The Extraordinary Experience Of Brain Coupling

Meet Polly the Parrot, who needs a friend and some approval.

Have you every had someone like a therapist, coach, or friend that parrots back to you what you say to make you think they are understanding you– but it falls flat because they really don’t get it?

Because they are eager for approval they may next rapid fire a dozen questions at you.  It is not that the questions are not good. It is rather the manner of rapid fire that is, next to nosey, just without feeling…except for you it feels invasive.

I have been writing and teaching about “connecting” for a long time here and in my books, but there is one concept that needs to be addressed and that is that you can’t “fake” connecting.

If you are not in touch with your own feelings and you are not adept and agile at dealing with your feelings, you are especially sensitive to approval issues.  The person seeking or needing approval has learned a strategy, over a long period of time, of seeming interested in others and seeking to win their attention and approval by pretending to be interested in everything others say. 

This is compensation for feeling unattractive or not-accepted by others.  So this person learns to pay and give a special kind of attention to others, learning to play like they are paying attention.  And one of the things they learn to do is “parrot”. 

A lot of therapists and even coaches can get into this “parroting” mode.  They repeat what you have said but the feedback is empty, void of real connection.  It’s like the person hears you but they don’t “feel” you, they don’t really understand where you’re coming from.

Therapists and coaches can learn techniques that seem like being understood, but it’s learned and fake.  To connect with another person, you have to be there on an open, feeling level.  You have to connect from your own feelings and experiences from what the person is sharing, and you have to communicate that you do.  It really is a skill.

In our 12 Step groups, leaders are taught, and consequently teach their group, to identify and connect.  But you can’t do this as a leader or in life and be Polly the Parrot, running after a cracker of approval.  It can’t be fake; it has to be real “brain to brain coupling” which happens when real experiences and feelings are shared.

What we are communicating is an extraordinary ability to “experience” another person’s experience and give another person the experience that is like “he gets me”, “she gets me”.  This is what creates real friends, real and lasting relationships, and it can even be the beginning of romance.  Oftentimes these moments of connection are very brief.

I challenge myself with connecting with the clerks at the check-out stand.   Checking out a long line of people can be very dehumanizing when many people in the line treat you as “less than.”  So I try to connect in a real way.  I ask, “so how are they treating you today?”   I usually always get a “real” feeling, reacting response and then I try to identify with that.  I DON’T SAY, “Oh, I know just how you feel.”  

Instead I respond from feelings and not from my head, and I make eye contact and I say something that let’s them know I’m connecting.  It can be as short as, “well I appreciate your good service” or “may the time go quickly today” or “do something good for yourself.”  But the important thing is that I am coming from a feeling that relates to the feeling the clerk is expressing.  These small moments of connecting in life add up to a day and a life of happiness.

One last tip here.  Learn to smile a real smile that says I care about you as a person.  There are 40,000 muscles in your face and a real smile is a real smile. You can’t fake it because the brain of another person is so attuned to your face, that fake smiles just don’t make it. 

The other person will be “nice” in return, and it’s better than nothing, but it’s not the real thing that we can learn to do in very short exchanges of real connections with other people.  

I have learned my real smile comes from the compassion of liking me and I smile from the smile of “liking me” to the other person.

What is your “real” smile?  What is your fake, nice one?  You know the difference, don’t you?

This connection doesn’t have to be long, but it has to be real, not fake.

Polly the Parrot isn’t going to get a cracker from the clerk, nor are the people in our lives who matter if we haven’t learned to be real with ourselves and the “other.”

About the author

Dr. William K. Larkin

Copyright © 2015 The Applied Neuroscience Institute