Research shows that 9 out of 10 conversations miss their mark.
That’s right. The person on the other end of your conversation does not receive your intended message (or you don’t receive theirs) 90 percent of the time.
Organizational anthropologist Judith E. Glaser, through decades of research, learned that effective communication is far more than choosing the right words. Every interaction contains signals that either create trust and connection, or distrust and fear.
Learning to regulate these signals is the basis of Conversational Intelligence® (C-IQ) — a set of tools, habits, and rituals to strengthen your leadership characteristics.
Read on to understand how using this framework can transform organizations and radically improve relationships. With these skills, you can change your life.
How does Conversational Intelligence work?
From intellectual intelligence to emotional intelligence, from book smarts to street smarts, everyone possesses unique abilities to achieve success. Conversational Intelligence is different. Everyone possesses it, and it’s at work in every interaction.
This is true because humans are by nature, social creatures. We are hard-wired to depend on others. Knowing when to trust or fear is an innate skill — based on a set of chemical responses in the brain during conversations.
Since these changes occur whether or not we are aware of them, learning to influence them has game-changing power.
Feel bad conversations: The science of distrust
Think of a moment when you have been called out unfairly in a meeting, or blamed for something that was not your fault. Whether it happened at work, at a family dinner, or years ago in a sixth-grade classroom, the feeling is hard to forget.
The room suddenly feels hot, your heart races, and you feel a little sick to your stomach.
You feel angry at the person who attacked you. You either want to fight back, bolt out of the room, or crawl under the table and hide.
Later, at home, you keep replaying the moment in your mind. And the more you think about it, the worse you feel.
What happens in the brain during moments like this is an “amygdala hijack.”
The most primitive part of the brain, the amygdala, is small but powerful. It’s responsible for identifying when a situation is good and safe — or painful and threatening.
When the amygdala perceives a threat, it floods the brain with the stress hormone cortisol.
Cortisol triggers the fight, flight, or freeze instinct.
A threat can mean a lot of things, to the subconscious. Things that seem like small betrayals can cause big changes in your neurochemistry.
- Your opinion is rejected or overridden.
- You are excluded from a group decision.
- You don’t receive appreciation for the work you’ve done.
Whether a threat is real or imagined, the chemical changes in your brain are the same.
First, stress hormones kick into high gear.
Then, more evolved parts of the brain shut down. The prefrontal cortex, where reasoning and logic occurs, becomes inaccessible when stress hormones like cortisol are present.
As a result, when you experience a bad conversation, you can’t think straight. The ability to reason, empathize, and connect is gone.
The chemical changes remain, hours later. Cortisol doesn’t immediately break down, and it colors your reactions to everything.
Bad day at work? The stress hormones follow you home and cause you to pick a fight with the first person who gets in your way. This cascade of negative interactions can lead to chronic stress.
Learning to recognize — and stop — the patterns causing bad conversations can lead to a breakthrough in your relationships. You can even learn to approach the most difficult subjects without pain and conflict.
Feel good conversations: The science of trust
Just as distrust is associated with specific neurochemicals and hormones, so is trust.
In terms of brain chemistry, the first step towards feeling good in a conversation is to remove fear and distrust. If the amygdala doesn’t perceive a threat, it won’t signal the release of stress hormones.
You naturally feel free to be open — without defensiveness, avoidance, or feeling attacked.
Without the amygdala hijack shutting down more evolved parts of your brain, you have full access to:
- Higher level thinking
- Co-creating mutual success
- Planning ahead
The next thing that happens is you start to connect.
In a relaxed state, the brain is open to sharing and connecting with others. Positive interactions cause the release of oxytocin, the hormone behind human connection.
This hormone is incredibly important — not just for love relationships. For any human bonding experience to occur, oxytocin must be present. When you feel curiosity, affection, and belonging in a conversation, it’s because of oxytocin.
To sum up the chemistry of conversation in a simple math equation:
[BRAIN] – [CORTISOL] + [OXYTOCIN] = AMAZING CONVERSATIONS
Conversational Intelligence creates the ability to build trust, not over months and years, but instantaneously. Then you have two people, in full possession of their ability to create, empathize, reason, and plan.
The result is readiness and ability to find solutions, no matter how difficult the subject matter.
The 3 Levels of Conversation
Conversations can occur at one of three different levels, which are geared toward different goals, and produce different outcomes. In everyday life, regardless of our own individual communication style, we take part in conversations at all three levels.
Becoming aware of the levels, and how they impact whether or not the conversation will be productive, is key to mastering Conversational Intelligence.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the 3 Levels of Conversation:
Level I: Transactional conversations
Transactional conversations are an exchange of information. They have an “ask-tell” dynamic, and the goal is to inform, rather than to persuade.
This takes the form of confirmation — one person confirms to the other what they know so that everyone’s on the same page.
For example, Bob might ask Alice about the status of a project. She gives him information about where it is in the pipeline.
Level II: Positional conversations
Positional conversations aren’t about the exchange of information itself, so much as power. These conversations are geared toward persuasion, with someone advocating for or defending a point of view.
During Level II Conversations, it’s common for people to retreat into protective behaviors if they feel that the other person is biased against their point of view.
- Alice wants the team to prioritize Project A over Project B.
- She asks Bob what he thinks, but doesn’t really listen to what he says.
- Instead, she offers arguments in favor of her position.
- Bob either defends his position, attacks Alice’s position, or gives in.
In this example, you can see that it’s impossible to get to a solution where both parties win.
If Bob isn’t comfortable with Alice (he perceives a threat), he can’t openly contribute his opinion. He also can’t hear her ideas with an open mind.
This is especially true if there’s an uneven power dynamic. If Alice is Bob’s immediate superior, he will be more likely to retreat.
Level III: Transformative conversations
Level III Conversations are dynamic and collaborative. Rather than being confrontational or burdened by power imbalance — as Level II Conversations can be — Level III Conversations involve:
- Sharing information back and forth.
- Working together toward new ideas.
- Creating shared solutions to problems.
The “share and discover” dynamics present in a Level III Conversations require that everyone involved is open and comfortable. To solve problems together, we need to be able to open up, and not be afraid of feeling or appearing vulnerable.
Trust is essential.
And that’s why your emotional state, and emotional responses, are so important for Level III Conversations to occur. Without trust, you are stuck at Level II.
Let’s revisit the Level II Conversation between Alice and Bob, when trust is added to the equation:
- Alice asks Bob to help her decide which project the team should focus on.
- Bob feels safe, because he knows Alice values his input.
- With full access to higher-level thinking, they analyze the problem and predict possible outcomes.
- They co-create a solution that they are both happy with.
Level III Conversations are where the magic happens. Not only do both parties walk away happy, but the most creative solutions are likely to be found.
Getting from frustrating, painful conversations to collaborative problem solving
Level I and Level II Conversations are not evenly balanced. There isn’t an even exchange of ideas and information:
- Level I: One person requests information, while another gives it.
- Level II: There’s a power imbalance, and struggle to be “right.”
Conversations in the workplace between people who sit at different places in the company hierarchy are typically Level II — unless the leaders are trained in Conversational Intelligence.
Any time there is a fear response in one of the participants, they will hold back. The science of Conversational Intelligence explains why it’s impossible to fully participate when you don’t feel safe.
Progress isn’t really made, because people feel like they cannot or should not contribute. So you end up stuck in the same place.
Conversational Intelligence unlocks your ability, as a leader, to facilitate productive, enriching Level III Conversations. You can learn to approach difficult discussions in a way that everyone is open and willing to find a solution.
Conversational Intelligence in leadership
Great leaders, managers, and coaches invest a lot of time and money to hire and train the best people they can find. That’s why it’s so important to empower their most valuable resource — their team — to fully contribute.
Conversational Intelligence is the best approach to make sure everyone on their team can fully participate, without holding back.
Instead of feeling fearful and apprehensive, people in conversation with leaders who use C-IQ are empowered. They can contribute without fear of being shut down.
And that’s powerful. That enables everyone to contribute their best ideas. How many times has someone had a great idea, but held back because they were nervous and afraid?
Here are some of the many tangible benefits of the C-IQ leadership approach.
Happier, more engaged teams
Traditional top-down managerial styles aren’t always the most productive way of doing things. They create a clear power dynamic, one that can leave team members prone to cortisol-mediated fear responses.
The C-IQ approach creates a dynamic based on collaboration and trust, not power and fear. This can greatly improve the emotional state of everyone on the team.
- Are more productive.
- Come up with more creative solutions.
- Feel more engaged and committed to the team.
Positive organizational culture
One of Judith E. Glaser’s findings is that negative behaviors are contagious within organizations — and so are positive ones.
People co-regulate at an emotional level. That means the effects of a bad conversation radiate outward and cause more bad conversations.
The end result: a toxic workplace.
As a leader trained in Conversational Intelligence, you can immediately begin a culture shift.
First, you will learn to spot where and when negative Level II Conversations are taking place. Reducing them in your leadership practices has an immediate and positive effect on the entire organization.
Then, you can empower your team, through policies and practices, to have more Level III Conversations.
With C-IQ practices in place, organizational cultures are free of stress and fear. Instead, they are characterized by trust, creativity, and collaboration.
Creativity and innovation
In a culture with rigid top-down management, people often feel like they shouldn’t take creative risks. It’s safer to do things that have already worked in the past than to risk your idea not working out.
Innovation is impossible without risk.
Businesses need to empower teams to take creative risks if they want to create new solutions.
Conversational Intelligence creates a sense of safety, the essential ingredient for innovation. The C-IQ approach makes it clear to everyone that it’s safe to express new ideas, and try new things even if they can’t be sure of the outcome.
Conversational Intelligence assessment
Now that you know how Conversational Intelligence works, are you wondering how it’s affecting your conversations?
The Catalyst Tools created by Judith E. Glaser can help you assess the level of conversation and engagement in your organization.
But for a quick look at how your level of conversational awareness is affecting your life, here are a few questions to think about:
- Are you often in meetings where people are talking over each other?
- Do you assume the people you’re speaking with understand what you’re thinking and feeling?
- Do you have trouble delegating and trusting your team to execute on your ideas?
- Are you a leader who feels your team is holding back their best ideas?
- In conversation with superiors, are you hyper-vigilant for clues about your performance?
- Are you the person who talks most in a group conversation?
If you answered yes to some or all of the questions above, you will see immediate benefits from learning and practicing C-IQ.
Exercises to practice Conversational Intelligence
A great way to start improving your Conversational Intelligence is with simple individual and partnered exercises.
Here are some things you can do start having better, more productive conversations built around trust.
Visualization and journaling
Imagine someone with whom you want to have a win-win, Level III Conversation. Rehearse it in your head and imagine what you want to say.
Then, write it down in a journal, to practice speaking your voice. Write out what you want from yourself and from the other person.
You can do this on your own, or as a partnered exercise.
Here are a few items to consider:
- What would constitute “success” in the outcome of this conversation?
- What did you like about previous conversations with this person? What did you dislike?
- If there’s a history of distrust, or a power imbalance with this person, how can you re-establish a sense of safety?
- What do you respect most about this person?
Working with a leadership coach
One of the most effective ways to implement Conversational Intelligence is to work with a coach who’s certified by the C-IQ program.
A certified C-IQ coach will work with you:
- To understand the neuroscience at play in your most difficult relationships.
- To identify the conversational blind-spots getting in the way of your success.
- To learn actionable methods for rebuilding trust.
- To become proficient at collaborative problem-solving conversations.
If you’re seeking to maximize your leadership potential with Conversational Intelligence, working with a C-IQ certified small business coach will have the biggest impact on your success.
Get in touch with us to learn more about SoulSalt’s leadership coaching and small business coaching services.
Ask better questions (and listen)
Asking and listening: two communication basics that are often overlooked by those in a position of leadership.
Before you ask a question, consider whether it’s truly a question. Often, people state opinions or demands in the form of a question.
1. We should scrap Project A and focus on Project B, don’t you think so?
2. What do you think we should do about Project A?
In the first question, you’ve already made up your mind. You want the other person to agree with you. The phrasing suggests you are not open to discussing other options, especially if you have the final say.
In the second question, you are asking for their opinion. When you actively listen to the response, you show that you value their input.
Asking better questions opens the door to collaborative decision-making, in which both parties agree on a solution.
Start practicing this in your daily interactions, and you will notice a difference.
Conversational Intelligence is the key to success — in business, and in life.
Learning to prime the brain for trust, partnership, and mutual success is a powerful skill.
With this knowledge, you can create conversations to support more productive, co-creative and intelligent results.