Judith E. Glaser, CEO, Benchmark Communications, Inc.
Conversational Intelligence as a Vital Leadership Skill
Organizations are changing at a dizzying and constant pace, creating the potential for volatility, distrust, and fear. These qualities both manifest and are fueled by conversations: conversations between leaders, between leaders and employees, and among employees themselves.
Why should leaders care about the quality of conversations within their organizations? For the same reasons that it matters to parents what kinds of conversations take place around their children. It’s human behavior. Studies have shown that children who are raised by parents who use appreciative, productive conversations will be more optimistic about life and more confident about themselves. Those children who grow up amidst punitive and judgmental conversations will be less positive about themselves and more judgmental about others.
The same is true for employees. If leaders talk to their employees in ways that are appreciative and value based, versus negative and judgmental, productivity, innovation, and collaboration will increase.
Conversation and the Brain
Conversation is literally hardwired in our DNA. Humans are 98% the same as apes, but within that 2% is a DNA strand known as the Foxp2 gene that gives us not just the ability to communicate but to converse in an iterative and generative way that only humans can.
Conversations take place not just with words but also through symbols, codes, expressions and body language. Each has the power to change the brain – stimulate the production of hormones and neurotransmitters*; stimulate body systems and nerve pathways; and change our body’s chemistry, not just for a moment, but also for a lifetime. This process creates patterns of behavior that become embedded in our neuronal operating system. Through changes called epigenetic changes, we are capable of changing our very DNA, through conversation.
Conversations impact different parts of the brain in different ways, because different parts of the brain are listening for different things.
- Listening for Threats: The amygdala, part of the reptilian brain – the part of the brain that protects us from harm – is listening for words and meanings that might threaten us. When threatened our brain releases cortisol that is the basis of fear and reactivity, and fear-networks become activated. This part of the brain reacts more quickly than others. And if the level of fear hormones is high it prevents the thinking parts of our brain from playing a more active role. When this part of our brain masters us we will ‘fight, flee, freeze or appease’ behaviors. Tribalism or territorial behavior is also a reaction to threats from other groups. Being part of a social group strengthens our identity.
- Listening to Belong: The limbic brain, among other things, is listening for words that tell us if our needs for belonging are being met. This part of the brain gives us access to emotions and helps us process them. Emotions make us feel happy, or if our needs are unmet, cause us to feel sad or angry. This part of our brain also stories memories and provides us with ways to store, recall and process through memories. This part of our brain provides social context. We hold and store memoires for every person we meet and this brain enables us to form our clans, and develop social norms with them.
- Listening to be Successful: The neo-cortex helps us ‘grasp’ what is going on, and to comprehend what people mean. The neo-cortex is where we put words to feelings and make sense or give meaning to conversations; it’s where we listen to understand and to translate our understanding into success strategies. This is where we learn to form abstractions and generalizations; we learn to translate what is going on in the lower brain by translating these feelings and emotional into words. It is also where we express ourselves and open up to others to get what we need from them.
- Listening for Truth: The prefrontal cortex enables us to see the world from another person’s point of view, empathize with those experiences, and identify the gaps between reality and our expectations. This part of our brain provides us with higher-level strategies for processing complex situations and for making difficult decisions. When we are overly emotional, our prefrontal cortex enables us to quell the amygdala especially when it’s upset. This is how healthy conversations are sustained.
- Listening to Connect: Finally, the “heart” brain, the most controversial part of our brain network, helps create connectivity across our whole brain/trust. The heart and brain are connected and enables coherence and harmonization across all parts of the brain, by transmitting messages that facilitate integration and synchronization. From that synchronization we either open up or close down with others as we are having conversations.*.
A Balancing Act
Conversations are not just a way of sharing information; they trigger physical, emotional and chemical changes in our brains and bodies. In the amounts of two of the most powerful hormones of social interaction: oxytocin, which enables more bonding and collaboration, and testosterone, which enables our more aggressive behaviors.
Bruce S. McEwen states, “trust is a phenomenon that is enhanced by oxytocin, which gets people to be socially interactive. Then you have the Amygdala, which is the sentinel along with the Prefrontal Cortex, paying attention to decide if the interaction is going to be rewarding or punishing. If the interaction is punishing we feel more aggressive and distrustful. We have to be wary and we move into protect behaviors.”
If the interaction feels good, you have more oxytocin and you can relax. Testosterone works against the oxytocin. These collective social cues help people relax and see the bigger picture, and to see if it’s more to their long-term to be more cooperative and sharing. It’s the balance between these hormones and the neural systems that give us the feelings of trust and distrust.
About the Author
Judith E. Glaser is the CEO of Benchmark Communications, Inc. and the Chairman of The Creating WE Institute. She is an Organizational Anthropologist and the author of the best-selling book Conversational Intelligence (Original Edition: 2013; Routledge Reprint Edition – 2016)), as well as a consultant to Fortune 500 companies. www.creatingwe.com; www.conversationalintelligence.com