Last week in Part I of this series, I talked about relationships and how important they are to the success and health of healthcare. This week we’re going to look at neuroscience and relationships and answer the question: What is going on between us?
It is common knowledge that verbal communication accounts for only 10 – 20 percent of what we are communicating while nonverbal tone, facial expression, eye-contact, body posture, speaking pace, and intonation help account for the other 80 – 90 percent. There is a lot of “stuff’ going on that isn’t necessarily conscious, clear, intentional or obvious.
Humans are Social Animals
Let me share an endearing example comes from my days as a nurse on a locked dementia unit where I observed two elderly residents; we’ll call them Matilda and Louise. Matilda was well-known for talking incessantly about the motel her family used to own, and Louise was essentially deaf. Even with her hearing aids, one had to yell very loudly into one ear to get Louise’s attention. One day the two women sat face to face at a dining room table while Matilda went on and on and on. I was nearby at the med cart and could hear repeated snippets of a storyline that I had heard countless times before.
“My father bought the motel after he came home from the war and he and mother were married. You could only get to it by a dirt road back then and you had to walk to get to the lake…”
Louise leaned in, her elbow on the table, her chin in her hand and “listened” to every word Matilda shared. She nodded, tilted her head and seemed genuinely interested. This went on for a good 45 minutes, despite the fact that Louise couldn’t hear a word and had limited ability to process any verbal language. Nevertheless, there was a lot going on between them and it was lovely to watch.
We are social animals, complex, imperfect and ever-changing. Our personalities are different and we come from different cultures with varied values and beliefs. Our interactions are influenced by these and other differences such as gender, education, social and professional status, age, mood, life stressors, and even the weather. Such differences can present endless opportunities to develop our best selves, learn from, teach, and help each other grow.
Common Influencers of Social Engagement
Yet, it also seems safe to say that most of us have some “baggage” from our life, family and work experiences that influence our approaches to social engagement. Insecurities, fears, and broken or fragile trust are common human foibles that can limit our communication and relationship-building. Further, science supports that unless we are really open, present, and feel safe to learn from each other, some—and possibly very important parts—of what we want to communicate may be misunderstood, unspoken, or not heard.
Neuroscientist Dr. Stephen Porges, creator of the polyvagal theory, explains how our social behavior can be affected by our autonomic nervous system. His theory, which includes extensive research on vagal nerve physiology, reveals that we cannot be fully open or present when we feel any sense of threat to our personal safety. These autonomic responses are behaviorally linked to social communication (facial expression, vocalization, listening), mobilization (fight–flight behaviors), and immobilization (feigning death or “freezing,” vasovagal syncope, and behavioral shutdown).
Given this, it isn’t surprising that we face challenges with practicing the effective and respectful communication and teamwork necessary to provide safe care and achieve other important outcomes. This is a compelling call to action to try to understand our relationships better and seek solutions that help us build positive ones. The emerging field of interpersonal neurobiology is a natural place to search for more ideas.
Next week, I’ll share the final installment of this series where we’ll discuss how one simple practice can enhance neuroplasticity and help heal our relationships. What are some solutions you’ve put in place to help build better working relationships?