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The Power of Three • Part V • Instinctual Intelligence in Conversations

In previous posts we explored how the head and heart brains show up in conversations, In this post we’ll look at how our gut/instinctual brian contributes its intelligence when we are conversing with people. A strong case can be made that gesture is our first language. Long before an infant can speak s/he can point to things in an effort to understand them and make both faces and gestures that express a wide range of emotions. These non-verbal cues and messages get subsumed as we gain the ability to vocalize but they never leave us and they remain an integral (if unconscious) part of our communication with others. Non-verbal expressions originate in the deepest recesses of our core identity and are an aspect of somatic intelligence. The body is an astonishingly resonant container with exquisite sensing, intuitive, and sense-making abilities that are centered in the gut or instinctive brain.

Look at the descriptions listed in this matrix:

Most of our non-verbal communication happens outside our awareness. It takes curiosity and effort to focus our attention here. Non-verbally, our active constructive response might include maintaining strong eye contact, leaning forward, smiling and beaming appreciation, putting up our hand for a high-5, or other forms of affirming touch such as a pat on the back or a hug.

Non-verbal communication in the passive constructive response is much less embodied. Our affect would probably remain flat, it’s likely that our bodies would not move very much, we probably will not make eye contact, or if we do, it will be quite brief. Our facial expressions would tend toward neutral, not revealing of much emotion or interest. Tone of voice is likely to be low and somewhat flat.

In an active destructive response, non-verbal cues would be things like a furrowed brow, narrowing of the eyes, frowning or even grimacing. Tone of voice might be harsh, scolding, or condescending. Finger pointing is a definite possibility. By the way, If you’re someone who tends to point your finger at others for any reason, know that it’s a socially destructive habit. Not everyone recognizes it consciously, but we all cringe inside when fingers are pointed at us. Finger pointing is the universal gesture of blame and shame, and when you point your finger at someone you are clearly communicating (in a non-verbal way) that they are to blame for something. Abandoning this habit might change your life in ways you can’t begin to fathom. Try it and see for yourself.

Finally, we come to the non-verbal signals when responding in a passive destructive manner. Here we usually find no eye contact and our body will likely be turned away from the speaker. Tone of voice may be flat, contemptuous, demanding, dismissive, or demeaning. If things between parties are especially strained, the listener may even leave the room.

If you want to have a more embodied (head + heart + gut brains) experience of all three coordinate systems at work, gather four friends or colleagues, map out the quadrants on the floor. Then each of you take a turn sharing some good news while your friends or colleagues rotate through each quadrant and reply to you with the prompts from that quarter. Pay attention to your words, your emotions, your gestures, your facial expressions, and your body language as you do this. Repeat until everyone has gone through each quadrant and experienced being both the speaker and the listener.

Debrief your experience:

• How was it to speak from each of the quadrants?

• How did the emotional and nonverbal dimensions affect your experience of speaking?

• What discoveries or recognitions arose for you as you spoke from each quadrant?

• What was it like to hear each of these approaches now that you are familiar with the map?

• How did the speaking and listening light up in each of your three brains?

• What did you learn from this? To do? To not do? To try out?

• What else comes to mind?

N.B. If you don’t try this experiment with others you will likely have your strongest level of intelligence centered in the head brain and you’ll miss the added intelligences and dimensionality that come online when you actually do the experiment.

The idea with this matrix is to use it as a map, not a whip. Use it as a guide towards improved interactions. For some people active constructive responding does not come naturally and it will feel awkward. Just as with any new practice, at first it feels strange and unfamiliar and perhaps even a little uncomfortable or forced. Stick with it and use the “fake it till you make it” strategy. With time, it will become easier and will feel more natural. And with time, you’ll see an increase in your Critical Positivity Ratio as your relationships deepen and become more rewarding.


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