by Dr Marie Anderson

We all know that positive thinking leaves us feeling great compared to negative thinking.

In fact, science tells us that words are so powerful that they can influence how our genes express and control our physical and emotional stress [1]. Language impacts our behaviour through the meaning we apply to the words we use.

My clients will often hear me saying: “What are you making that mean?” The meaning we apply to language can leave us feeling empowered, independent, and strong, or trapped in an ever ending cycle of stress, anxiety, and depression. If negative thought patterns are left to proliferate, research shows that damage can actually be caused to the brain’s circuits that regulate our emotions [1].

So, how can we manage our own inner dialogue so that we gain affirming, constructive outcomes in our life?

In their book Words Can Change Your Brain (2012), Newberg and Waldman write about 12 specific strategies that can increase the quality of our conversation so that we more easily access positive language, can interrupt derogative thought patterns, and even promote empathy and trust in the brain of the person who is listening. They call this “Compassionate Communication”. Through studies they found that, over time, the brains of the people who enlisted these strategies became aligned and tuned so that any defensiveness between them was reduced or eliminated.

Brain scans showed that when people communicate more consciously, more compassionately, and listen more intently to others, the mutual brains become “neurally resonant” [1]. This means that the affirming mood is reflected to each other through what is called ‘mirror neurons’. That is, neurons that fire in one person’s brain during a gesture will also fire in the listener’s brain; thereby, mirroring the tone intended by the gesture, whether it be positive or negative. Apparently, a lot of these mirror neurons are situated in and around the brain’s language centres, making it even more important why changing the way we communicate can impact the quality of our relationship with ourselves and others.

Reading this book has helped me understand why many positive building workshops I have attended over my adult life, has left me feeling connected, inspired, and feeling alive. Being in a room of people who are learning to communicate more effectively, who are learning to let go of baggage, and learning to be more compassionate with each other, fires our mirror neurons. You can imagine that in a room of hundreds or even thousands of people, all these firing neurons create such a powerful, vibrant, resonant bond that we can’t help but feel high-spirited. This is also the case for people in a sports arena, a concert, a rally, a festival, and so forth. Spending time with humanity in a mutually engaging activity can leave us feeling exuberant!

The problem with changing our language, of course, is that we might be coming up against years of entrenched negativity. Also, stress interferes with neurological change because when our stress fight’n’flight mechanism is activated, the brain’s language areas became less active. Hence why we become more defensive, either passively or aggressively, and unable to find the words to speak. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

The brain needs a lot of energy to function and even more energy to change neural pathways [1]. This is why we are inclined not to change, not only our language, but other health depleting habitual behaviours.

Changing our habits from negative to positive takes a great deal of effort initially during the first 2-4 weeks, moderate effort between the 2nd and 3rd months, and then, if we sustain the changes, it incrementally gets easier. It may also take identifying motivators for change.

5 steps to Compassionate Communication

So, if you want to have a calmer, more positive brain, here is a summary of the first 5 steps to Compassionate Communication [1]. If you only do these five, you are well on the way to a calmer mind. However, if you want optimal calm, the remaining 7 steps are on our FaceBook page!

You could engage in all of the 12 steps sequentially by doing one a day. Or, choose a favourite one or two to do daily, adding any new steps when you have mastered the ones before. If you are only going to do one, do step 5 as it encapsulates elements of the other steps.

Step 1

RELAX Spend 60 seconds reducing tension before communicating with someone or doing a stressful activity. Breathe in slowly to the count of five and exhale slowly to the count of five. Repeat three times. Yawn a few times to intensify the relaxation then stretch your body so it feels good.

Step 2

STAY PRESENT Being present is about being mindful. Take a few minutes to be aware of what you are hearing, smelling, seeing, feeling, and experiencing in your environment right now. Have no judgement, no opinion, and no defensiveness. Simply be aware.

Step 3

CULTIVATE INNER SILENCE Avoid thinking about the thinking. Take a few minutes to sit with silence. A silent environment that’s undistracted by thoughts, noise, or work creates a silent mind. Focusing on your breathing as you cultivate silence benefits the brain.

Step 4

INCREASE POSITIVITY Take a moment to be aware of your mood before engaging with someone or an activity. If your mood is derogative, repeat steps 1 – 3. Then ask yourself “do I feel optimistic right now?”

If you don’t, imagine a positive experience that leaves you smiling to set the tone. If it’s about an interaction with someone, imagine a positive attribute or a kind, optimistic experience about that person. Consciously visualising success about a situation enhances motivation to achieve success.

If you need to, reframe anything negative that keeps coming up; look for positive evidence that counteracts the negative. Being aware of imagining, expressing, or engaging in at least 3-5 positive to one negative gesture increases positivity in ourselves and in relationships [2].

Step 5

REFLECT ON YOUR DEEPEST VALUES Identifying our inner most important personal values can create powerful positive words that reduce stress, burnout, rumination, and reactive defensiveness.

A. Each morning start with step 1.
B. Then, close your eyes, ask yourself “What is my deepest, innermost value?” and listen for about 60 seconds what words or phases come up.
C. Create a log and each day record the words, the feelings, and reactions you have.
D. Repeat this several times to allow more words or phases to come into consciousness.
E. Look at the list and circle the word or phrase that reflects the most how you feel right now.
F. Close your eyes again and repeat the word or phrase silently then aloud.
G. Notice how you feel and compare it to the other words and phrases.
H. Do the exercise for at least 10 days.
I. Thereafter, keep repeating the exercise or, using the same lists, repeat E, F, and G.

• For optimal positive communication, it might be helpful to be aware of your ‘relational’ and ‘communication’ values.

• To identify your relational values, ask yourself “What do I value most about this person?” Then speak to that person through those values.

• To identify your communication values, ask yourself “What do I value most about conversing with people?”. Then speak to people in the community, at work, anywhere through those values.

Learning to use more compassionate words with others and ourselves can promote healing, calmness, and connection. However, it does take some practice. If your inner voice is leaving you defeated and or your outer voice is disengaging people, call the Clinic on 8560 2200 to book a time with me to discuss strategies on how to change the words you use, so your brain is affected positively.

[1] Newberg, A. & Waldman, M.R. (2012). Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict, and Increase Intimacy. Avery: New York. [2] Fredrichson, B. (2012).Positivity. Oneworld Publications: England.