Making a company reach its full potential is like a game of dominoes… It depends on the quality of the organizational culture, which depends on the quality of relationships, which depends on the quality of conversations.
Scans of brains revealed in various neuroscientific studies carried out in the United States and Canada in the last few decades show that conversations are vital to our survival as a species. They also confirm what leaders intuitively know: that by paying attention to the type of conversation they have, they can profoundly influence the direction of their organization and foster significant and efficient exchanges.
When you first meet a person, biochemical reactions occur throughout your body and your heart responds in a chemical and electrochemical manner. In her fascinating book Conversational Intelligence, American anthropologist and professor Judith Glaser writes that conversation is much more than a simple exchange of information. It is a dynamic, inclusive way to open minds, motivate, and foster creativity.
In taking your brain’s physiological reactions into account, you can select the appropriate type of interaction that will help you meet your goals.
What kinds of conversations are there?
There are three levels of conversational intelligence.
Level I conversations, called transactional
Participants at this level ask questions, answer them, share information, or carry out a transaction. The centre of focus is “me”. This is a way to sell an idea, get something, or give a directive (or order). Leaders pay attention to tone, vocabulary, and body language in order to provoke a reaction in employees’ amygdala.
Level II conversations, called positional
This is where individuals share their opinions and try to influence others. The interest shown here is “me and us” with the goal of persuading the other. At this level, we see the transformation or confirmation of one’s power as well as exchanges that interpret “what I think versus what you think”. This is a binary interaction: I accept or refute the other person’s position.
Level III conversations, called transformational
Here, participants mutually trust each other and accept different points of view without feeling threatened. The focus is “us” in order to share and discover. Those who take part in this kind of conversation accept to shape a reality together and put aside their assumptions. They listen with intent to explore perspectives and possibilities together. These are conversations of co-development where there is no hierarchy. It should be noted that our brains are programmed to carry out these kinds of conversations because we are all looking to take part in healthy exchanges that help us build solid relationships.
Obviously, each level of conversation has its own advantages and disadvantages and the leader needs to be aware which type is the best suited to their intentions and the situation.
The anatomy of confidence
In the very first seconds of a face-to-face meeting, phone call, or email, our body decides how much confidence we place in the person on the other end. Research shows that it only takes 0.07 seconds to find out if we can trust the other person or not.
Did you know that trust and mistrust are activated in different parts of the brain?
The amygdala, in the middle of your skull, is the primitive centre of emotional reactions. It acts up when you feel threatened, even subconsciously. In that case, your body produces cortisol, the hormone released at times of stress when you need to flee, feel attacked, or experience a shock. Scientists call it neurohacking when threats perceived hinder your cerebral capacity to think rationally. Keep in mind that it can take your body up to 26 hours to completely get rid of cortisol.
Inversely, the feeling of trust stems from the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making and is the “most recent” of our brains. It is located in the front of your skull and produces oxytocin, the love hormone. When leaders inspire confidence, their employees feel positive, engaged, and are more apt to be productive.
How can you develop your conversational intelligence?
First, think about what results you want and what your intention is. What tone do you want to set for the conversation? How do you feel? How will this conversation fit into your strategic vision?
For Level III conversations, get the participants from your next meeting to set the rules of engagement. Ask them to help you define the results of the meeting, by considering the following for instance:
- How will we know if the meeting is a success?
- Invite participants to avoid conversation traps at this level, that is to say the temptation to reformulate, refocus, redirect.
Here are a few obstacles to healthy and productive conversations:
- Assuming others share the same point of view as you.
- Letting mistrust and trepidation deform your perception of reality.
- Letting fear extinguish your feelings of empathy.
- Ignoring your feelings and emotions and how they can affect your interventions.
Whatever kind of conversation you have, bear in mind that you’ll tend to want to “win” or be right. Judith Glaser also suggests thinking about the following questions:
- Is this a balanced interaction and relationship? Is there an “us” or is this simply about “me”?
- Who owns this conversation? Do we know what everyone “owns” in this conversation?
- Meaning emerges for the listener, not the speaker. How do I listen?
- Are we engaged in equal ways in this conversation?
- How can we combine our strengths to help us reach our desires and goals?
- Are we giving each other enough space to talk and share what we think and feel?
In conclusion, everyone can take part in Level III conversations. Leaders are able to help their teams reach their full potential by being aware of what kind of conversation is appropriate to reach their objectives. By focusing on co-creation, a leader creates the right conditions to draw ideas from unexpected areas.
Conversational Intelligence – How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results—Judith E. Glaser