Dangerous Conversations: Exploring Communication From A Nervous System

Understanding the autonomic nervous system and the role it plays in our lives, relationships and justice work.

Are you trying to create safe spaces in your workplaces or classrooms?

Is there a sense of disconnect in your relationships? Do you feel safe?

What issues do you ignore to avoid conflict?

There is a science behind safe and connected conversations. Here are four quick tips that show how the nervous system impacts your workplace relationships and justice work.

In my racial justice and healing work, one of the most frequently asked questions I get is around safety. It usually goes something like this…

How do I make my POC clients or students feel safe?
How do I create a safe space for my POC clients or students?

The first step in creating safety for others is to understand your own safety needs and learn how to feel safe in your own body. Not only is talk one of the most dangerous things we can do, because our day-to-day functioning in every aspect of our lives depends on it, talking is the thing we must do. The challenges become exponentially more dangerous when we talk about injustice and equity. I’ve always believed that how we talk about what we talk about really matters. Neuroscience suggests that how we look, how we listen, and how we vocalize our words conveys information about whether we are safe to approach (Porges, 2017). You probably already know that setting up norms can only go so far. Trainings and education are important but are insufficient.

Closer examination of my own experiences forced me to see that in declaring spaces safe—even when we discuss and establish norms and agreements—we are likely to reproduce the very injustices we seek to end. I went on a quest to understand safety from an embodied, justice-centered perspective after a painful encounter in a leadership education program for women. Weeks after the sessions ended, I continued to feel the visceral residue that left several trails of unacknowledged injuries. My work seeks to expand notions of safety by challenging the social hierarchy of how people are valued and who is deserving of safety. It demands a shift from a structural model of an environment of locked doors, metal detectors, fences, surveillance monitoring, and declarations of safety. This quest led me to the critical role of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) in our daily lives. I learned that the ANS is the neuro-platform from which life is experienced. It creates and witnesses our lived experiences from which we author stories that keep us stuck. Outside of our awareness, the ANS helps us navigate our days by sending and receiving cues or signals of safety and danger in service of our wellbeing. How we look, how we listen, and how we vocalize conveys information about whether we are safe to approach (Porges, 2017).

Science tells us that much of our communication between each other occurs without words. Our posture, eye gaze, and tone of voice, sends cues of welcome or warning that receiving bodies sense and interpret as safe or dangerous, that are then translated as emotions that show up in behavior that has its roots in a personal story. As you read these tips, think about your own professional interactions.

Autonomic Nervous System Tip #1: Head Movement.

A straight, unmoving head and neutral expression can be an autonomic cue of danger. Imagine hearing your boss declare their appreciation for you with a neutral facial expression and motionless head. A slight tilt to the head sends a cue of safety and welcome that has the power to shift a conversation.

Autonomic Nervous System Tip #2: Eye contact.

Eyes are where we search and signal for cues of safety and danger. Moving in and out of eye contact is also a regulating action…we connect, disconnect and reengage. Consider our history where making eye contact was dangerous, literally costing some their lives…that history lingers in our nervous systems. For many, respect is often tied to making eye contact, and its absence can be received as a personal slight.

Autonomic Nervous System Tip #3: Voice.

Prosody is the music, the tone, the patterns of rhythm and sound of the voice. What we send out with our tone of voice reveals our intent. What this means is that while words are important, intonation comes before information. A monotone, mechanical voice then, can be a cue of danger. A presentation about the importance of workplace inclusion that is made with a monotone voice may to be received as disingenuous.

Autonomic Nervous System Tip #4: Exclusion, rejection, and isolation are felt viscerally.

The science of safety tells us that our nervous systems anticipate reciprocal interactions when our social systems are engaged. For example, we expect that people will greet us after we extend a hello, will respond to our questions, or will accept our experiences as valid. When this “neural expectancy” is violated by not responding, with a hostile reaction, or our experiences are dismissed, there is a massive shift in the nervous system that is accompanied by hurt feelings and a triggered state of defense that draws from a narrative of being offended. Taking a defensive position can lead to aggressive reactions (Porges, 2017). Experiences of repeated exclusion, microaggressions, and isolation create ruptures in our relationships and have long-term implications for our health and wellbeing.

How is your posture, eye gaze, and tone of voice interpreted by others? How do these interpretations impact your workplace interactions and ability to meet individual and organizational goals? Reach out to see how my neurobased coaching and workshops can help you and your clients or students feel more safe and change the trajectory of your justice work.