Communicating for influence and impact
Creating more harmonious collaboration by communicating with the brain in mind.
By Phil Slade
“Treat others as you would have them treat you” was an OK mantra for your parents to use when trying to get us to play nicer in the playground, but too many of us use this mantra when trying to effectively communicate to each other. When we communicate a message, particularly if it is not a message the receiver wants to hear, we often fail to recognise the headspace of the receiver, deferring to our own desire to just ‘get it over with as quickly as possible’. This leads to all sorts of emotional turmoil in individuals and throughout organisations, and rarely achieves the impact or influence required to archive the desired outcome. “Treat others as THEY would like to be treated” is a much better mantra when trying to communicate for influence and impact—which can be tricky when communicating to a group of people. Fortunately, irrespective of our individual differences we are all still human, and therefore there is a neurological process that we all go through when processing information and communicating. This process is all about your APSI (your conscious self) and your Ape (your unconscious reactivity).
In the 60’s and 70’s, two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, noticed that the way we behave is often completely irrational. This was in direct contradiction to the popular view that we were rational actors always behaving in ways that served our own self-interest.
Their basic insight was that our brains don’t have one system or way of processing information, we have two. The first system (creatively called system one) is called the first because it’s the first part of our brain to develop in the womb. It’s tied to our fight or flight instinct. It’s connected to the inner and lower parts of the brain that are heavily influenced by emotion and memory. Evolutionarily speaking it’s the part of our brain that has helped us survive and thrive through millennia. It’s our survival instinct. It’s reactive. It’s our Ape.
Psychological science shows that our ability to control our reactive Ape is the most significant predictor of success in life. Helping ourselves and others understand and manage emotions is not only critical for mental health and well-being, it’s also predictive of financial and business success as well. This makes sense, because when reactive Apes are in control people are able to more harmoniously collaborate and better draw on the collective genius to solve complex problems.
Our Ape build’s up knowledge and information over time based on our experiences and the experiences of others around us. They help us navigate complexity and overwhelming situations by creating rules of thumb and protect us from situations that could harm us. Survival is key, therefore whenever Ape’s feel threatened they tend to rage to protect you from threat (such as the threat of change). Ape’s also rarely act by themselves, because being isolated from the group lowers the chance of individual survival. Understanding group dynamics and the influence the mob has on Ape behaviour is key to communicating effectively to large groups. If you’re not careful, you can have a raging stampede on your hands wreaking havoc at every turn.
The second system, is called system two because it doesn’t fully develop until we’re in our late teens or early twenties. The epicenter of this system is in our prefrontal cortex, just behind our forehead. This part of the brain houses the mental functioning to plan ahead, to think complex thoughts, to logically navigate the world around us, and most importantly, help us control our Ape.
The problem is, this part of our brain has limited capacity, and often gets overwhelmed. Because of this, our reactive Ape has a massive influence on our behaviour and decision making. The key to influential communication is to keep meaningfully engaged with peoples more rational system without overwhelming it or triggering their reactive Ape. This second system is our conscious selves, and it operates with a predictable logic—a logic articulated by the APSI process. It’s when we stray from APSI that Ape’s assume threat, start reacting instinctively, and create all sorts of emotional barriers to understanding and acceptance.
APSI derives from the observation that people process new or novel information in a predictable way that creates clarity and doesn’t consume our brains with irrelevant data. To communicate with influence and impact you either need to navigate this APSI process in order to not trigger Apes, or intentionally incentivise Apes to act in certain ways, or even better, do both at the same time. The challenge is that strong incentives aren’t always at our disposal, particularly in navigating change, difficult conversations, or when needing to collaborate with others. Learning to communicate with APSI and guide Apes is critical to communicating with influence and impact.
Below is a simple guide to help sharpen your communications.
Before you do anything, you need to ensure you aren’t communicating with your own Ape being triggered. Apes should never, never send emails. When you go Apes#!t you are not listening, understanding, or able to communicate in a completely rational way. If you need to, use a mental switch to calm your own Ape down. There are many switches that can be found in the book Going Ape S#!t, or in the Decida Switch app, and it’s worth checking them out. Once you’ve tamed your own Ape, you need to make the case of why you should e listened to. You need to activate the receiver.
Step 1: A—ACTIVATE. In written communication this is activating people’s interest and articulating why it is relevant for them. Articulate the reason you need to communicate, what the point of the communication is, and what the problem to be solved is. In a conversation this is also about actively listening. Ask them what they think the problem might be and learn to do things like repeat the last three words of a sentence as a question so they can elaborate more, or summarise your understanding of the problem back to them to signal that they have been heard and understood. If Apes don’t feel like they have been heard they will not settle down or allow you to constructively move on. If you don’t effectively activate the listener, they will disregard the rest of the communication as irrelevant or suspicious.
Step 2: P—PARTNER. Connect. Resist the temptation to go into detail and empathise with how the new information will make them feel. This is not about how it makes you feel—be on their side by showing you understand them. Try to articulate it. Accurately labeling the emotions Apes will be feeling settles them down because they feel acknowledged. This will reposition the conversation from talking ‘at’ each other, to talking ‘with’ each other, where you can together focusing on the shared problem to solve.
Step 3: S—STRATEGISE. Co-create strategies to solve the problem in a way that addresses the emotions articulated in the previous step. Don’t go into the detail yet, that will trigger Apes, simply discuss a way forward that makes sense both rationally and emotionally.
Step 4: I—IMPLEMENT. Get into the detail of immediate next steps and what they specifically need to do. What to do, by who, by when. It’s sometimes useful to break down certain tasks into small steps so people get a sense of progress and you continue to build trust as these things are achieved when they said they will be achieved by.
By organising discussions, meeting agendas, emails, marketing collateral, or even your own thoughts in this way, you will efficiently be able to navigate complexity, and ensure that you don’t have to spend countless hours settling people down or addressing the damage that people in emotional turmoil often do. By communicating with the brain in mind you will be able to better influence and create meaningful impact.