The brain has two primary functions. First, it protects us from the threat of death so we can continue to live and procreate. Second, the brain makes sense of all the sensory inputs we receive. But even those functions have a sequence.
First, nerve signals – not hormonal signals – trigger our emotions. All this happens before we are even consciously aware that anything happened or might happen. It’s automatic in our biology and our unconscious mind.
So, when trying to influence, our messages must be structured in a sequence that aligns with this biological and neurological reality. Otherwise, we have no chance of our messages being heard.
That’s important because your brain interprets the threat of change, new ideas, the sale of a company, a verbal attack, and so much more in the same way it interprets a physical threat. Put another way, your message or attempt to influence has the ability to trigger the fight/flight/freeze response in your audience.
Four Steps to Influence
Our brain shuts down to new ideas under stress.
Step 1: Am I Safe?
As mentioned earlier, the first job of the brain is to keep us alive, which is why the amygdala constantly searches for threats.
The hypothalamus is the area of the brain that oversees our autonomic functions such as breathing, digestion, and fear—flight/fight/freeze aspect of humans. There’s no logic, reason, or understanding involved.
When it comes to our audiences, we can encourage the feeling of psychological safety by making people feel comfortable voicing their opinions without fear of being judged.
For a leader, psychological safety also could mean ensuring that a team is part of the decision-making process by listening to the team’s needs and tailoring the message with those needs in mind.
The best way to create safety is to establish structure, order, and predictability. Agendas in meetings, rituals, standard practices, handshakes, and consistency are all examples of things that create a feeling of safety.
Step 2: Do You Care About Me?
After someone feels safe, the next step is to ensure they feel valued. The absence of feeling valued creates more stress, which leads to the cortical inhibition we want to avoid. The limbic system controls our emotions and our memory as well as our values. All of us have met a person and immediately forgotten their name. That likely is because your limbic system wasn’t fully engaged and was still at some level assessing the safety of the situation.
The limbic system is a very small part of the brain, but when engaged in making decisions, it has 35,000 times more neurons firing than the part of our brain that handles logic. That’s why branding firms focus so heavily on eliciting emotions and values. And that’s why political campaigns trigger anger and hate because all those neurons can move people to lose sight of logic and vote a certain way.
The limbic system is an open-loop system—it is affected by outside influences. A smile from someone has an impact on us, and so does the sight of a puppy or the right words at the right time. This is the part of the brain that allows us to connect to our audiences and is essential to influence.
This also is the part of the brain that asks, “Do you care about or value me?” It’s the part of the brain that is primed for relationship and rapport building. It actually buys your product. The challenge is that since this part of the brain makes decisions based on emotion, when the emotion wears off, it needs logic to reinforce the decision. If there is no logic, then we find ourselves in buyer’s remorse.