How to train your lizard (and other animals)
A view from Sue Unerman

How to train your lizard (and other animals)

Good leaders have good communication skills; that goes without saying. Yet anyone can learn to repeat a well-written speech or spout positive management clich├ęs.

Communication is not just conscious verbal speech. Truly great leaders have the skill to understand, interpret and communicate not just what they hear but what they feel. This technique lies not in management textbook speak but in a sensitivity to limbic resonance.

The idea of the limbic brain was developed by the neuroscientist Paul MacLean. In the 60s, he developed the theory that we all have three interconnected parts to our brain. In simple terms, the earliest part is the primitive reptilian brain (the lizard – which controls breathing and balance). Next is the limbic brain concerned with emotions and, finally, the new higher mammalian brain (for thinking and rational decisions).

The limbic brain, present in older mammals, controls fight-or-flight responses and reacts to both emotionally pleasurable and painful sensations. It doesn't speak your verbal language at all, so you can't reason with it. Every time you have an apparently irrational need to get out of a situation despite the fine words that might be spoken, or every time you feel immediately at ease somewhere or with someone – that's your limbic system reacting. Limbic resonance is immensely powerful.

According to MacLean, the biggest problem in communications is not person to person but in each of us understanding and interpreting the messages we get from our different brains – two of which don't actually use spoken language at all.

"The greatest language barrier," he concluded, "lies between man and his animal brains; the neural machinery does not exist for intercommunication in verbal terms."

We all have different levels of attunement to the limbic resonance of any given situation. To be too sensitive to it is a curse; to have no sensitivity to it can be your downfall. Limbic resonance is highly contagious. If those around us are giving off an air of insecurity, then we will catch it. If the mood is high, then it lifts us up too. Workplace cultures are steeped in limbic resonance. If yours is healthy, then you will love going to work every day. If it is not – well, then not so much.

Great leaders are skilled in picking up the limbic resonance of a situation, a workplace, a meeting or a networking event, reacting to it and shifting the tone. It is a much harder skill to learn than parroting the right management speak and it is not taught at school or university (although great teachers at either places would have great limbic resonance understanding).

You can't shift the limbic resonance of a situation with words. It is non-verbal signals that do it – tone of voice, perhaps, or pace of speech or even how people breathe.

It is a well-known management lesson that listening is as important as speaking. The limbic and lizard brains demand yet more of managers. You need to be sensitive to what is not spoken, careful with what is indicated with all kinds of non-verbal language. That's how truly great leaders succeed.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom