Putting the Human into Communication

May 14, 2019

Over 20 years ago, Ed Tronick’s ‘Still Face’ experiments demonstrated the importance of human connection and recognition. He asked parents to play normally with their young babies, laughing and talking with them, before looking away and then turning back towards them, holding a neutral expression. After a moment of surprise, noticing that the parent’s were no longer responding to them, the babies tried to establish a connection. They waved, pointed, shouted and when these attempts failed they withdrew and turned away in obvious distress.


His suggestion that human connection is required for psychological wellbeing, has been consistently replicated and further developed in recent decades. Researchers (Melzhoff 2005, Knox 2011) have concluded that it is through the visual cues from our  ‘mirror neuron system’ that we can recognise the intentionality of others and use that to build ego strength; the foundation for a confident and healthy personality. It has also been suggested (Nummenmaa 2012, Hasson 2012)  that this may even extend beyond facial recognition into the use of language itself, with shared meaning providing the foundation for trust and relationship for all ages and cultures. As human beings we need to know that we are ‘seen’ and understood, and that we able to predict the behaviour of others, particularly those people with whom we have relationships who shape our world. 


However our approach to leadership has often taken a different route, preferring to focus on a one way ‘pitch’ rather than a mutual dialogue. In this paradigm, leaders create a vision and then sell their idea to faceless ‘followers’, who are expected to be uncritically inspired, presumably through a combination of rational argument and inspirational technique. Our emphasis seems to be more on the ‘Resources’ than on the ‘Human’. 


As a result leadership has all too frequently become a narcissistic monologue and the generic corporate soundbite is simply the adult equivalent of a blank parental face. It reminds us that we are not seen, not understood and that we do not have a human connection with our leaders. It reminds us that we cannot trust them. 


The increasing role of technology as a substitute for face to face communication just serves to increase our sense of dislocation and alienation. We seem to have simply become more efficient at reminding ourselves that we are alone.


The experience of still faced corporation vs expressive humanity was concisely described by David Weinberger nearly 20 years ago, and yet so little seems to have changed:


‘We communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny, and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can’t be faked. Most corporations on the other hand, only know how to talk in the soothing humourless monotone of the mission  statement…same old tone, same old lies.’


We should then perhaps not be surprised that people have become more disengaged from their organisations than ever before. A WEF survey in 2016 suggested that ‘86% of respondents agreed that we have a leadership crisis in the world today’, which feels like a sad indictment of both our leaders and the systems that have developed them. 


However, If we can recognise the fundamental needs of our fellow human beings we


may rediscover a more effective route to engagement; a mutual dialogue, where emotions and ideas and exchanged and trust is built through understanding. 


Imagine a world where we know that our leaders understand the changes that face us, and recognise our hopes and fears for the future; a world where we are involved in their thinking and we can see ourselves reflected in the organisations that we are part of. 


Perhaps it is time to rediscover the human relationship. 


Further References


Hasson, U. et al. (2012) Brain-to-Brain coupling: A mechanism for creating and sharing a social world.  Trends Cogn Sci. 2012 Feb; 16(2): 114–121.


Knox, J. (2011) Self Agency in Psychotherapy: Attachment, Autonomy and Intimacy. London: Norton


Melzhoff, A.N. (2005) Imitation and Other Minds: The ‘Like Me’ Hypothesis. In Hurley, S. and Chater, N. (eds.) Perspectives on Imitation: From Neuroscience to Social Science (Vol. 2, pp. 55-77) Cambridge, MA: MIT Press


Nummenmaa, L. et al. (2012) Emotions promote social interaction by synchronising brain activity across individuals. PNAS Vol.109 pp.9599-9604


Weinberger, D. et al. (2000) The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual. London: Pearson

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