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Three Brain Secrets to Effective Communication

How many times has it happened – you walked away from a meeting (or a training class, or a sales pitch, or a coaching session, or just about ANY human communication) and you thought the message was clearly stated and understood, and agreement reached, but….


The capacity for misunderstanding and miscommunication is fascinatingly endless, isn’t it? What’s with the ambiguity?? I thought we were on the same page…!!

Let me share with you 3 brain-based reasons why human information-sharing is so fraught with ambiguity and error – and (the good news!) how you can overcome this phenomenon.


Did you know that the brain has a marvelous filtering system called the RAS (Reticular Activating System)? Without you and I even being aware of it, the RAS is sorting through a continuous stream of millions of stimuli in order to find what is immediately relevant and interesting. And it does this in seconds. What this means is that if your message doesn’t have a clear WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) that gains quick attention, the human brain tunes you out. You’re considered irrelevant. Ouch.

You may have a very important message, but unless it’s front-ended with some kind of clear, sharp point to get through the RAS, your “communication” becomes classified as “noise” and is shunted aside for something more interesting. Job #1 in any communication: earn the attention of your audience. Make the RAS work for you, not against you.

Solution: At the beginning of ANY form of communication (sales, marketing, strategy, business meeting, class – even email) make sure that the first 2 sentences are attention-getters that immediately demonstrate relevance.

The Curse of Knowledge

How could knowledge be a curse? Well, what this phrase actually refers to is this very common problem: we assume a whole bunch of background context and information that pre-exists in our own mind, and when we try to talk to others, we tend to assume that they also possess this knowledge. That’s why people leave out crucial details, use incomprehensible acronyms, or state conclusions that others can’t “see.” We assume a level of specialized tribal knowledge that those to whom we’re speaking don’t possess. It’s not malicious – it’s generally unconscious. We aren’t even aware we’re doing it.

When the human brain is confused, it shuts down. So when we speak in a way that leaves our hearers confused, our hearers leave us (mentally and emotionally). You can’t persuade a confused mind.

Solution: Assume that you need to translate what you have to say in the simplest, most distilled format possible. The human brain shuns additional, confusing work. So: avoid complexity; embrace the beauty of simplicity. Because that’s what the human brain loves.


I also call this the mental metadata problem, but applying the rule immediately preceding, most people don’t know what “metadata” means. However, in recent years, with social platforms, we’ve learned about hashtagging. Hashtags are brief descriptors that provide information. And your brain, and mine, uses mental “hashtags” (metadata) to store information.

Every time you see or hear a phrase, a cluster of individual feelings, experiences, and definitions surround that term. The problem? We all have different hashtags. Which means that we cannot assume that people have shared meaning even if we use the same words. This is one of the most common brain-based causes of miscommunication. We all nodded our heads at the same words in the meeting, but we all walked away with different pictures in our minds. This is a huge leadership issue in team alignment – also in hands-on training, field management, and project management.

(And in romance, and selling, and hiring, and…well, you name it!)

Solution: Develop this reflex in your discussions with people: “…and what I mean by that is ___________” Never assume shared meaning (actually, assume that one or more people will NOT understand the way you intend). Definition brings clarity. As Confucius said long ago:

It doesn’t sound sexy, but a key element to effective leadership is defining terms. Seriously. That’s how you defeat ambiguity.

I do workshops for my business clients on successful communications through removing ambiguity, based on my book, Clarity Wins. I’ve worked with people in Training, Leadership, Sales, Marketing, Communications, Operations – every aspect of business that depends on human interaction (which means – well, EVERY aspect of business!) Topics include: Gaining Alignment. Leading with Clarity. Vendor & Project Management. Departmental Branding & Culture. Effective Marketing. And more.

Contact me to set up a free 20-minute call – let’s discuss how you and your team can thrive with clear and effective brain-based communication!

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