A chemistry lesson for leaders: Conversational Intelligence
We are all familiar with the “chemistry” factor in relationships and the chemical attraction metaphor; now we are learning that such insights are more than metaphor—they are reality!
I’ve long been intrigued by the chemical impacts—both positive and negative—of conversations. I married a biochemist and for decades we’ve shared conversations about our work. When we first wrote about the “chemistry of conversations” for Harvard Business Review and Psychology Today, we received enthusiastic reader confirmation of its importance.
Positive comments and conversations provide a temporary chemical “high,” while negative ones languish longer. A critique from a boss, a disagreement with a colleague, or a fight with a friend can make you forget praise. If you are called lazy, careless or unprofessional, you are likely to remember it and internalize it, easily forgetting all the past compliments.
Chemistry plays a big role in this reaction. When we face criticism, rejection or fear, when we feel marginalized or minimized, our bodies produce higher cortisol, a hormone that shuts down the thinking center of our brains and activates conflict aversion and protection behaviors. We become more reactive and sensitive, perceiving greater negativity than exists. These effects can last for days, imprinting the interaction on our memories and influencing our future behavior. Cortisol functions like a sustained release tablet—the more we ruminate about fear, the longer the impact.
Positive comments and conversations also produce a chemical reaction. They spur the production of oxytocin—a feel-good hormone that elevates our ability to collaborate, communicate, and trust others by activating networks in our prefrontal cortex. But, since oxytocin metabolizes faster than cortisol, its effects are less dramatic and sustainable.
Chemistry of conversations
This “chemistry of conversations” necessitates being more mindful of our interactions. Behaviors that increase cortisol levels reduce your conversational intelligence or C-IQ—your ability to connect and think innovatively, empathetically, creatively and strategically with others. Remember: behaviors that spark oxytocin boost C-IQ.
When we partnered with Qualtrics, the online survey software company, to analyze the frequency of negative (cortisol-producing) versus positive (oxytocin-producing) interactions, we found that managers use positive, oxytocin and C-IQ elevating behaviors more often than negative ones. Survey respondents acknowledged all five positive behaviors, such as “showing concern for others” more frequently than all five negative ones, such as “pretending to be listening.” However, about 85 percent of respondents also admitted to “sometimes” acting in ways that could derail not only specific interactions but also future relationships. When leaders exhibit both behaviors, they create dissonance or uncertainty in followers’ brains, spurring cortisol production and reducing CI-Q.
If you tend to tell and sell your ideas and challenge people to produce results, your negative (cortisol-producing) could easily outweigh positive (oxytocin-producing) reactions. Instead of asking questions to stimulate discussion, showing concern for others and painting a compelling picture of shared success, you enter discussions with a fixed opinion, determined to convince others you are right. You are not open to others’ influence—and you fail to listen to connect.
3 chemistry lessons
When managers and leaders understand the chemical impacts of their behavior, they tend to make changes—for example, they learn to deliver difficult feedback inclusively and supportively, thereby limiting cortisol production and stimulating oxytocin instead.
Awareness of the behaviors that open us up and those that close us down, and their influence in our relationships, allows us to better harness the chemistry of conversations. Conversations are the source of energy that transcends doldrums, the power that launches transformational products, and the golden threads that create trust. Conversations are the way we connect, engage, navigate, and transform the world with others.
The quality of our culture depends on the quality of our relationships, which depends on the quality of our conversations. The most powerful “leadershift” anyone can make is to realize that each person has the power to “create the conversational space that creates deeper understanding and engagement rather than fear and avoidance.”
Remember these 3 chemistry lessons:
1. Be mindful of your conversations and the emotional content you bring—pain, which closes the brain, or pleasure which opens it. Are you sending friend or foe messages? Are you sending the message “You can trust me to have your best interest at heart” or “I want to persuade you to think about things my way?” When you’re aware of these meta-messages, you can create a safe culture that allows everyone to interact collaboratively, sharing perspectives, feelings, and aspirations and elevating insights and wisdom.
2. Conversations trigger emotional reactions. Conversations carry meaning—and meaning is embedded in the listener even more than in the speaker. Words cause us either to bond and trust more fully, thinking of others as friends and colleagues, or to break rapport and see others as enemies. Your mind will open as you see the connection between language and health, and you’ll learn how to create healthy organizations through your conversational rituals.
3. Note that the words we use in our conversations are rarely neutral. Words have histories informed by years of use. Each time a new experience overlays another meaning on a word, the information collects in our brains to be activated during conversations. Knowing how you project meaning into your conversations will enable you to connect with others and, in so doing, let go of much of the self-talk that diverts from effective co-working.
Read more on this topic: Why you need conversational intelligence