How to train your lizard and other animals

jub-jub3Good leaders have good communication skills; that goes without saying.  Yet anyone can learn to repeat a well written speech or to spout positive management cliches.  Communication does not just lie in conscious verbal speech.  Truly great leaders have the skill to understand, interpret and communicate not just what they hear, but also what they feel.  The technique to this lies not in management textbook speak but in a sensitivity to limbic resonance.

The idea of the limbic brain was developed by neuroscientist Paul MacLean.  In the 1960s he developed the theory that we all have three interconnected parts to our brain.  In simple terms the earliest part is the primitive reptilian brain (the lizard – controls breathing and balance).  Next there is the limbic brain concerned with emotions and finally the new higher mammalian brain (thinking and rational decisions).  The limbic brain, present in older mammals controls fight-or-flight responses and reacts to both emotionally pleasurable and painful sensations.  It doesn’t speak your verbal language at all, so you can’t reason with it.  Every time you have an apparently irrational need to get out of a situation, despite the fine words that might be spoken or every time you feel immediately at ease somewhere or with someone that’s your limbic system reacting.  This is limbic resonance and it is immensely powerful.

According to MacLean the biggest problem in communications is not person to person, but in each of us understanding and interpreting the messages we get from our different brains – two of which don’t actually use spoken language at all.

“The greatest language barrier,” he concluded, “lies between man and his animal brains; the neural machinery does not exist for intercommunication in verbal terms.”

We all have different levels of attunement to the limbic resonance of any given situation.  To be too sensitive to it is a curse, to have no sensitivity to it can be your downfall.  Limbic resonance is highly contagious.  If those around us are giving off an air of insecurity then we will catch it.  If the mood is high then it takes us up too.  Workplace cultures are steeped in limbic resonance.  If yours is healthy then you will love going to work every day.  If it is not, well then not so much.

Great leaders are skilled in picking up the limbic resonance of a situation, a work place, a meeting, a networking event, and in reacting to it and shifting the tone.  It is a much harder skill to learn than parroting the right management speak and they don’t teach you it at school or university (although if you had a great teacher at either of those places then they will have had great limbic resonance understanding).

You can’t shift the limbic resonance of a situation with words.  It is non-verbal signals that do it, tone of voice perhaps, pace of speech, even how people breathe.

It is a well-known management lesson that listening is as important as speaking.  The limbic and lizard brains demand yet more of managers.  You need to be sensitive to what is not spoken, careful with what is indicated with all kinds of non-verbal language.  That’s how truly great leaders succeed.




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