A model for positive connections

December 19, 2018

As the saying goes, it’s not what you said but how you make them feel. Being more conscientious of your delivery can improve communication with patients, staff, and colleagues.

When you interact with others (staff, patients, colleagues, and family), how do you make people feel? Do they feel you have their best interest at heart? 

While your medical knowledge and expertise are necessary ingredients to your success as a physician, how you interact with others is a critical but often overlooked factor. That’s because how we make people feel directly impacts the outcome of those interactions. It’s important to focus on mitigating threat that can cause people to distance themselves physically or emotionally and maximizing reward. 

Many of my past articles have focused on the importance of understanding some basic brain dynamics and translating that into practical behaviors and communication strategies. Now let’s turn that into practice. 

CONNECT© is a brain-based model I developed to help my clients incorporate brain friendly strategies into everyday interactions. The CONNECT model shows how to communicate in a way that creates a reward state through the release of chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins. When people feel threatened, their amygdala-the part of the brain responsible for the fight or flight response-is activated. The more threatened people feel, the less they are able to leverage their pre-frontal cortex, and the more avoidant they become. 

Here are seven ways to improve interactions with others. 

C = Consistency. Predictability is something the brain craves. When the brain encounters something it is has expected, it is very rewarding. Change is inherently threatening to the brain, so be mindful of providing people with adequate information and lead time so they can be better prepared. Be clear on expectations so people know what you want and/or are asking of them.

O = Ownership. Being told what to do triggers a negative response. But if people feel they have a choice and that they are given some autonomy, they can be motivated to act. Find opportunities to let others feel a sense of control. For example, let them decide how to do something or make a decision. Tell people more of the what than the how.

N = Novelty. While change is inherently threatening and boredom shuts down creativity and motivation, a state of curiosity is rewarding. Novelty and challenge create a reward state in the brain that causes people to feel intrinsically motivated, making it more likely that they will want to achieve their goals. Interestingly, our brains like to fill in gaps. We can help create a state of curiosity if we provide partial positive information, such as: “Did you know there are steps you can take to improve your blood pressure?” Asking open-ended questions is another way to encourage others to consider possibilities. 

N = Need to Know. When people understand the meaning, purpose, and/or significance of their actions, they become more rewarding. The brain searches for meaning every time we encounter something new. If you ask patients or staff to do something but they don’t understand the “why,” that can trigger a threat state. Helping them establish challenging and meaningful goals they can see themselves making progress towards is highly motivating. It is a critical factor affecting job satisfaction and positive affect at work.

E = Equity. Not everything is equal, but perceptions of inequity trigger the disgust center of the brain and make it difficult to focus. People want to feel that things are fair-providing explanations about how you arrive at decisions and holding everyone to the same expectations goes a long towards creating perceptions of equity. Additionally, when people feel that their social “status” is less than that of others (we frequently, and often unconsciously, compare ourselves to others), it can trigger a threat response. Be careful to avoid making comparisons between people, such as staff. 

C = Confidence. Feeling a sense of competency and capability enhances self-esteem, which creates a reward state in the brain. Situations that lower our self-esteem and confidence trigger a threat response. Help boost self-confidence by providing adequate training and instruction, by acknowledging what people are doing right (rather than focusing more on what they do wrong), and asking what they need to be successful.

T= Trust. As part of its focus on survival, the brain has evolved to quickly form in-groups (you are part of my tribe and therefore, you are safe) and out-groups (you represent a potential danger). These in and out-groups are formed easily and can lead to problems with collaboration and cooperation. One of the best ways to create a greater sense of in-group (trust) is to help people connect to their common goal (such as providing the best care we can for our patients).

Catherine Hambley, PhD, is a consulting psychologist who offers brain-based strategies to organizations, leaders, teams, and healthcare providers to improve their effectiveness and promote greater success. She can be reached at catherine.hambley@gmail.com.