The next time you head into a meeting, pay attention to what you’re telling yourself about it. Do you think it will go well? Are you telling yourself it will be a waste of time? Are you curious about what will happen?
Thanks to technologies such as functional MRI, we now have a greater understanding of just how powerful self-talk can be, especially when it comes to resolving conflict and having difficult conversations. Whatever your “story” is about the meeting or conversation, recent brain research suggests there is a solid neurological basis for the self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, what we tell ourselves about a challenging person or situation doesn’t just create a certain attitude—it actually leads us to act out our preconceptions.
We know this because of research on mirror neurons. When we see someone else smile and get happy, we feel happy inside. When we watch someone in pain, we feel that pain. And when we witness great success, we feel successful. These feelings arise not just because we are human and thus can relate to others. Rather, when we watch someone experience something we also have experienced, our brains—mirror neurons in particular—activate as they would if we were also engaging in the experience. Even though we’re not.
What does this have to do with the workplace? The next time you head into a difficult conversation thinking “this probably won’t go well,” your brain is preparing you to act as you do when things don’t go well (for example, by becoming silent).
It may not be news that our expectations, experiences, and preconceptions shape our world. What is news is that how we imagine ourselves acting during a particular interaction may make it more likely we’ll act in exactly that way.
Is changing our interactions with others as simple as changing our stories? It just might be.