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Book Review-Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict, and Increase Intimacy

On the one hand, there’s plenty of research that our memories aren’t stored in words, they’re stored in concepts. There’s the awareness that most of communication – particularly emotional communication – is done with body language. On the other hand, there’s Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict, and Increase Intimacy. We know that words do matter. That’s why there are marketing copywriters and political speech writers who spend their entire careers trying to get into our head and shape our thoughts.

We know that our emotions can change the expression of our genes (turning them on or off). We know that our words can trigger our emotions. As a result, we can unleash the power of our genes through our words and how we interact with others. It’s powerful stuff that most people have never been trained on nor even considered. However, considering how we can communicate with others is perhaps the greatest power we can wield.

The History

The compassionate communication approach that Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman explain in the book grew out of work helping couples build intimacy and resolve conflicts, but it has become a tool that has been used by business and environments far from the bedroom.

The good news about this history is that it means the strategy was designed with the awareness of the most highly charged conflicts that exist. The bad news is that the parties in these types of relationships are highly motivated to resolve their conflicts. As a result, the strategies that are proposed sometimes are overly prescriptive and aren’t practical in business situations. While they may be effective at limiting bad behaviors in intimate relationships where the conflicts are already well known, requirements like limiting all talking to 30 seconds or less may not work well in the general context of a business conflict, where there is a higher intellectual and lower emotional component.

In the interests of full disclosure, we teach conflict de-escalation and resolution. (Visit for more.) As a result, I’ve developed some strong opinions of what can – and can’t – work in the real world. We teach that conflict isn’t good or bad – it’s both. We can get good conflict when we learn and work through the disagreement and bad conflict when we build resentment and fail to take others into account.

That being said, there’s a lot of good material here that can add value to resolving any conflict.

Put Out the Fire

The Twelve Strategies

The twelve strategies recommended by Newberg and Waldman are:

  1. Relax
  2. Stay present
  3. Cultivate inner silence
  4. Increase positivity
  5. Reflect on your deepest values
  6. Access a pleasant memory
  7. Observe nonverbal cues
  8. Express appreciation
  9. Speak warmly
  10. Speak slowly
  11. Speak briefly
  12. Listen deeply

Let’s walk into each of these and provide additional supporting references.

1. Relax

Stress changes the way we react. Drive shares how stress focuses us and prevents us from considering all our options – and considering all our options is exactly what we need when we’re in a conflict. More than considering our options, stress changes our responses. When we’re afraid (stressed), our brain is actively looking for attacks and that can cause us to perceive the other person’s words as attacks. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for cognitive biases and how they shape our thoughts.)

2. Stay Present

As Sherry Turkle explains in Alone Together, we’re more technologically connected and more personally disconnected. The suggestion for difficult conversations is to stay present in the moment. (Alternatively, Vital Smarts calls difficult conversations “Crucial Conversations.”) Perhaps my favorite way of expressing this is the way John Gottman describes it as “emotional attunement” (see The Science of Trust for more). If you find that your mind is starting to wander because the other person isn’t communicating fast enough for you, you may find that matching your breathing to the other person’s provides enough stimulation to keep you focused and at the same time cultivates that emotional attunement.

3. Cultivate Inner Silence

If you’re looking for outer peace, you’re likely to need inner peace. You can’t give what you don’t have, and without inner peace, you don’t have peace to offer. Perhaps the best expression of how to create inner peace comes from the Dalai Lama in his book, An Appeal to the World: The Way to Peace in a Time of Division. You may also find that Mark Epstein’s The Trauma of Everyday Life provides great advice for using meditation to create a sense of inner peace.

4. Increase Positivity

Whether it’s John Gottman’s recommendation of five positive comments for every one negative (see The Science of Trust) or you prefer Barbara Fredrickson’s three-to-one ratio (see Positivity), being positive helps in a conflict. It encourages the other person to be positive, too, and that may be all the lubrication necessary to resolve the conflict. Positive people are just more likeable.

5. Reflect on Your Deepest Values

Steven Reiss, from his research, came up with 16 basic motivators. (See Who Am I? and The Normal Personality.) Jonathan Haidt came up with six foundations of morality. (See The Righteous Mind.) Strength Finder has its aspects (see Strengths Finder 2.0). These and many more tools are designed to give you an opportunity to learn more about yourself and what matters most to you. While this is important to knowing who you are and becoming emotionally stable, it does little to serve you in the moment. (You may want to see Emotional Intelligence or Emotional Intelligence 2.0 for more).

We find a better exercise is to work through the means and ends. That is, in a conflict, you want something. It’s important to understand whether that is the end that you really want or only a means for you to reach the end you want. For instance, you may want freedom and see a car as a way of getting it. If you don’t realize that the car is just a means to the ends, you may get hung up on getting a car when any solution that leads to freedom is acceptable.

6. Access a Pleasant Memory

Paul Eckman spent a lifetime studying the face and how we convey our inner states to one another, both intentionally and unintentionally. (See Nonverbal Messages and Telling Lies for more on his work.) It turns out we convey quite a range of emotion with our faces, and, through the magic of mind-reading, others pick up on this. (See Mindreading.)

Positive or pleasant memories signal to our face that we’re happy, and that is conveyed to others – and ideally puts them in a similar state. The result of this can be a greatly reduced sense of friction in a conflict. Rick Hanson explains how to rewire our thinking and to be more positive, happy, and pleasant in his book, Hardwiring Happiness.

7. Observe Nonverbal Cues

While mirror neurons operate at an unconscious level, it’s important to actively observe non-verbal cues to surface our awareness of what the other person is thinking or feeling. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth studied attachment styles of children and their mothers. They found that parents who were more appropriately attentive to their children produced children who were more secure and able to function in the world. (See Daring to Trust.) This is consistent with the research with rats and the mothers who licked and groomed them more, creating rat cubs which were more likely to explore. (See How Children Succeed.)

Motivational Interviewing, a technique that is commonly used to help people make difficult changes, is built on the foundation of careful attention to what is going on with the other person – something that we could all focus on when we are navigating a conflict.

8. Express Appreciation

Primal Leadership shares Zig Ziglar’s quote, “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” How To be An Adult in Relationships calls it an “attitude of gratitude.” It’s a desire to appreciate the other person and to communicate that. Focusing on the things you like or appreciate in the other person can help you both find common ground in your respect for one another.

9. Speak Warmly

Working with recovery groups taught me the difference that tone can make. Twelve-step meetings start with “Hello my name is…” and are totally shaped not by the words that are said but the tone and tenor they’re said with. (You can see more context in Why and How 12-Step Groups Work.) The tone and tenor of the words spoken during a conflict can convey more than the words themselves, so speaking warmly can be a powerful message to the other person that you want to find a way through the conflict. (See Trust Me for more.)

10. Speak Slowly

It was a pre-conference session years ago with my friend Eric Shupps that helped me to understand the value of speaking slowly. I’m from the Midwest, so my typical speaking speed is laid back. Eric is from Texas, and he sports a slightly more relaxed and slower speech with only the slightest hint of a southern drawl. During a break at the session, a young woman came up and said that she couldn’t understand me. Eric and I were slightly confused, as we’re both used to getting the occasional comment about his speech. As we dug deeper, we found out that we were (and particularly I was) speaking too fast.

The truth of the matter is that we (I) crammed way too much content into the day, and we were speaking fast to get through all of it. Some of the students were grateful for the compressed experience – but others couldn’t keep up.

In our conflicts, we want to speak slowly to create space for the other party to process what we’re saying carefully. It doesn’t do us any good to communicate everything quickly if the other person doesn’t understand.

11. Speak Briefly

There’s an old saying (associated with Mark Twain) that gets compressed to “I would have written a shorter letter, if I had more time.” That seems to make no sense. Longer would give more time to write. However, it’s more accurate to say that we can refine our thoughts and write less if we’re given time. In a conflict, it’s paradoxical that you can get to a resolution sooner by pausing to consider your reply after the other person is done speaking. If you’re willing to allow some pause before speaking, you may find you speak less, the other person understands more, and the conflict is resolved sooner.

The “protocol” for compassionate communication calls for 30 seconds of communication at most – which I find more restrictive than necessary. 30 seconds is approximately 75 words – not much can be conveyed in that. The good news is that it prevents issues from stacking and makes it easier for the parties to align. The bad news is that it takes a lot of cycles.

12. Listen Deeply

Focusing on what the other person is saying and trying to deeply understand is key to resolving the issue. That means not working on your response until they’re done – and the opportunity to create a delay in the conflict. Delays are okay on multiple levels, because the slower the conversation, the less likely it is to be perceived as a threat.

Dispassionate Observation

The master-level trick for managing conflict is to find a way to be a dispassionate observer. Instead of reacting to what the other person is saying with fear and concern, you watch as if you’re an observer who is watching the conversation unfold. This level of detachment is difficult to accomplish but powerful. Because you’re not in the middle of the conflict, you don’t have to worry about whether the other person wishes you harm or not.

This frees your mental capacity to focus on creating solutions that may accomplish what both you and the other party really want.

Perceived Safety

The dispassionate observation works because the observer is safe. As explained in Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited, our need for the perception of safety drives our ability to connect with others. The greater degree of safety we feel, the greater trust we generate and, in return, the greater degree of feelings of safety we get back. It’s a cycle that starts with getting off our heels and into a more relaxed stance (both figuratively and literally), so that we can be open to feeling safe and helping the other party feel safe as well.

Rescripting Memories

One of the things that trips most folks up in a conflict that goes sideways is that you’re not really discussing the situation of the current moment. The responses from the other person (and your own) don’t make sense when measured by the item of dispute. Instead, we’re tripping on emotional landmines left by the process of growing up. (See Step, Step, Click for more on emotional landmines.)

Another master-level trick is to work on your memories, to change them into memories that don’t create emotional triggers. Our memories are much more malleable than we believe. (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for more.) And we have the capacity to change the way we perceive threats. Albert Bandura was famous for helping those with snake phobias overcome them by providing progressively higher perceptions of self-efficacy. (You can learn more about Bandura’s work in Moral Disengagement.)

Maybe you can use the words in Words Can Change Your Brain to rescript the way you approach conflicts.

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