strategies to stay out of the Reactive Communication Zone at work will allow conversations to proceed respectfully and productively. Employees will leave meetings feeling appreciated and heard, which will leave people wanting to keep working with and for you.
You simply need to decide that this is a top priority within your organization.
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