Making a Change Just Got Easier

“It’s really difficult to just be quiet and listen.” Several people have contacted me about my recent post about extrovert communication mistakes, and the majority response to the post has been that it’s great advice, but it’s hard to make a change in behavior.

brain plasticity

In that post I discuss the common mistake of asking a question of someone you’re in a conversation with to get their input, but then not waiting for their answer before barreling ahead (however well meaningly) with answers of your own or even more questions. My advice in the post is to ask the question then just stay quiet and listen until the other person is finished speaking.

Behavior Change Involves Brain Change

Making such a change sounds simple, but people have been trying it and finding that it’s not coming as naturally or as easily as they wish. And I understand this feeling from personal experience, as well. Behavior changes can be difficult, awkward, and exhausting. But because there are points in our professional lives for all of us when a behavior change becomes necessary or beneficial, we find a way to do it.

This applies to a lot of situations, not just the example above. Let’s say your role within your organization has just expanded, and you’ve gotten feedback from your boss that to be a more effective leader, you need to shift the way you’re interacting with those above you as well as below you. Or, perhaps you’re working with a group of people externally and the communication style you’re using doesn’t seem to be getting the results you need from them.

All of these call for a behavior change on your part. The good news is that behavior change can be easier — a lot easier — when we understand the brain chemistry and neuroscience behind the process. Here are the top 3 things to keep in mind to make behavior change easier.

1. Old Dogs are Actually Great at Learning New Tricks

You might already know that brain research in recent decades has shown that adult brains can and do change and develop; change and growth is not only for young brains. This quality is called neuroplasticity, a.k.a. brain plasticity, and it refers to the fact that human brains make changes in neural pathways and synapses in response to changes in behavior, environment, and other factors.

Brain plasticity means that we don’t need to be stuck in one behavioral pattern — behavior changes can be made at any age, any time.

2. Your Brain Likes Maps

Any learned skill, including a behavioral response to situations, occupies what Norman Doidge, MD has termed a brain map (The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science; NY: Penguin Books, 2007). A brain map, simply stated, is an area of strengthened neuronal connections. When you change a behavior, you create a new map.

Because the old behavior that’s not getting the results you want occupies a brain map, your job is to create a new brain map by practicing a new behavior. The more you practice the new behavior, the thicker the new brain map becomes. When the new behavior is replacing the older, less effective behavior, that latter brain map shrinks in size.

3. New Behaviors Become Second Nature Sooner than We Think

Because you have to think before you speak or act, you’ll be tired at first when practicing the new behavior. Unlike driving your car on a route you’ve been on hundreds of times – where you don’t have to think and each turn is etched into your brain (yes, brain map) — taking a new route takes a lot of focus and doesn’t always feel natural.

Sometimes people feel discouraged when the new behavior doesn’t feel comfortable or easy at first. Creating a new brain map takes some extra energy and time, but not for long when you practice. It helps to know that this is a normal part of the behavior change process, and it will get easier.

What to Do

Instead of trying to change everything at once, choose one or two situations in which you’ll test the new behavior the first week, and three or four in the second week. Build your neuroplasticity muscle. Then increase slightly after week two until it’s feeling more natural. Your new brain map is forming.

Yes, there will be some slip-ups and you’ll occasionally fall into the old pattern. But the more you practice, the stronger your newer brain map gets. The less you practice the behaviors you want to lose, the weaker they become.

Question: What do you think — does knowing the neuroscience behind behavior change make it easier? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Image credit: Gascon J

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