Build Bridges, Not Walls: How Neurobiology Can Help You Bring Out the Best in Your People, and Yourself

THROUGHOUT MY YEARS working within and alongside the non-profit sector, I’ve observed a commonality among all the various organizations, be they professional associations, industry bodies, or charities; they all embody a community of individuals united by a common purpose. The bedrock of these organizations and, by extension, our societies, are the relationships formed within. In a world now faced with challenges like the rapid evolution of AI, escalating climate crises, economic insecurity, persistent pandemic fears, shifting political and social landscapes, burgeoning cybersecurity threats, and the pervasive ache of social isolation, building good relationships has never been more important. We need each other more than ever.

Cultivating Safe Relationships: A Path to Resilience

To foster safe communities, we must cultivate safe relationships. The myriad issues we face can either be threats or opportunities for growth and innovation, depending on how we can cultivate safety within ourselves and our communities. This safety allows us to meet these challenges with creativity, innovation, and energy instead of fear. So, how can leaders use new understandings from neurobiology to bring out the best in our people in the face of all these challenges?

Understanding Threat Perception: Neuroception at Play

Understanding threat perception at an individual and group level is crucial. Our brains harbor a subconscious mechanism known as neuroception, where we are continuously scanning our environment for cues of safety or danger. This process, operating without our conscious awareness, evaluates cues like facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, and the general atmosphere, then triggers physiological responses accordingly.

Take the scenario where you are entering a room full of strangers for a new member networking event. As you step in, your neuroception is at work, subconsciously evaluating the expressions and behaviors of the people around. A welcoming atmosphere with smiling faces may signal safety, making you feel relaxed and open to engaging with others.

On the other hand, stern expressions and a tense atmosphere might signal danger, potentially causing feelings of unease or a desire to flee the situation. This subconscious process of neuroception plays a crucial role in how we navigate our social interactions and respond to our environment, demonstrating the consistent yet complex workings of the human brain in perceiving and reacting to our surroundings.

So how can understanding this part of human neurobiology help us navigate relationships?

Relational Safety: The Bedrock of Positive Interactions

Relational safety is about nurturing an environment where individuals feel valued, respected, and free to express themselves without fear of retribution or ridicule. This environment encourages open communication, empathy, and constructive feedback, pivotal for fostering positive relationships, promoting collaboration, and enhancing overall well-being within groups. A positive relational safety environment can influence our neuroception of safety, fostering improved communication, collaboration, and productivity.

Conversely, a lack of relational safety can trigger a neuroception of danger, leading to stress, anxiety, and defensive behaviors, hindering group harmony and effectiveness. For example, when a new industry regulation emerged that impacted an association (let’s call them Association X), a series of discussions were held to gather members’ insights.

The environment was structured to ensure everyone felt comfortable sharing their thoughts without fear of retribution or shaming. In one discussion, members voiced concerns about the regulation, and instead of dismissal, their concerns were acknowledged, and further input was encouraged. This open communication, rooted in relational safety, led to a rich dialogue where members proposed innovative solutions. On the contrary, Association Y handled a similar situation differently. Members’ concerns were met with dismissive remarks, creating a lack of relational safety, triggering stress and defensive behaviors among members, which stifled open communication and hindered effective navigation through the new regulation. This contrast highlights how relational safety can significantly impact communication, collaboration, and overall group effectiveness.

Leadership Amidst Challenges: Anchoring Staff and Members

In the face of challenges, how can leaders anchor their staff and members? The key lies in fostering relational safety across all stakeholder and staff relationships. The emotional landscape within organizations significantly influences decision-making processes. By acknowledging and validating emotions on an ongoing basis, leaders can support individuals in maintaining their internal safety zones, making organizations safer, more stable and more resilient.

A Case in Point: Navigating Organizational Change

An executive coaching client was leading their team through a major organizational change. Through the lens of neuroception, we were able to identify together how the change process was being perceived as a hreat, triggering stress responses in staff, which in turn impacted their support for members. I supported my client in intentionally fostering relational safety with staff by slowing down, practicing active listening, showing empathy and compassion, validating concerns, and enhancing clarity. The client was then able to engage staff more fully in viewing change as an opportunity, thereby facilitating the change and strengthening team trust.

The Interplay: Relational Safety and Neuroception

The interplay between relational safety and neuroception provides a deeper insight into the human-centric approach necessary for cultivating a positive, productive, and psychologically safe environment within organizations and groups. Investing in relational safety creates a foundation for enhanced interpersonal relationships, improved wellbeing, and overall organizational success, enhancing the reputation of associations and attracting members. Paying attention to relational safety creates a solid foundation for associations striving for success, resilience, and sustainability in today’s evolving landscape.

Five tips to support relational safety:

  1. Encourage Open Communication: Foster platforms for respectful, open discussions.
  2. Practice Active Listening: Show genuine interest in other’s input.
  3. Educate on Neuroception: Raise awareness about neuroception’s impact on interactions.
  4. Promote Mindfulness: Encourage mindfulness to help individuals recognize and manage their neuroceptive responses.
  5. Provide Regular Feedback: Offer constructive feedback to support growth.

Liana Busoli, with a rich background in counselling, founded Big Life to aid individuals and organizations in enhancing mental health and wellbeing. Through neuroscience-backed methods, her engaging workshops and coaching sessions provide practical tools for immediate application. Partnering with various entities, she customizes training to empower a richer living and working experience. Reach Liana at www.biglife.net.au and .

Article originally published in Associations Evolve: 2024 & Beyond Journal.

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