Back Pain and Organizational Change

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

I was just going through old copies of my e-mail newsletter, Tools for a Change, and found this item. I don’t like to recycle things, but I love the research that promoted my short piece.

In my work on resistance, I have been interested in brain research that focuses on fear, stress, pain, etc. I believe that area of study (neuroscience) holds important keys to unlocking Level 2 and Level 3 resistance. I just read an article that I think may have application to our work in organizations. By the way, I do realize that this research is a bit of a stretch, but interesting, nonetheless.


In A Comforting Spouse Could Turn Out to Be a Real Pain,” Robert Lee Hotz, writes, “By eavesdropping on electrical activity in the most private precincts of the mind, researchers investigating the effects of chronic pain discovered that a husband or wife can make the ache feel three times worse simply by being in the room.” (Los Angeles Times 11/4/02.)

Researchers found that the pain subsided when the spouse left the room!

Surprisingly, perhaps, it was the most solicitous husbands and wives –those who clucked most lovingly over the spouses’ discomfort – who triggered the pain. The more the husbands or wives dwelt on their partner’s pain, the worse it felt, the neural monitors showed.”

Herta Flor, University of Heidelberg’s Central Institute of Mental Health, who led the study team said, “We found basically that when their spouses were in the room, they had an almost three-fold increase in their response to pain. These patients also showed more overt signs of feeling pain, such as moaning.”

Spouses who stayed in the room but offered distractions or not focusing too heavily on the pain helped alieviate pain.

So what’s this got to do with our work in organizations? On one hand, I’m not sure if it does. On the other hand, it might open a door to understanding dynamics at play in organizations. For example:

Perhaps when people are in pain due to major changes in the organization, spending time just listening and expressing sympathy, may make matters worse. Have you ever been in one of those team building activities where people just spilled their guts and others sat around acting as if they cared? My experience has been that they are pretty dreadful and often make matters worse.

However, I think that listening for the purpose of getting at what’s wrong so you can try to do something to help the situation (like get medical attention), is far different than just being solicitous with comments like, “I feel your pain.”

I believe that listening just to demonstrate empathy has a short shelf life. However, listening with a willingness to be influenced by what we hear and do something based on that information is a very different type of listening. I explored listening with a willingness to be changed in an interview with Alan Alda in Why Don’t You Want What I Want?