I can remember complaining to my mother when my brother or a schoolmate said something mean, and hearing her tell me, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names can never hurt you.”
Well, it turns out my mom was wrong - and that has consequences both at home and at work.
How the brain processes social pain
In Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, Matthew Lieberman described the neuroanatomy of pain processing. Though we’ve long understood the mechanisms for how we perceive physical pain, what’s remarkable is that those same mechanisms are involved in processing social pain. One study even showed how taking Tylenol, a common painkiller, “made the brain’s pain network less sensitive to the pain of social rejection.”
Why would this be?
“Mammals, and particularly humans, need to feel social separation as painful. It keeps infants and caregivers close together. That may have been the reason evolution gave us social pain, but now we are stuck with it our entire lives, and it colors almost every social experience we have.”
Not only do names hurt, but their effects are worse. I can put a band-aid on a cut and a cast on a broken bone, but what do I do for bullying? Or feeling like I’m not getting the recognition I deserve at work? We experience social pain every day throughout the day, and we have few remedies.
"Tragic expressions of unmet needs"
One way to lessen social pain is to improve how we communicate. To help, my friend (founder of Fearless inventory) introduced me to Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communications. My first reaction was that it was “too touchy-feely.” Then he told me how Rosenberg used the method in political negotiations in the Middle East and Africa, in resolving gang conflicts in the US, and even counseling married couples. That convinced me.
I read the book and watched one of Rosenberg’s workshops, and he described a process that was both empowering and joyful. His simple methods help you clearly state your observations, feelings, needs, and requests without resorting to judgment, shame, criticism, and worse.
“All such analyses of other human beings are tragic expressions of our own values and needs. They are tragic because when we express our values and needs in this form, we increase defensiveness and resistance among the very people whose behaviors are of concern to us.”
The examples he used for “violent” communications were uncomfortably familiar. Even if I'm not often overtly mean, I might use forms of judgment intended to get what I want. I saw how I could improve the ways I made a request, offered feedback, or shared what I was feeling.
“Words contribute to connection or distance,” Rosenberg wrote, and practicing nonviolent communications was a way of “sharing power with others rather than using power over others.”
First, do no harm (“Primum non nocere”)
Earlier this week, I spoke with an educator in Missouri about this topic. We talked about the discouraging state of dialog, not just in politics and our Facebook feeds but in the workplace and everyday life.
She said she found herself in situations where she was uncomfortable with what was being said but didn’t know what to do. If she didn’t say anything, she’d feel like she was condoning the behavior. Yet if she challenged the person, they would likely just get defensive, and these were people she needed to work with. She needed to relate to them and work with them, not alienate them.
We talked about nonviolent communications and agreed that, while it’s hard to practice, a good first step would be “don’t make it worse” by judging or shaming. Simply paying more attention to what you’re saying and why you're saying it - ““how words contribute to connection or distance” - is a good first step to improving how we relate to each other.