The way we talk to one another has a massive impact on how we feel and behave. Not only do the conversations that we have trigger emotions – both good and bad – but they determine how each party interprets what was said.
Different kinds of conversation yield different results. So how can we use this observation to communicate more effectively?
Consultant and executive coach Judith E. Glaser asked herself that same question. She came up with a set of principles to help managers to have the right kinds of conversations, based on the different workplace situations that they find themselves in. She calls her concept “conversational intelligence.”
What is Conversational Intelligence?
Conversational intelligence is similar to emotional intelligence, in that emotions are central to the concept. The difference between the two is that emotional intelligence is fundamentally “I-centric,” while conversational intelligence is more “we-centric.”
According to Glaser, this means that “employees get excited and are clear about the future they are helping to create together.”
The Three Levels of Conversational Intelligence
Glaser’s concept is built around three levels of interactions: transactional, positional and transformational.
Transactional (Level I) is the basic communication that we use to “transact business and share information with one another,” Glaser says. “It’s really confirming what we know.”
Positional conversations (Level II) are “those in which we have a strong voice and point of view, and work to influence others to understand or accept our view of the world.” As with transactional conversations, there is a “push and a pull energy” – people tell and ask – but, as Glaser explains in our Expert Interview podcast, opinions can be stronger.
“I’m committed to my point of view and I probably want to influence you to go in my direction. I will listen to you, but there is that push and pull and I do have a commitment to something that I want to take place, or a position or a point of view that I want to share, maybe even have you adopt,” Glaser says.
The final conversation is transformational (Level III). “This is very special because it involves a whole different dynamic. It’s called “share and discover.” This is where we discover what we don’t know. So when people engage in Level III, there’s work that’s being done in much more of a we-centric way. People create a space that’s neutral. They’re not trying to force an idea on others. We’re listening to people, we’re discovering what we don’t know, and, as a result of that, we start to change the brain.”
A Chemical Reaction to Conversations
In this way, “human beings can actually regulate each other’s emotions,” she says. She goes on to explain how two chemicals in the brain are activated by the conversations we have. These include cortisol, which is released when we are afraid, and oxytocin, which is released by trust. The first is debilitating, the second motivating.
“When we get an amygdala hijack, it’s the cortisol that’s activated,” Glaser says (referring to the part of the brain responsible for primitive responses such as fight, flight or freeze). “We are in fear and it closes down the part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex, that has all those great ideas in it.”
By contrast, “when we have more oxytocin in the brain, the pre-frontal cortex opens up and that is what gives us trust. We have to have that oxytocin in order to open up the pre-frontal cortex, to connect with people and feel safe in doing so.”
How to Get the Response You Want
Knowing how this brain chemistry works is a powerful tool for managers.
“Let’s say you have a leader who is managing a team and he wants to inspire the team to do better. He has choices of conversations that he could have with people. He could say things like, ‘What you did before in this last meeting was not good for our results. We did not get the results we want.’
“What is that doing to the emotions of the people in the room? Well, it’s activating the lower part of the brain, the amygdala, which is where fear is. So that leader is having an impact on the brain of the person and also on what those people in the room are actually capable of saying.
“That leader has just done something to turn his – what could have been very smart team – into a very, I’m going to say dumb team, because they won’t have access to what is in them to give to make a better result,” Glaser says.
She also advocates “priming” – preparing people for a conversation so that they are more receptive to your message. In this audio clip from our Expert Interview podcast, she explains how managers can use this technique ahead of difficult conversations.
Do you “prime” your conversations to get a better result? What techniques do you use to make your conversations clever and get the response you want? Join the discussion below!