How Your Presence and Words Connect with Others

In her book 7-1/2 Lessons About the Brain, Neuroscientist and Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett makes the case that our brains were designed for one purpose: to manage the energy in our bodies to help us survive. She calls it the “body budget”: noting that the things we do either add to or deplete our resources.

Your Presence Can Be Energizing

Just being around you affects other people’s brains (and vice versa). When you’re with someone you care about, the systems in your body mirror each other. Your heartbeats, your breathing and your metabolisms are in sync. Your movements also mimic the other person’s.

The ease and enjoyment you feel also lowers the odds that you’ll get sick. Or if you’re already ill, you’re likely to get better faster.

Being Sympatico at Work—or Not

This also applies to work. When you trust the people in your group, you’re expending less energy from your body budget to manage these relationships.

In part, because your brain is always trying to predict what others will do. The better we know and the more we trust people, the easier this is—and the more successful we are at it. That means you have more resources to invest in new ideas and innovation.

When we don’t know people well, our brains are expending more energy trying to figure out how they’ll act. The “withdrawal” from your body budget can make you feel uncomfortable around anyone who doesn’t look or act like you. Then we can project our discomfort on those colleagues—when all they are doing is being themselves (and likely trying to figure us out, too).

Just as bad, because our brains are risk averse, we can try to surround ourselves with people who feel easier to deal with. Who “think like us.” We’ve all seen leadership teams that are more like echo chambers. Not a lot of positive change happens here—all because our brains are trying to manage bodily resources.

The Biology of Our Words

The whole “sticks and stones” thing is a lie. Our words do affect the brains and bodies of those who hear or read them. As Barrett points out, “many brain regions that process language also control the insides of your body, including major organs and systems that support your body budget.”

 Scientists call this the “language network.” Language can move our heart rate up or down. It can change the glucose levels in our bloodstream, which powers the cells in our bodies. It can alter the movement of chemicals that support our immune systems.

Barrett says, “Words, then, are tools for regulating human bodies.”

The stray negative comment can make our body feel taxed in the moment. But chronic negativity puts physical stress on us.

Our brains don’t care where stress comes from: work or home. It all continues to pile up. This eats away at the energy in our body budget, causing illness.

It can actually make healthy foods more toxic in our body. If you encounter a stressful situation within two hours of eating, this literally adds 104 calories to your meal!

Choose Not to Be Toxic

The clarion calls for us as leaders are clear.

First, we have to watch our knee-jerk reactions to people who are different from us: how they look, how they speak and how they act. Yes: this requires more energy—but we can’t blame them for this. We need to look for the opportunity to learn something new and benefit from this.

 Second, when we have difficult conversations, we need to be more mindful of our words. The truth is that when you send someone else’s heartbeat racing with stress, your language network picks up on this, too. That’s one reason why tough talks can end up escalating: each person feeds off the other’s stress.

Our brains are unconsciously affecting others and being affected by them. Pause. Breathe. And choose wisely.