Although we no longer have to hunt for our food, the evolution of our fight-or-flight system has not kept pace. In short, the reaction of our breath whenever we get stressed or upset is as if we have seen a predator, explained De Haas. As humans, we are attuned to these micro-movements in others – just like an antelope that hasn’t yet spot-ted a predator but has learned to recognize that danger is imminent if others in the herd suddenly take flight.
Your inner antelope
So how does this play out in the workplace? Imagine you’ve had a stressful morning. Your child chokes on their breakfast or throws up on your favorite shirt. This kind of situation will likely trigger your sympathetic autonomic nervous response system. Your breathing will get faster, your bronchial tubes will widen, and your pulmonary blood vessels will narrow.
After you leave the house, you may still be operating in this fight- or-flight mode, because – in the absence of a physical predator – your body doesn’t know when to turn it off, and thoughts or worries about your child might keep it active. When you’re speaking to your team, it’s likely that they will subconsciously pick up on this stress, De Haas says.
“They might think you’re upset with them; they might think you’re unhappy with their results, or they might just feel it without even knowing exactly why, because their inner antelopes want to run away,” he explained.
“They’re listening to you, but subconsciously they’re analyzing the movement in your chest. They’re analyzing your breathing pattern because their nervous system tells them that they need to analyze it, to check whether there is a predator. But because of that, they might also think that you’re not telling them the truth. So it leads to a whole set of misunderstandings.”
While many executives are aware that they need to pay attention to their hand gestures and facial expressions as well as their words when communicating, very few realize the power of their voice and breath in building trust with employees and soliciting honest input from others.