Try These Neuroscience Hacks for Less Stress at the Office

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It seems like there’s one in every department: the coworker who loves to pounce on new ideas and poke holes in them. Or maybe your nemesis is more of a wet blanket who comes up with 101 reasons why a new plan will never fly, so why bother to try? And when you try to share your reasoning, it seems like they’re not even hearing you. So you give up and stop sharing creative ideas.

Conflict with coworkers is one of the leading causes of stress at work, costing businesses as much as $359 billion per year, according to Workfront. The enterprise project management firm created a comic book infographic that details how bickering and power struggles derail productivity, kill morale and send some people looking for a new job. And in extreme cases, office conflicts can escalate to violence.

Since most office conflict stems from confusion over roles or priorities, learning how to communicate better could make the workplace a much more productive and pleasant place to be.

Amy Posey

Amy Posey

Neuroscience, the study of the way our brains and nervous systems function, is offering insights into how you can get coworkers or your boss to play nice and start listening.

“There are these little behavioral tweaks you can do…to open up the super highways to people’s thoughtful brains,” says Amy Posey, a neurofacilitator and head of product development at Peak Teams, a leadership consulting firm in San Francisco. She’s a pioneer in applying the insights of neuroscience to interactions at work and leadership.

When we bring understanding of neuroscience into our interactions at work and home, Posey says it can help us be more effective in the way we communicate and inspire people to do what we want them to do. It’s a useful skill for people managers, but everyone can benefit.

“Everyone is a leader, whether it’s by formal title at work or the activities you do outside of work,” says Posey. “A big part of leadership development is communication.”

Neuroscientists spend a lot of time studying the amygdala, an almond-shaped area deep in the brain. It’s the seat of emotion, where your brain processes basic emotions like fear and sensations of pleasure. Sounds, sights, aromas and words can cause the brain to light up in different ways, producing positive or negative emotions and physical responses.

“The brain is the new focus and focal point for scientists,” says Posey. “We’re going to be hearing a lot more about it in the next five to 10 years.”

relaxed_people_OMThat coworker who slams new ideas? They probably don’t hate you, but they feel uncomfortable with new ideas and hearing them puts their rational brain on alert. So their amygdala launches a threatened, fight-or-flight response. The brain releases adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol and they try to shoot down new ideas — and maybe the messenger.

And the way it seems like it’s impossible to reason with them or get them to listen to a rational explanation of how your plan could work? Posey says their brain literally cannot think or process what you’re saying with all those neurochemicals racing around.

“The amygdala takes resources like glucose and oxygen away from their rational brain, so they’re not acting rationally,” says Posey. “They’re acting to preserve their safety.”

Before they can hear you, they need to relax and feel safe. The smarter approach is helping people feel secure before you introduce a new idea, says Posey, who holds an executive master’s degree in neuroscience from the NeuroLeadership Institute.

She shares four simple neuroscience-based techniques to help you get people at work — and at home — to open up and listen so they can cooperate and collaborate with you.

1. Chat them up.

It seems trivial, but chatting with coworkers about the weekend, the weather or sharing a joke helps people bond and feel connected emotionally. When people feel safe, their brain produces oxytocin, the same feel-good chemical that connects lovers while kissing or babies and mothers. It also makes it easier to find consensus in a meeting.

2. Help them feel safe.

An easy way to do this is to get people to share accomplishments they’re proud of this week or month before you introduce a new idea. Helping them feel good is positive priming that Posey says puts them in the frame of mind to listen.

3. Frame what you want people to do in a positive way.

“Say ‘let’s be on time’ rather than ‘let’s not be late,'” says Posey. When your statement starts with a negative, it starts those fight-or-flight chemicals firing off in the brain and it makes it hard for the other person to hear anything else you’re saying.

4. Focus on goal achievement and check in.

Instead of ranting about the dirty dishes or a work deadline that was missed, Posey says it’s more effective to say “let’s make sure we have the kitchen clean by noon” or “let’s file that report by the end of the day.” That way both parties have a shared goal and a deadline. Research shows that posing requests in a positive way gets people to comply 50 percent faster.

Once you try some of these neuroscience brain hacks, you may find that you and that coworker have a lot more in common than you thought, and your meetings are much less stressful.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

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