Do you ever say harsh things and not even realize it? Do you think you’re being nice only to find out others think you’re being mean? These things used to happen to me a lot. Here’s one of my stories:
The ophthalmology office manager pulled me into her office, sat me down, and said, “Dr. Jennifer, the technicians are afraid of you.”
“Ha, ha. Very funny,” I said.
The office manager put her hand on my shoulder, took a deep breath and said, “No, really. They’re coming to me and telling me that you’re demanding, rude and never satisfied with what they do.”
What? They don’t like me?
My worst fear since childhood was not being liked. I dreaded being seen as different, aloof, or mean. I’d been given this puzzling feedback in many ways my entire life. Being kind to everyone was very important to me, and I was personally offended by meanness in others. I went out of my way to be polite and respectful. Yet somehow people frequently saw me as the opposite.
Here I was, once again, creating negative reactions from others when I thought I was being positive. And this time the stakes were higher than ever: I was one year into my dream job as a professor of ophthalmology. I saw patients some days and taught or did surgery on others. I was doing exactly what I’d set out to do, and I wanted to do it perfectly. My academic and research work was going great, and I was a rising leader in my state and national medical associations. So how could I be so successful and still be so blindly offensive to people I genuinely wanted to be nice to?
“I don’t know what to say,” I muttered to the office manager, trying not to let the rising tears overflow. “I had no idea. I thought I was being really polite and respectful.”
“I know you aren’t doing it on purpose, but you’re short and abrupt with the people who are trying to help you all day long. They’re afraid of you.”
Afraid?? I could no longer stop the tears.
I wiped at my face with the sleeve of my white coat, “OK. Thanks for telling me. I’ll pay more attention and be nicer.” I made this promise with a sinking feeling in my gut. I had no idea how to be nicer. I had believed I was being nice. Anger and frustration bubbled up as I walked out of the manager’s office. How could I be a nice and caring person on the inside and come across as such a jerk? How could I be so good at my medical work and fail so completely with my coworkers?
After that tough conversation, I continued practicing medicine for a few more years. I doubled or maybe tripled the amount of “niceness” effort I made, but I didn’t know what exactly to do differently. The nagging disconnect between what I intended to project toward others (niceness, respect) and what others perceived from me (mean, aloof, scary) never went away. It wasn’t until years later, after I had left medical practice and begun studying Language Processing in the brain, that I finally understood what was happening and how I could change it.
My lifelong struggle to appear as nice on the outside as I felt on the inside was not a moral failure. I was not a jerk, nor was I mildly sociopathic. This was not a matter of personality; it was a matter of brain physiology.
Language Processing (LP) is a general term that refers to all the things the brain does to manage inbound language information (e.g., hearing people talk to us) as well as outbound language information (e.g., talking to someone else). The brain is required to turn sensory signals such as the sound of someone’s voice into meaningful messages that our brain then uses to do immediate thinking, responding and recording into memory. The brain is also required to take ideas from inside our heads and get them out into the world through our own speech or writing. All of these functions are part of LP.
Language Processing is not the same thing as Intelligence. In fact, it’s my observation that the more intelligent a person is, the more likely they are to have small glitches in their LP systems. In my case, my expressive spoken language is less efficient when I’m under stress. This translates into my short, clipped and sometimes rude-seeming talking when I’m in a rush, concentrating on something, or otherwise under pressure. This is just how I felt when seeing lots of patients in a busy medical office. Even though I may feel kindly towards someone and believe I’m being polite, the glitch in my expressive spoken language processing can short-circuit my intention and result in my sounding abrupt. And I won’t even know I’m doing it.
Why don’t we notice our Language Processing glitches more easily?
Primarily because LP resides in the non-declaritive, subconscious part of the brain’s systems. The neuroanatomy is complex and I won’t go into detail here. The bottom line is that we don’t notice LP when it works or when it doesn’t work because it functions outside of our awareness, just like the parts of our brain that keep our breathing and heart beat going automatically.
Once you become aware of Language Processing as a concept, you can indirectly observe your own LP by noticing the product of the LP systems: how well you take in language information or how well you express yourself, under varying circumstances.
Once I came to understand that my mysterious “mean” behavior was simply a product of a particular glitch in my LP systems, especially when I was under stress, I was able to take the judgment out of the equation. I no longer questioned my quality as a human being, but rather saw this for what it was: brain physiology. I still took responsibility to address my communication shortcomings, but I had the understanding and tools to make lasting changes rather than beat myself up, deny the problem or feel secretly ashamed by my mysterious lack of character.
With an understanding of my LP and a lifting of self-judgment, I was much better able to catch myself being short with people, observe the details of the unwanted behavior, and ultimately change my communication for the better.
I frequently see unrecognized LP issues creating communication and relationship challenges among professional leaders. Interpersonal dynamics mistakenly attributed to personality or intentional actions are often due to LP differences instead. Understanding your own LP style as well as the styles of those around you is the secret sauce of communication. It can change your life—professionally and personally.
The best is yet to come.