The Neuroscience of Negotiating Positive Change in Your Relationships

Linda Graham, MFT looks at how to make relationship changes by more clearly seeing your role in the dynamic and better able to tolerate what you see.  She lights a path towards the goal of relational intelligence while rewiring your brain.

When we experience conflict or disagreement in relationship, often we can see clearly what the other person is doing wrong, but we find it much harder to see clearly how what we are saying or doing may be hurting us, the other person, or the dynamic of the relationship.  The other person may be able to let you know (skillfully) what he sees you doing that is problematic: lacking clarity about your own needs or limits, withdrawing into a shell instead of staying engaged in dialogue, or acting in a belligerent way (strategies that may seem completely natural and justified to you.)

The chances are that your part in any impasse stems from habits of reacting learned from previous relationships. You might tend to keep your own needs or desires close to the chest to avoid provoking an angry response; as a result, the other person has no clue where you stand or what you need.  You might have a habit of avoiding a difficult conversation in order to preserve a relationship, even if the remaining connection feels increasingly tenuous.  Or your automatic response to the discomfort of a dilemma might be telling the other person off in no uncertain terms, without giving him a chance to present his side of the dilemma.  If you acknowledge the accuracy of these observations, and identify the old pattern that isn’t working in the current situation, you can use the process of reconditioning to undo old behaviors or patterns of relating by completely rewiring the neural circuitry that underlies them.

In negotiating positive change in any relationship, mindfulness – seeing clearly what we are saying or doing, and tolerating what we are seeing – is an essential tool.  Self-empathy and self-compassion – for why we are saying or doing what we are saying or doing – are also essential.  Taking responsibility for our part in creating any snafu or impasse in a relationship deepens our relational intelligence and lays the groundwork for asking for change in another person’s behavior as well.

Exercise: Negotiating Change

  • Identify a problem in the dynamic between you and another person.  Perhaps communication between you and a co-worker has unraveled to the point where deadlines are being missed.  The sting from a careless comment by a friend has strained the connection between the two of your for more than a week.  It’s been two months since you’ve moved out; your former landlord still hasn’t returned the security deposit and your attempts to recover the deposit have only led to stalemate.
  • Summoning up your willingness to be ruthlessly honest and clear with yourself, let yourself see clearly what you might have said or done that might be contributing to the current impasse.
  • Make a conscious choice to act in a different way to re-wire the old circuitry.  For example, you might experiment with stating your needs with your co-worker.  This not only re-opens communication but will also cause your neural patterns to fire in a new, even contradictory direction, which gives your brain the opportunity to re-wire the old circuitry.  You might ask your friend to participate in some deep listening not only re-engage in a dialogue with a friend who is important to you but also to give your brain the opportunity to use the new experience (engaging) to trump the old pattern (withdrawing) and re-wire or even completely dissolve the old circuitry.   Or you might take a friend with you the next time you talk with your former landlord to calm your nervous system, giving your brain the opportunity to re-wire a pattern of belligerence into a more effective communication pattern.
  • Notice any changes in the dynamics of your relationships as you take responsibility for your part in them and deliberately choose to re-condition the neural circuitry underlying habitual patterns of reactivity.  Notice any changes in your own sense of relational competency and relational intelligence.  All of these changes in your sense of self are a form of re-conditioning.

The Neuroscience of Negotiating Change

Re-conditioning works best when we can “light up” every channel of the neural network – sensing the body sensations of withdrawal and engaging, feeling the emotions of fear or anger and then the emotions of trust or calm, noticing the thoughts that accompany avoidance as opposed to deep listening, or becoming defiant as opposed to asking for help.

In this exercise, when you choose to think, feel, or act in a way opposite to the way you have been habitually thinking, feeling, or acting, you are shaking up the firing of neurons in your neural circuitry and nudging that circuitry into new patterns and pathways.  Many times, when the new behavior “trumps” the old, it triggers major re-wiring, too.  Suddenly the new feels so  normal that we wonder why we ever thought otherwise

This skill takes practice, but it pays off in being able to negotiate more skillfully when the boss asks us to work overtime two weekends in a row or when talking with an elderly parent about giving up driving. Resilience opens up options.