Relational Living (3): Neuroscience

It turns out, according to neuroscience research gathered together in David Rock’s popular book, Your Brain at Work, that our brains are wired for social connection.

No WAY!?

I hear you thinking. Sorry for the sarcasm. But just writing that first sentence made me realize how ‘duh!’ it is that the brain would be wired in such a way that matches how we experience life. Anyway, here’s a tidbit of the neuroscience (social cognitive neuroscience, to be precise) that appears to support “Directness”. And it’s all based on recent (since 1995) discoveries of “mirror neurons”.

Relational Proximity Dimension #1 is “Directness” or “Touch”. My relationship with someone is better and healthier the less mediated it is. It can be mediated by technology or other people: these reduce our ability to communicate fully. It can also be mediated, even when face to face, by dishonesty and fakeness: there’s a real me and a real you, any fronts we put up reduces directness.

It’s a pretty cool discovery actually (despite my ‘duh!’ comment). Mirror neurons, scattered throughout the brain, light up when they observe “intentional action”. That is, they won’t light up if they see random acts, but if they discern intent behind the action, the same neurons fire in their brains as though they themselves were doing it. (Effects of commercials on children, anyone?). The powerful limbic system that triggers a response to threats or rewards obviously kicks in once the intent has been discerned. Here’s the explanation from Christian Keysers, a leading mirror neuron research based in Holland:

“What happens is that when we witness another’s facial expressions, we activate the same in our own motor cortex, but we also transmit this information to the insula, involved in our emotions. When I see your facial expression, I get the movement of your face, which drives the same motor response on my face, so a smile gets a smile. The motor resonance is also sent on to your own emotional centers, so you share the emotion of the person in front of you.” (p160)

Here are a couple of other quotes from the book that seem to support the idea that ‘directness’ is an important factor in building good relationships:

“The more social cures that are stripped out of communication, the greater the likelihood that the intent will be misread. “The more we can see each other, the better we can match emotional states”. (P160)

Collaboration with people you don’t know well is a threat for the brain. Perhaps, after millions of years living in small groups, the automatic response to strangers is “don’t trust them”. (p162)

An abundance of social cues makes people connect more richly, perhaps in challenging ways at times. For example, when there is an abundance of social cues, emotional information can travel swiftly between people in a type of contagion.” (p161)

And now a few application thoughts/questions (some mine, some from the book):

1) Workplace learning. What learning performance is lost with online training? Do virtual worlds provide a close enough approximation to real-life that our brains might learn social behaviors from avatars? Is there an optimum amount of time a team needs to gather face to face to be most effective? (I’ve misplaced a piece of research MIT did on that, something to do with a ‘pulse’ (gathering, moving away to research, coming back again, pulse-like).

2) Management. Think that your attitude or stress-level has no effect on your workers? Their brains can’t help but be affected by you.

3) Communication. Precisely because we don’t want to discern another person’s reaction (and therefore trigger a reaction of our own), we resort to sending emails, or doing nothing, rather than face them.

4) Autism spectrum. It appears that mirror neurons show damage in people with autism. It also appears that therein lies a clue to a better response/treatment.

In the series Relational Living, Simon Fowler explores what Relational Thinking means in our day-to-day lives. The articles appeared earlier on his personal blog and are republished with his permission. The first two in this series were published on 9 and 16 January.

Relational Living (2): World Peace

CAMBRIDGE – By Simon Fowler –

“Social Networks are fundamentally connected to goodness, and what the world needs now is more connections.” – Nicholas Christakis

“I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner-peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we’ll project into the world, and the more peaceful our world will be.” – Jill Bolte Taylor

“When people of all different persuasions come together working side be side for a common goal, differences melt away and we learn amity and we learn to live together and to get to know one another.” – Karen Armstrong

I have a contrarian side to me, and whenever I see hyberbole like this my snarky side switches on. Besides, I’m wikid tired right now so I’m not in my usual upbeat and bright-side mood.

Relational Proximity® Dimension #5 is ‘Overlap’: Our sense of connectedness and relationship is greater to the degree we have things in common or share a common purpose or identity. A good relationship has a direction to it, something that is common between the members that holds it together.

There’s rarely been a TED ( talk I didn’t enjoy and which didn’t fascinate me. It’s a great platform, wonderfully presented, and the technology, the discovery or the personal experience is invariably gripping and exciting. And what they’ve done to spread the ideas and concept is excellent. It has been accused and defended of elitism. Personally, I think it’s a fantastic way to make use of rich people’s money and to spread great ideas. If anything, however, the problem is that the speakers just can’t seem to help overstating their point. With an audience paying six grand a pop, just 20 minutes to pour out your life’s work, the spotlights … I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same.

But I also think they and their audience actually might believe their overstatement. Unfortunately the overstatement takes the talks from being mostly excellent, scientifically grounded and true-to-life to, well, amazingly utopian wishful thinking. (I speak as an idealist myself).

Jill Bolte Taylor’s amazing description of watching her own brain have a stroke (truly, jaw-droppingly amazing) ends with an apparent choice between left brain individualism or right-brain universal life-force. My emotional & violent right brain freaks me out sometimes. And what part of the brain is the ‘we’ that’s doing the choosing anyway? Nicholas Christakis asserts that connections will solve the world’s problems. Connections like the Stazi had? Like the world banking system had?

And Karen Armstrong’s talk seems grounded neither in anthropology nor anything like a robust theology. The ending actually I agree with (“get to know each other” would presumably comes first – I’m sure it wasn’t her best line, she looked exhausted). But the ‘common purpose’? It’s the “Compassion Charter” signed up to by 46,179 compassionate people so far. Sorry if you’re a fan but isn’t the problem uncompassionate people?? And I don’t want differences between me and others to go away, I want them transcended. I’m not saying we couldn’t do with more love, but not even the Ten Commandments prevented human ingenuity for evil. A group of people simply agreeing to be more compassion isn’t, I’m desperately sad to say, going to solve our deepest problems. I totally commit to be being more compassionate. Then another day happens. As Solzenitsyn said, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.”

I love and appreciate the longing for peace and goodness and love in these people and in their statements. The confirmation of relational proximity found in these social science, neuroscience and and humanistic statements I wholeheartedly welcome. But, firstly, mere ‘relational proximity’, socially networked togetherness, isn’t the whole answer; it just points the finger more acutely on the problem.

The five dimensions of Relational Proximity® (Touch, Time, Breadth, Overlap, and Balance) are nothing without love and commitment, and love and commitment can barely consist without them. That’s why Relational Proximity® I think is so powerful, and so much more powerful than nebulous ‘social networks’. If used to examine our lives, I think it reveals the reality of our choices and our relationships. Secondly, the understanding that these connections are FOR something is crucial. What is the common purpose or ‘overlap’? Christakis says in his video that our global human network is a super-organism, it has a life of its own. I think world peace and compassion are good goals, but I actually think they’re penultimate; they’re derivative of something bigger, something, perhaps Someone more creative and dynamic and Personal.

And that is way too much thinking for one night. Find some time to see all three videos mentioned in this blog and let me know what you think?

In the series Relational Living, Simon Fowler explores what Relational Thinking means in our day-to-day lives. The articles appeared earlier on his personal blog and are republished with his permission. The first in this series was published on 9 January.

Relational strength feeds innovation and implementation

LIVERPOOL/CAMBRIDGE – Many organisations struggle with innovation. This article argues that taking a relational perspective can be very strategic in encouraging  and disseminating innovation.

Many organisations want to encourage innovation but not at the expense of maintaining high quality standards and consistency. Paradoxically, policies to reward innovation sit alongside processes which stifle it. Where such tight organisations excel at transmitting standards and ideas rapidly, they often struggle in being flexible enough to explore new ideas. Selection and dissemination of ideas is centralised, innovation relegated to a central function such as Research and Development and additional resource then spent keeping the central function connected to the frontline of the business.

Once innovation is created in a tight organisation, transfer and implementation of the knowledge tends to come through changing policies and processes. Employees at the frontline then have to find a way to make it work in their own context, perhaps recognising flaws or even identifying enhancements in the process. With the tide of innovation flowing outwards, such feedback (in a large organisation) rarely makes it back to the innovation department intact. Subjective interpretation along the way can adjust the insight as it is transmitted, changing both its meaning and its power (think summary evaluation results translated into a board paper minute and passed on). This is especially accentuated in an international context with added ingredients of language, culture and history.

At the other extreme, organisations may naturally innovate, but have such a loose structure that developments aren’t recognised broadly enough or replicated. Individuals and small teams experiment on the frontline, addressing their own problems, ignorant as to whether a solution already exists or what benefit their approach might hold for others. These looser organisations struggle to recognise new ideas or to identify their application elsewhere. Introduction of best practice and successful translation of innovation into other contexts is challenging. In an international context, head office may be unaware of the extent to which regional teams are conforming to standards. Periodic field trips by senior team members give the impression of organisational identity without addressing the underlying disconnection.

Taking a Relational Perspective

Relational Proximity® provides a framework for recognising and managing real world relationships. Within its five domains of Power, Information, Communication, Purpose and Story are many nuanced features, but even at the highest level, the framework has much to say about the role of relationships in encouraging and disseminating innovation.

Relational Proximity® suggests that not only are most relationships more effective if they are close but also that the distance can be managed and adjusted over time. A relationally fluent organisation is able to responsively adjust the proximity of different relationships over time. It can intentionally flex each of the domains within both direct and indirect relationships. Here, we illustrate the point with two of the available domains:

Information – central to the relevant people becoming aware of the relevant issues and being enabled to bring change. Data driven Knowledge Management solutions, however sophisticated, cannot replace the contextual knowledge required to draw together appropriate people, processes and ideas in new and relevant ways. The value of direct engagement together is far greater than documented information. Is your organisation able to recognise and draw together the relevant people sufficiently that they become aware of each other’s challenges, roles, skills and motivations? Is the relationship close enough that the challenges matter to the people who could help innovate or who have already solved the problem?

Power – an important dynamic that can encourage or hinder the flow of ideas and solutions. Influence is different from responsibility. Fluidity in influence does not mean that the standard accountability structures are removed but rather that there is the ability to properly listen and engage with what is happening up and down and across the organisation. By allowing and encouraging a back and forth flow of influence, power is effectively managed and harnessed to allow maximum innovation. Does your organisation skew what can be heard through its reporting lines? Can influence truly flow through those reporting lines? Can the lines of influence cross reporting lines or are there mechanisms militating against cross structural influence? What are the consequences of doing things differently or even wrong? Do people truly succeed if they help others succeed?

Taking it Further

If you have read to this point, then you are probably in a situation where you long to see more innovation in your organisation. Reading more about Relational Proximity® may help a little, but our view is that you need to get closer to people who can help your organisation transform its relational culture. Our experienced team use tools, workshops and coaching to get the relevant people closer and to teach parts of an organisation how to be relationally fluent. Innovation and freer dissemination of great ideas are just two of the potential outcomes. We believe that you will find our approach refreshing.

This article comes from Renuma, one of the members of the Relational Thinking network. For more information: