HUMANS ARE AT THEIR BEST WHEN THEY ARE LIKED
INTERVIEW WITH SARAH PEYTON
Sarah, thank you so much for your willingness to share your knowledge with our readers. My first question relates to the work you do, which is an interesting combination of many profound disciplines. Would you say more on what you do?
Thank you… 🙂 My work is really the convergence of three things: 1. the study of relational neuroscience: so what we know about what brains do and their relationships and how they have an effect on one another; 2. the kind of language that changes the brain, and 3. family constellations. I’m certainly very interested in what makes bodies say “yes.”
Say “Yes”? To whom?
To people, to each other, to language. I’m curious about what makes a body say: “Yes, I‘m really understood.”
How did you start this work and what was the first discipline you studied?
First was the study of Nonviolent Communication (NVC). I started studying NVC because it was very hard for me to be a mum–it was so difficult that I was looking for any support and help that would get me into connection with my child.
So studying NVC brought transformative experiences of being responded to with language in a way that I never had before in my life. I was so interested in why it was happening, and in why things changed based on the way people talked to me. So after I had this transformative experience, I was trying to understand why it had happened. Coincidentally, this was the time period when Matthew Lieberman’s cognitive neuroscience research was just coming out. His work was about how when we use emotions-words to describe what is happening to us, there’s a calming in the brain – a change that could even be seen in an fMRI machine. At that point I realized that this research must have something to do with what nonviolent communication is doing for us. Then I discovered NVC is language that awakens the right hemisphere – our relational brain.
The way the right hemisphere uses language takes us into a fluid space where, once we are understood, things can shift. I began to wonder what other kinds of language take us into a place where our brains will shift — and that’s when I began to develop the concept of Resonant Language.
NVC focuses quite strongly on emotion words, feeling words, and meaning words–the words that we most deeply value. From this focus, I became interested in what other ways language can be used to help us be in a state of fluidity. And so, NVC and neuroscience were coming together for me. Then, coincidently, I had an experience with family constellations where I was just so surprised by what happened. I was placed in a constellation as a French ancestor and, though I don’t have any French blood at all, I felt so much tenderness for my descendant in the constellation, for the person who was receiving the constellation. I thought: wait, that’s something I have never experienced before.
In the world of constellations, there are a lot of facilitators who are very instructional, very didactic, very much like: go here, say this, do not talk back to me, do what I say — just a lot of being taught what to do — and so I started to develop a deep interest in what it would be like to bring the language of relationality and the language of consent into the world of constellations.
Thanks for the overview of your background — it leads into my following question: what is resonance and what is resonant language?
I like to think of humans as cellos, because the sound range of the cello is almost identical to the sound range of the human voice.
If you are playing a cello with another cello nearby, and you put your ear close to the cello that’s not being played, you can hear it resonating with the tune being played on the first cello. Humans are like this. If one person is being played by emotions — it’s almost like the emotions are the music that plays humans. If you’re having very strong emotions and I bring myself close, I myself can hear the vibrations of your experience.
And so we are resonating. So resonant language is the use of language that resonates with another person?
Yes. It is a type of language that, as we speak it, allows us to accompany whatever song life is playing through the other person.
What you say in your work about mechanical versus resonant language is very interesting. In your work you emphasize the value of warmth. Is warmth important? And why?
It’s hugely important, because we have human bodies that sense temperature and because when somebody physically comes close to us, we can feel their body heat. I think this connects to the sensation of heat that comes with affection and love. We use the metaphor of warmth as a temperature to help us understand the importance of closeness, and the importance of people liking us and wanting to be with us. Humans are at their best when they are liked.
Another way to say this is that humans are at their best when someone is holding them with affection. So we use this word warmth to capture a relaxation that comes when we have a sense of being liked or accepted. We feel most safe when we know our voice is wanted and when what happens to us matters to the people around us.
So when we don’t experience warmth, we feel that we are not welcomed into the space. It’s hugely important to me that as teachers of nonviolent communication, resonant language, and relational neuroscience, we come with a deep respect and affection to the people who bring themselves and their wisdom into our classrooms and workshops.
Yes, its important… I’d like to ask you about empathy, especially empathy toward ourselves. When I talk to people about being empathetic toward themselves and encourage them to be this way, they find it strange. Why is being empathetic towards someone else more natural?
Oh, wonderful question! We live in the world as human animals, where whenever we open our mouth to speak, there’s a gravitational pull into the left hemisphere. The left hemisphere is the hemisphere where everyday language lives: as soon as we are talking we are using the left hemisphere. The other hemisphere, the right hemisphere, is the hemisphere of relationality. So it’s almost as if we are made to be pulled out of relationship when talking. It is as if spoken language was developed for us to get things done. When we are getting things done, we are not really in relationship with others, but we are also not really in relationship with ourselves. So part of what’s happening with the strangeness and weirdness of self-empathy or self-warmth is that we’re moving outside of our brain’s habit.
For the vast majority of the history of humankind, we’ve lived in a society centered around hunting and gathering, where we had abundant territory and could live in small groups and move around easily and after we hunted and gathered from the land, it was able to recover. We all once had that original kind of relationship with our people and our earth, where there was more room. And so with this in mind, we begin to touch the subject of scarcity and abundance. We touch on our original patterns and our transition from hunter-gatherers to agricultural societies. The more that we use language to accomplish things; the less aware we are of ourselves as social and relational beings. And the more agriculturally oriented we are, the more there’s a need for planning and structure. And as soon as we become agriculturally oriented, we open up the capacity to accumulate. If we are hunter-gatherers, there is not such an accumulation mode.
So, there’s a way in which the structure of our societies really pulls us out of relationship–it pulls us out of the clear sense of how interdependent we are. And this structure works in combination with social environments lacking in support, which end up destroying the warm relationship with the self. I have been thinking a lot about how the work that I do invites us to come into an original and powerful self-warmth, almost like we are getting to touch the self-warmth that is our birthright. What really should be happening is that we feel warmth towards our present selves, warmth towards our past selves and our infant selves, and warmth for the spark of life that is coming in when we are conceived. And when we clear the blocks of trauma, we realize that self-warmth is not only pleasant, it’s also a radical act of changing the world. When we do this, people begin to step into a natural flow; when you clear the trauma blocks, you don’t have to tell people how to love themselves–it occurs naturally.
So, to come back to what I said before about how language pulls us out of relationship, once we know what right hemisphere language is, we can invite people to use right hemisphere language to clear the blocks of trauma. Once they do that, self-warmth becomes natural and doesn’t need to be taught. The more that people’s blocks to self-warmth are cleared, the more they see the whole human race as being of interest, that each human has value and each human is a miracle. And this clearing of the blocks made by trauma opens us not just to compassion, but also to wonder and humility–all of which are core to our needs.
So I’m saying there are three things here: one is the way the human brain is constructed, two is living in a world where there is a scarcity and abundance model that take us out of our natural flow, and three is the blocks which have been made by trauma.
I’d like to go a bit deeper. In your book, you emphasize that when we would like to be empathetic towards ourselves, we need to be specific. For instance, saying to yourself: “Everything is going to be just fine” doesn’t work.
It’s a little bit about the difference between reassurance and resonance. What I have noticed is that, when we do time travel to clear trauma blocks, the first thing people would like to say to their younger self is “It’s going to be alright.” And I think that is, in a way, an empathy guess for their younger self, something like “Younger Self, have you been so worried that this would not turn out well?”
So I rephrase in that way and then the younger self answers “Yes” – this turning reassurance into empathy guesses also makes room for a dialogue, so that you can make sure resonance is happening. When we just say, “it’s going to be okay,” there is no room for us to find out what else might be happening. I often prompt people to start a dialogue with their younger self and end their statements with question marks, so there can be some sort of dialogue.
When we use reassurance in regular life, like when you’re having a rough time and I say, “It’s going to be okay,” it might land really sweetly if there’s a lot of reassurance or warmth in my voice, but it doesn’t begin a dialogue. It doesn’t allow us to find out if we are moving into a resonant space, and it doesn’t allow any further emotional complexity of the experience you are living to begin to bubble in and emerge. So though it can be sweet, reassurance doesn’t start the dialogue or move us anywhere.
It’s very interesting, what you’re saying about the way human brain is constructed and the differences between the hemispheres. It goes deeper than our standard knowledge about it.
Yes, as we speak about the hemispheres, it’s important to note that both are always active as we go through our lives. The right hemisphere integrates our felt sense of the world, like body sensations, gestures, facial expressions and tones of voice. Thanks to the right hemisphere, we can understand poetry and the Big Picture. And the left hemisphere loves facts, telling people what to do, precision and proving what is right and what is wrong. Each hemisphere has different functions – for example, the left hemisphere is not able to understand and process intense rage or joy. So we could say that we live in a balance of doing and being. If we are “being” more than we are “doing,” we may not get much done. And if we are “doing” more than we are “being,” we may not have the rich relationships we long for. And I’m not sure about Warsaw, but in New York there are many people who through the decades live predominantly in a “doing” mode.
But when our brain is in an integrated and balanced state, it is flexible, adaptable, energized and stable. This lets us be effective and committed to manifesting our dreams.
Yes. I notice that sometimes you talk about empathy and sometimes about compassion, and there is discussion in many places about the difference between them. What’s your view?
I see a difference between attunement, resonance, empathy and compassion–all have a different flavor for me. For me, attunement means I am bringing my attention to another person and wondering about them. I’m allowing my body to wonder, “What is happening here?”
Then, resonance is where, on a number of levels, we develop a sense of understanding each other, like during our conversation: you ask a question, I respond, and there are “Yeses,” and wonderings, and more “Yeses.” This is where the bodies saying, “Yes” come in. Bodies are saying “yes” when they are in resonance with each other, so resonance is a two-person system of mutuality and understanding. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you are resonating with me, it might just mean that I’m resonating with you – but in most circumstances there’s a flow between the two.
And then, for me, empathy is where we put ourselves into a sense of what it is like to be someone else, and for empathy you don’t need a two-person system. Both compassion and empathy don’t seem like two people systems to me. I can drive by a homeless person on the street and if I imagine myself being homeless, then I am having empathy. Then, if I feel warmth and care, I am having compassion. Both of those I can have without the other person being involved at all.
So the difference for me between empathy and compassion is that compassion is a flow of warmth and a longing for another’s well being, whereas empathy has more texture to it. There’s more complexity to empathy than just having warmth for somebody – you’re also always wondering what it’s like for them.
We talk today a lot about the brain and there is a lot of research these days, saying that the heart actually emits the biggest electromagnetic field in our body. What is the connection between the brain and the heart?
A lot of people in the world of relational neuroscience call what we have inside of our heads the skull brain. When they’re referring to the brain, they are really referring to the distributed nervous system, because there are so many neurons in the heart and in our guts–there are as many neurons in our guts as in the brain of a small cat. We have all of these brains that are part of the whole brain – the whole body and the torso and the skull brain — so there is less of a distinction between the heart and the brain. It’s less of a separation than it sounds.
We usually say that we feel emotions in the body and then we process them by naming them using language. Is this how you understand it?
The way that I understand it is, we have emotional experiences in the body that have particular flavors and are carried up into the limbic system through the brainstem. And there are different zones in each right and left amygdala for the different emotions. It’s like, without us even knowing, the emotion is coming up and going to one of these amygdala zones. Then our words come and try to connect with what’s going on in the amygdala, trying to give the right name to what’s happening. When we give the right name to the emotional experience, when there’s a match between the word that’s coming from the top brain and the emotion that’s arising from the body, then there’s a calming because the message has been received.
And there’s also the way resonance contributes to this, which is part of the dialogue we are having about words being able to give fluidity to our body’s experience through the creation of resonance. For example, if you’re angry and I say that you are really scared, and then we are not creating resonance because the words I’m using are not matching.
Sarah, your work has a lot of substance and is taught in workshops to educated people who are somehow familiar with NVC. What would you say to people who would like to use this knowledge in their lives but do not have this background? Where can they start?
The smallest and most reliable step is to communicate to the people they love what is happening in their chest and stomach and throat, specifically in relationship to the other person. With this they cannot go wrong. Everything else I might say could be taken into the non-relational left hemisphere, but there’s no way to take chest and stomach and throat and move it into left hemisphere language. So that’s a starting point for anybody.
I teach this material to people in prisons who’ve left school at age 8 or 10 and have no education whatsoever and they love this material. It doesn’t appear to be dependent on education level at all.
May I ask you something personal? You travel a lot; you do workshops around the world. How do you make contact with yourself while doing a lot of work? And what is it for you – to be in contact with yourself?
Well, one of the things that I did this year, was basically not say “no” to anything, because I would like the book to reach as many people as possible. so it’s a bit of a strike while the iron is hot, since the book is fresh off the press.
And when I’m travelling, it’s not like a usual business trip because I’m mostly coming to people who know me and love me. It’s more like going to see good friends all over the world. So when you’re going to be with really good friends, you don’t really lose track of yourself. And here in Poland I receive so much warmth, so much affection, care and presence. Probably the people who are drawn to the book are more likely to be like that.
And to be in contact with myself… it’s like being able to have a sense that my body is alive, that I can feel my emotional body and wonder with warmth, curiosity and resonance. When we bring questions to ourselves, we began to create a resonance loop that is so important — we are the asker and we are the answerer. When we both ask and answer, and we create a warm connection with the body, we begin to hear what messages the body has for us.
I consciously breathe with self-warmth, just having attention for my warmth and what it does and where it goes. And I also receive support, so that I’m receiving resonance and care from the people that support me, which also supports self-connection.
Thank you for wonderful interview!
Thank you for the invitation!