Imagine the scene:
You’re at a party, or a ball game, or the break room.
You’re chit-chatting with someone – a stranger or someone you’ve met before, or even a person you know pretty well.
And they tell you about an experience they’ve had, a place they visited, something they love, or someone they know…
And you get that warm flash that makes you excitedly exclaim, “Me too!”.
Well, if we could take a blood test or hook up your brain to an fMRI (brain scan) machine and see what happens in that very “me too!” moment, you’d probably see that your brain would light up and release a neurochemical called Oxytocin immediately upon hearing that statement that caused you to verbalize that reaction.
And it would feel good.
I’m pretty sure you can relate to this sensation. We all experience it.
This happens naturally, frequently, and it’s a good thing – it helps us build bonds with others and have more positive interactions that lead to more trusting relationships.
But furthermore, when we recognize how and why this happens, we can actually also have more input into when and how often it does.
And that means that we can authentically create better interactions, better bonds, more trust, and better outcomes by harnessing the power of the oxytocin-charged “me too!” moment.
Wait, a neuroscience lesson from a non-scientist?
Yeah, let’s get one thing clear, right out the gate: I am not a neuroscientist. Or any kind of scientist.
I don’t even play one on TV.
I wasn’t even particularly good at science in school.
[So if you are a scientist, especially if you’re a cognitive or neuroscientist, this might be annoying for you to read, and I apologize. You can keep scrolling to another blog post, or you could chime in helpfully in the comments with your insider insights – as you wish!! But assuming that you, like the rest of us, are not a neuroscientist but rather a leader of self and others trying to improve your results, keep on reading.]
But I do geek out on reading and hearing about the results of this relatively-new and fast-growing field of inquiry and what they tell us about human interactions. And then I translate it into language that is more easily digested by and is usable for lay-people, like you and me, during my speaking presentations, training workshops and seminars, and consulting, as well as my writing on this blog and elsewhere.
And from what I’ve read and heard, here’s what’s pretty certain:
As evolved as we like to think we are, our brains have a primitive system that operates FIRST before our smart rational frontal neo-cortex kicks in. This system is oriented toward one singular goal: keeping us alive.
This means that before we can rationally interpret ANY stimulus that comes across our awareness (via our senses), our brain first passes it through the filter of “is it life-threatening or life-enhancing?”. It processes this subconscious “thought process” in milliseconds.
But wait, there’s more!
Ours is a social species. In order to succeed and thrive we are programmed by nature to seek a supportive in-group of others we can cooperate with and rely on, and we seek to mate successfully with ideal mates so we can avoid extinction.
This is hard-wired into our DNA.
We also seek to avoid danger, uncertainty, and undue risk, so we are constantly scanning our environment for any potential threats.
But what’s tricky is that because we’re a social species, we now can show (and by we I mean they, the neuroscientists…) that our brains process social threat in the same place and intensity as physical danger.
This includes threats to our social standing in the group.
Stranger danger? Or, why social interactions matter
So when we meet a new human, our brain first wants to know: is this person friend or foe?
And our brain knows that we don’t have much time for this assessment, because if it’s a foe we need to be physically prepared to quickly move into ‘fight or flight’ mode to stay safe.
To help us react quickly based on its “friend or foe” conclusion, our brain releases powerful neurochemicals that create a ‘toward’ response (“This is a good person – befriend them!”) or an ‘away’ response (“Run away!” or “Fight hard!”). A squirt of oxytocin or dopamine, for example, creates a ‘feel good’ experience that draws us toward something or someone that our brain thinks is good for us. A surge of cortisol or adrenaline usually help us feel repelled and/or agitated to react against something or someone that’s bad.
We can and should seed interactions for the good neurochemical reactions
Which brings me to our interactions with strangers, or even with people we work with already and know superficially.
I’ve previously discussed how we should ensure we’re minimizing the “fight or flight” threat response in others when we don’t want them to have those negative ‘away’ responses to us when we communicate with them.
So that “me too!” reaction you have – your brain is basically telling you “this is a friend!” and it creates an incentive for you to keep on interacting positively with this person.
And if we want to ensure that we continue interacting in a pro-social way that enhances our sense of connectedness and kinship we should ensure that we’re seeding as much of that ‘toward’ response in our counterpart’s brain.
Amazingly, once one of us has that “me too!” moment, it actually triggers an oxytocin release in the other person! There is a chain reaction that creates a reciprocal toward response in the other brain to one brain’s toward reaction.
Kind of like a little oxytocin-release party. Talk about feeling good about having conversations!
[Learn more about oxytocin from Prof. Paul Zak on his TED talk and watch for my podcast interview with him in the coming weeks!]
How can we generate more “me too!” moments? It’s actually pretty simple…
Try to learn more about other people. Show genuine interest and ask them curious questions about themselves, their interests, what excites or energizes them, what they’re proud of, or what they learned recently.
You are not only more likely to generate a ‘toward’ response just by being interested, but by talking about a variety of interests and topics, you have better chances of generating a connection – a “me too!” moment, when one of you discovers something you have in common.
Finally, become a fascination detective – look for ways to become more fascinated and interested in the other person, and seek points of commonality or fascination by listening acutely with this lens.
Beware: for this to work, you have to listen well. We have a tendency to listen in a distracted way (I’ve talked about it on this vlog and it’s one of the 4 listening sins I’ve described here) instead of in a very focused and deliberate way. So listen with intention and attention.
Now, when you apply this fascination or similarity ‘detective’ approach to conversations, you will naturally affect the quality of your conversations for the better. And your conversations will be more interesting, satisfying, and trust-enhancing.
Try it and report back here – what worked, how did it work, and what did you learn – I’d love to hear it!
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