The Neuroscience of Respect
Imagine you’re in an important business meeting with your boss and colleagues, and you’re in the middle of making a crucial point. Suddenly your boss interrupts you, dismisses your idea, and takes over the conversation. Odds are you’d be annoyed to say the least; your heart rate may increase; your face might flush, and you may feel the need to move your limbs, to do something physical like smack the table, or your boss!
Don’t worry, this is a very natural reaction to behavior that you consider disrespectful. But even though you may intellectually understand that you’re having a natural reaction, a part of you is very uncomfortable with these negative feelings. So, like most thoughtful and mature people, you don’t act upon them (at least not at that moment). You may even try to suppress or “swallow” your feelings, to rationalize them away and let the incident “roll off your back” as they say. In essence, you trying to “think” your way out of feeling disrespected. Unfortunately, that’s not going to work.
Why? Because the feelings generated by being respected and disrespected have very little to do with rational, cognitive, higher-level thinking, which occurs in your neocortex, the last and most sophisticated part of the human brain to develop in evolution. Instead, these feelings have much more to do with the primitive parts of your brain, known as the Reptilian and Limbic brain centers, where your instincts drive your behaviors and conscious, rational thoughts are simply not part of the equation.
This means that when your boss interrupts you and treats you in a way you consider disrespectful, the instinctual part of your brain, called the Reptilian brain, is triggered. This is the part of the brain that not only controls the most basic autonomic bodily functions – like breathing, heart-rate and body temperature – it also responds to threats, both physical and verbal.
Here’s how neuroscience explains it: when you feel disrespected by someone else, your Reptilian brain perceives that behavior toward you as a threat, even if its behavior that the person doing it thinks is perfectly respectful. Within less than a second, your self-preservation instincts kick in and the fight, flight, freeze response is triggered. Then, that threat warning is quickly passed onto your Limbic system, which is centered within a very important part of your brain called the Amygdala, an organ that some of us have heard about and most of us have trouble pronouncing.
Although neuroscientists tend to roll their eyes when I say this, I call the Amygdala the “drug store” of the brain since this is the place that sends out signals to the rest of the body to release certain hormones: oxytocin and serotonin when you’re feeling respected, and adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine when you’re feeling disrespected.
QUOTE: “Respect is like air. As long as it’s present, nobody thinks about it. But if you take it away, it’s all that people can think about.” Ron McMillan, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High
If you’ve ever felt hormones rush through your body, like when you’re falling in love or somebody threatens to beat you up, then you probably know that there’s not a lot of logical, rational thinking going on. From a neuroscience perspective, you’ve been “hijacked” by your Amygdala. It’s going to take some time to allow those hormones to pass through your system before you can think rationally and clearly.
So, regardless of how smart, thoughtful and mature you think you are, the truth is that when your boss rudely interrupts and dismisses you during a meeting, you’re going to have a very basic instinctual and emotional response to that behavior. It’s very unlikely you’ll be able to think your way past or through that response because it’s hardwired into your primitive brain. The best you can do is take some deep breaths, focus your eyes down and away from others, and concentrate your mind on the purpose and goal of the meeting. This is not the time to confront your boss; you’re too emotional for that. You can do that later, when you’ve calmed down and thought through what you’re going to say.
So, there you have it: a little bit of neuroscience on respect (and disrespect). I’ll be covering this in greater detail during my program called With All Due Respect: current leadership trends and the neuroscience of respect on September 24, 2019 at 8am at the University Club atop Symphony Towers in downtown San Diego. I hope you’ll join us!
To register: www.GetYourShiftTogether.org