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John Rice

Bowland Solutions

Sales & Marketing Director

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The neuroscience of meaningful conversations


It really is a pleasure to share this guest post, written especially for us by Jan Hills at Head Heart + Brain, and which delves into what neuroscience has to offer in respect of deepening our understanding of, and capability to have, meaningful conversations:

Meaningful conversations

Of course we should all have them. Meaningful conversations I mean. But how do you make sure you do? Frequently, conversations linked to performance are anything but meaningful. Either too stiff and staccato, following some set piece format HR have provided and you being too worried to go ‘off track’ in case it gets out of control or a bit meandering where half of what you wanted to say never gets said.

We think there are a number of elements to ensuring conversations are meaningful. On the surface the formula is simple ensure there is a clear purpose and high trust. Oh great that’s sorted then! But how do you ensure that? The ideas below use our understanding of the brain, yours and the person’s you are trying to have the conversation with. Both brains need to be engaged and in the right stage to make the conversation meaningful.

The other person’s brain

You need to consider how the employee or colleague is going to feel: imagine where they are on the subject and how they will react. Whether that’s getting the results of their 360, reviewing their annual performance or just agreeing goals.

Most people assume this kind of empathy requires them to feel the same feelings as the employee. This is known as emotional empathy,” meaning an instantaneous body-to-body connection with the other person’s feelings. It involves tuning in to another person’s emotions and requires the ability to read facial, vocal and other non-verbal signs of how another person feels, moment by moment.

Research shows this type of empathy depends on our tuning in to our own body’s emotional signals, which automatically mirror the other person’s feelings. Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel calls the brain areas that create this type of empathy the “we” circuitry. This is the mentalising system which helps us think about and understand others’ motivations, goals and feelings.

Not that kind of empathy

In our view is this is not the kind of empathy to activate when you are planning or engaged in a meaningful conversation unless it’s with your lover or someone you hope will become your lover! Its not terribly helpful in business and especially when there are some difficult messages you need to deliver.

This is what sets off the panic alarm. Feeling the feelings of the other person triggers a classic threat response: “Don’t want to go there!” Which puts you into avoidance mode, or calls for a lot of mental energy to override it in your limbic brain.

Redirecting that energy takes resources away from your prefrontal cortex, your rational planning and goal focused part of the brian. Which is why even the best-organised person can end up having a muddled conversation, with evidence being forgotten and a generally chaotic result.

The right kind of empathy

Instead, what’s more helpful is for you is to take on the other person’s perspective. You need to engage your curiosity, rather than your emotions, with the other person’s reality.

This has been called “cognitive empathy,” or perspective-taking, and is what we typically describe as being able to see the world through other people’s eyes, or “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.”

Cognitive empathy is mind-to-mind, rather than body-to-body, and gives us a mental sense of how another person’s thinking works.

This way of thinking about another person’s perspective gives an understanding of their view – it can tell us how best to communicate with that person: what matters most to them, their models of the world, and even what words to use – or avoid – when talking with them. Using similar expressions and words builds rapport and avoids misunderstandings.

And that pays off in many ways, including reducing your uncertainty about how the conversation will go: a major factor that can get in the way in a meaningful conversation and trigger your colleague’s or employee’s threat response because they unconsciously read your uncertainty as incongruent with your words.

And there is another type of empathy which can usefully be deployed.

“Empathic concern” taps into the brain’s circuitry for parental love, and helps people get in touch with their feelings of compassion, and express their care for the other person. Best deployed once any difficult part of the discussion is complete and the next steps have been agreed: this is when you let your employee or colleague know that you’ll support them.


The other person to focus on is, of course, you.

We’ve covered some of the ways in which the right kind of empathetic preparation can help people manage their threat response in our CORE video.

As a starting point you need to understand, and possibly challenge, your own mind-set. If you have a fixed mind-set, you basically believe “someone can either do it, or they can’t,” you are never going to find it worthwhile conducting a difficult performance review or 360 feedback session. “What’s the point – they’ll never change” will be what you are thinking.

You may also need help in challenging the common business belief that a good manager will keep emotion out of this process. But science has shown suppressing your emotions is likely to make things worse rather that better. It increases the response of the amygdala the brain’s emotional centre.

One way of managing emotions rather than suppressing them is to learn reappraisal skills. We find that with a little practice, you can reappraise why the conversation needs to happen and why it needs to go well. The insights from perspective taking preparation can help in this.

Giving a poor performer a warning may seem cruel, but leaving them to lose more confidence as they struggle on in a role that’s not suited to them is even harsher. Giving tough messages about 360 feedback is hard, but letting the newly appointed team leader flounder puts the whole team in jeopardy.

And lastly, learn to tap into the mental and physical state that’s going to work best for you in the conversation, and learn to monitor this state in the moment. Taking a few seconds to think about the state of mind which will serve you best; remembering a time when you were fully in that state and re-experiencing it is all it takes.

You’re not going to be able to introduce an instant yogic understanding if you are not used to being attuned to your body. But very simple exercises like power poses or relaxing the shoulders can be instantly helpful, and you can use these simple techniques in everyday situations and not just the conversations you know are important or which you’ve been dreading the most.

Jan Hills

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John Rice

Sales & Marketing Director

Read more from John Rice

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