Communicating in times of uncertainty with Neurocomms

Today, we are living in a time of unprecedented uncertainty.

  • We don’t know when we’ll see the Covid pandemic end
  • We don’t know if our jobs are safe, as we enter into recession
  • We don’t know what the result will be of ongoing Brexit negotiations

Our brain doesn’t like anything we can’t predict or control, which is why we don’t like uncertainty.

This is where ‘neurocomms’ comes in.

 

 

Neurocomms is the application of neuroscience to communications strategies and activity.

By applying the study of the brain – neuroscience – to communications we can be more effective in reducing or managing uncertainty.

And this is important because uncertainty causes anxiety and stress, which in turn is affecting our mental health. Already, many observers are predicting a spike in mental illness whether that’s from uncertainty surrounding Covid, the financial crash or Brexit.

All we need to do is look at recent headlines:

  • The recession is here. Get ready for the mental health pandemic”; Independent, 15th September
  • UK experiences explosion of anxiety”, Guardian, 14th September
  • Coronavirus will cause global ‘tsunami’ of mental health problems worse than that of financial crash”, Telegraph, 26th September

So, it’s timely that countries and organisations will be marking World Mental Health Day.

And it’s why I’ve chosen to write my blog about how applying Neurocomms can help us communicate more effectively.

Neurocomms’ was formed together with Dr Helena Boschi, a psychologist who specialises in neuroscience, and author of our recently published book – Why We Do What We Do.

You may now ask: How is Neurocomms different?

Traditional communication is typically based on logic and rational thought.

Neurocomms recognises that our brain works by a set of rules that are illogical and emotional. The communication is personal, sensitive and authentic. We reassure and we engage.

This is necessary in times of uncertainty when we are feeling a lack of control of our life and a loss of our familiar and ‘safe’ routines.

Below are three top Neurocomms tips to help you manage the impact of psychological uncertainty – whether it’s because of Covid, financial recession or Brexit.

 

#1 Nullify the threat response by listening & co-creation

Today’s threats are very real: Will we lose our jobs? Will we catch Covid? Will trade drop in Europe?

Dr Boschi talks about how a ‘threat doesn’t even need to be a real one; it’s how we view the threat that affects the way our brain responds to it.’

When we feel threatened our ‘fight-flight’ mechanisms kick in. And our capacity for rational thought reduces. This is heightened when we have no personal control of the threat.

The best thing businesses can do, is to listen. When people feel they’re being heard, they’re more likely to listen in return.

Already, many organisations have invested in surveys to listen to their employees about their feelings and experiences staying home which in turn, is helping to inform decisions they take.

After listening, the next best thing to do is to allow people to get involved in decisions with co-creation. Fundamentally, we want to have a say in the things that impact us.

If we’re not offered a ‘say’, our threat response is triggered. With some say in decisions or choices, we become more motivated and positive.

Dr Boschi goes so far as to say that ‘we only need to feel that we have a choice to ignite our motivation’.

In summary: listen to your people and give them opportunities to have a say about choices that impact them.

 

#2 Build trust with vulnerability & flexibility

We know there’s going to be lots of job losses.

Dr Boschi talks about how “we do a great deal to avoid loss”. When we think we are at risk of loss – loss of our job, loss of the skill we’ve spent years mastering, loss of our reputation – we become anxious.

She continues to say: “when we’re anxious it can spread like a contagion across our social groups.” So, our anxious state can influence and exacerbate the states of those around us.

There’s two things we can do.

First, we can all build trust by sharing vulnerability: acknowledging fear, discomfort or not having all the answers. By doing so, we will be seen to be more relatable, honest, transparent and trustworthy.

We’ve already seen a great shift in leadership communications as a result of Covid – from a traditional polished and perfectionist front, to a much more informal and empathetic tone by leaders.

Secondly, leaders must be flexible and constantly adapt – often quickly.

Leaders are facing threats on multiple fronts, all at once: to self, family, employees, customers, suppliers and business partners, governmental and financial systems. And, today’s realities are quite different to what they were in April.

We’ve already seen new ways leaders have kept in touch with employees working remotely, and they have invested far more time and effort in internal communications. As uncertainty continues, leaders will need to maintain their visibility and deliberate communications.

After all, no executive has ever been faulted for over-communication!

 

#3 Be specific to give certainty

Information is essential to give us certainty.

Information stops us worrying so much.

However, that information must be specific.

We’ve seen our UK government get criticised for lack of clarity and ‘contradictory’ advice.

In contrast, Italian and Swedish governments gave clear guidance. So, despite offering very different strategies, they communicated clearly to their citizens and said how they were expected to act.
Specific information is essential to give us certainty. It stops us worrying so much.

When a situation is ambiguous, we feel uncertain and anxious. And, as Dr Helena says, “we’ll do whatever we can do to fill in the missing parts with our own assumptions, opinions and interpretations”.

This is when rumours and myths happen.

In summary: we have a strong need to feel informed, involved and included. Tell things as they are and demonstrate a real understanding of people’s perspectives with empathy.

 

#4 Use language that creates a sense of certainty

“Language creates our reality and forms certainty in our world. We love being in control and some language will help us feel in control,” says Dr Boschi.

  • Language to use:

One of the most important words is ‘Because’….. since our brain just needs a reason – and often any reason will do.

We are more likely to accept an unfavourable or unpopular decision when we are given a reason. We just need to know ‘why’.

‘Together’ is important as we need to feel we belong and less alone.

And we love personalisation….so use ‘you/your’ or people’s names.

  • Words we should avoid or use with caution.

We’re hyper-sensitive to negative language – such as ‘don’t’ or ‘no’ – because they’re a threat to us.

So, with Covid, the language of war to ‘fight’ the virus has increased anxiety rather than reduce it.

We’ve also seen the phrase ‘NEW NORMAL’ be actively used when we thought we were resuming our lives.

Dr Boschi points out that this phrase is in fact contradictory since the two words are conflicting.

“New plays to our novelty bias. Normal plays to our normality bias of what’s familiar to us. We can’t have both ‘new and normal”, says Dr Helena.

In summary: chose words carefully and think about the impact words have.

 

#5 Drive new behaviours with rewards & nudge

We’ve seen many new behaviours form with the pandemic – how we live, how we work, where and how we shop.

And, many organisations will have enforced new behaviours – such as factory workers washing their hands before a shift as part of safety measures to contain the spread of Covid.

However, as many of us know, it is not easy to get everyone to do what we tell them.

That’s because, according to Dr Helena ‘we are all naturally lazy’ and she frequently references Newton’s Law of natural inertia.

Our brain loves routine and habits because it requires little energy or attention.

So, to satisfy basic behaviour change we need to ignite our intrinsic motivation.

This is where NUDGE theory comes in – when our behaviour is nudged in a specific direction. And it led to the EAST Framework – make things Easy, Attractive, Social, Timely.

This is also where rewards and incentives play a part.

There’s two big things we can do:

  1. Behaviour shifts is a social phenomenon

People change in groups – and we’re influenced by seeing what others do.

Before Covid, it used to be awkward to be the only person in a meeting attending via Zoom. But when everybody’s doing it, the stigma vanishes.

Now, we’ve all seen the benefits of critical mass with everyone using virtual meetings. Changing back would require a critical social mass again.

So, if get stuck… position something like ‘9 out of 10’ people are doing x

  1. Create different incentives

Employees are typically rewarded for achievements that go above and beyond, especially when it comes to profitability.

But during such significant change and uncertainty, employees should be recognized and rewarded for maintaining business-as-usual standards, from keeping day-to-day operations running smoothly to retaining customers.

For World Mental Health Day, we’re offering a discount when you buy 4 copies, get the 5th for free.

Simply use the code: WWDICF45 when purchasing below.

Buy Now

 

Suzanne Ellis

Head of Communications for Change and Transformation