Lyn Christian, an ICF Master Certified Coach and founder of SoulSalt Inc. has partnered up with Author of Conversational Intelligence®, Organizational Anthropologist Judith E. Glaser to present the podcast episode: The Chemistry of Conversation – What’s the chemistry of your conversational style?
Have you ever experienced an embarrassing situation? You probably still replay it over and over again in your mind. It’s likely you still experience the pain, stress and neuro-chemical trauma of that experience, even though it’s just a memory.
Lyn Christian and Judith E. Glaser discuss how the words we use in conversation can create a long-lived, toxic environment—an environment where the stress hormone, cortisol, leaves everyone feeling anxious and traumatized. They also discuss compassion and Judith’s Trust Model as a means to combat the detrimental effects of cortisol and neuro-chemical stress. Find out how you can create a better conversational environment and foster the potential for human brilliance.
This was a big thing for me. And it took me a long time, if ever, to get over that. We don’t give enough credence to human being’s need to be a part of the team, the clan. We need to be accepted. We need to be appreciated.
How often do you or I find ourselves wandering on a path in the park or hiking through nature only to encounter a piece of rubbish? And you know what I’m talking about. Maybe it’s a crumpled bit of paper, a cap to a water bottle, or a wrapper. Maybe it’s a discarded can, and you spy it. Visually and even energetically, what you may have noticed is how these not-like-the-other items break up the natural pattern of grass, brush, tree, soil, and stone.
And there are good reasons why you or I are admonished to not litter, because imagine if the woods, the grass, the leaves, the things that grow in nature that die every year didn’t decompose back into soil. Now, how crowded and cluttered would our parks and hiking trails, our world, for instance, be?
There’s a big difference between nature’s products and how long it takes for things that we make like paper bags and apple cores to decompose. And let me give you a quick breakdown: A paper bag can take a month to decompose. An apple core can take up to eight weeks. And that orange peel and banana peel that you think some chipmunk or squirrel would enjoy, that can take two years. Cigarette ends: 18 months to 500 years. A plastic bag will take about 18 to 20 years to completely decompose, and plastic bottles can take between 450 and 10,000 years. And then, who wants to eat something or forage on something that’s grown in soil that has biodegradable plastic in it? Oh, and by the way, that piece of chewing gum that you just tossed in a bush, that takes a million years to decompose.
Clearly, many of us understand that the environment, which feeds us and our friends—our mountains, our oceans, our woods—they get polluted by these toxins that we leave behind. But there are other things that we’re leaving behind that have just as many toxins in them. And I’m talking about the words we use, the tones we express the words in. They can be as tangible and as palpable as any piece of garbage we might throw away.
I’m your host, Lyn Christian, and you’re listening to What’s Your Conversational Intelligence®?—the podcast where we discover the science of conversation, and how true leaders can build trust and foster extraordinary results.
So let’s talk about some of the rubbish that comes out of our mouths. And you’ve experienced these. And maybe you have the question in your mind like I do in mine: Why do negative comments and conversations stick with us so much longer than positive interactions? Why don’t they decompose quickly?
Maybe our boss criticized our work, or we had a disagreement with one of our colleagues, or maybe we had a fight with a friend, or a spat with our lover. The stinging sensation from any of these incidences can wash right over and erase a month’s worth of praise or recognition.
What’s happening here has to do with neuro-chemistry. And we’re going to bring on the call now, Judith E. Glaser. She’s an organizational anthropologist, the author of Conversational Intelligence. And in her work around being intelligent with our conversations, she can tell us the neuro-chemistry behind why the things that secrete cortisol and give us stress last longer than the things that secrete oxytocin and help us feel connected.
It turns out that when cortisol gets activated, and it comes from something that’s around us that we need to bump into everyday, so it’s ever-present, it’s kind of like this pen is always going to be here and this pen has a poke so it’s in my life now, so it has the ability to produce more cortisol. So if one situation happens: let’s say you have a leader in a company, and he has a team meeting every week, and he happens to think that there’s one person in the team who he doesn’t think is as smart as he would like that person to be, and so he starts to (in front of everybody) give some negative feedback to that person. So now, this leader has activated cortisol in that person. If it happens more than once, if it happens more than twice, it becomes a pattern that you don’t even have to have him say it. All he has to do is lean in and look at that person, and bingo! That activation takes place because human beings are designed to protect themselves. We don’t . . . you know . . . it’s automatic. And when we have somebody who dislikes us, and openly shows it in a public forum, it could be about the worst thing that could happen to a human being.
Right. Because we look bad in front of other people, and it makes us feel less than. And this cortisol, this stress hormone, literally gets in our body and, from what you’ve taught me, Judith, it does not metabolize quickly.It doesn’t. It doesn’t because . . . Think about, if you do believe that we came from animals—you know, apes and monkeys and all that kind of stuff, that there’s an evolution—any kind of animal, which we have.
Although, interestingly, in recent times they’ve come up with . . . there was a strain called us that was separate from the animals. So there’s some people that are now pushing back. But that’s what people do when they’re academics.
But the cortisol stays around longer. It puts us in a protect mode. The protect mode is to save us, our ego, our body, you know, our physical being, our relationships, or whatever. And so, we end up producing higher levels of this thing called cortisol. And if we meditate, reflect on something that’s happened (I’m sure you’ve had this happen where you’ll have an experience, it’s kind of over, but you’re heading in the direction of that boss’s office and bingo! The whole thing comes back) you relive it. And then there’s a 26-hour shelf life, let’s say. One incidence of being told you’re a stupid idiot in front of people is enough for that to become something that will appear in our mind, even if it doesn’t appear in real life again. It’s the fear that it’s going to appear.
So it appears in our neuro-chemistry, in our thoughts. And this cortisol can have a shelf life of 26 hours? That’s a long time to feel the affects of being thrown into fear, or resentment, or something.
And it could be longer than that. That’s what I find . . . it’s more than that.
So here’s a story: there’s a woman who had a boss and the boss did what we’ve been talking about—embarrassed her in front of her peers in the team meetings. And she went to a doctor and the doctor said, “Listen. I’m going to give you some medicine for your stress, but I can’t guarantee that that’s going to be enough. And I don’t want you in the hospital. I want you to do something about this.” Six months later he finally said, “I’ve done everything I can do for you. I would like to suggest that you resign—straight up resign.” So she resigned. And then he said, “Find a better place. Find a better boss, because you don’t want to risk what is happening to your body. First, you’re not bringing your best self to work; your sense of self is being diminished. I’m now treating you with all sorts of drugs that you could become addicted on, and I don’t want to do that.” And so she did. She pulled away, spent six months looking, looking, looking, found a job, found a boss, really excited, goes to work, is at the meeting at 10 o’clock that day (the first day), and during the meeting the boss turns to her (of all people in the meeting) and said something like “I don’t understand what you just said.” It was huge.
When I moved to a new neighborhood. I moved from a middle class neighborhood in Philadelphia to a suburban neighborhood. I had all A’s, so they thought I was such a super star. One of the English teachers said, “We’re going to do a spelling bee. I’m going to give you the questions to read in front of the class.” So I’m standing up in front of a class (now middleclass clothes, nothing fancy) looking at all these girls dressed up, pretty hair, everything. I’m standing up (I still remember what I wore) and I’m reading the words, the spelling bee. I was so embarrassed, because I knew this was a big thing for me. So, here I am, you know, faced with that kind of experience.
Anyway, that stayed with me forever. And it took me a long time, if ever, to get over that. And I had been an all A student. I was number one in the class, and now my grades are slipping because the cortisol—making a mistake in front of all these, you know, wealthy people, and learning to fit in, and the whole thing.
We don’t give enough credence to human being’s need to be inside. We need to be part of the team, the clan. We need to be accepted. We need to be appreciated.
Anyway, so this woman, she walked out. And she said, “Get a hold of yourself! Go talk to him.” She went in to talk to her new boss; and she said, “It took six months to find you. It look me a long time to find an environment that I thought was going to help me grow into the best person I could be. I was so excited to work with you, work for you, be here.” But she said, “What just happened to me in that meeting was one of the most uncomfortable moments of my life, because it pretty much told me maybe I misjudged you, and I misjudged our potential relationship.” And she said, “I can’t have you talk to me like that in front of people.” The leader said, “Oh, my goodness.” He said, “I had no idea that what I said was going to have that kind of impact on you.” He said, “I was asking a question or something.” He didn’t realize the question was so judgmental, not just a question, but a judgmental reference to her. And he said, “I have been so excited about having you on my team.” And he said, “I want to ask you a favor.” He was so smart in that respect. He said, “I obviously have some blind spots. And you know, I had no idea I was doing that, and that is the furthest from what I’d want to do to you. And I would like to give you permission to give me feedback if I start to show up anything like that again. I want you to make an appointment, and come talk to me about it, because I need to work on myself if that’s the case. And it’s not you. It’s my blind spot.” She stayed; they became great feedback givers to each other. The boss opened up and said, you know, feedback up.
So could you give us a couple of ideas of how we can boost oxytocin and serotonin?
We have a model, a Trust Model. And there are five things that people can do to shift chemistry. And if we shift the chemistry towards trust, then the brain will open up— the prefrontal cortex/heart connection becomes stronger; we have access to thoughts we’ve never thought about before; we have access to mind reading of other people, literally picking up on cues and clues from human being that enable us to connect and support each other in ways that are not typical in highly aggressive, low-quality feedback environments. We cannot access our brilliance as human beings—our humanity, our strategic thinking, our foresight (in other words, picking up cues about the future). The cues are there.
There’s tons of patterns that start to show up early. And if we are open to having this part of the brain engage in that process of being the censor to identify these patterns, we will surprise ourselves. We’ll be able to say, “I intuitively knew that.” Well, how did you know it? “Well, this pattern started to show up.” Well, how did it show up? It showed up because this part of your brain was accessible. And oxytocin is produced, cortisol gets down-regulated, so it starts to disappear. And they work hand in hand, those two parts of the brain, those two chemical compositions. That’s the magic of the alchemy of the brain—that the more we support each other in connecting in healthy ways, less judgment.
There’s some beautiful research that started . . . 1960’s but really started to blossom in 2003, 2004, 2005 and it talks about how as human beings connect with each other, we need, more than anything (and this came from Matt Lieberman), that when we’re not doing work that we need to do as individuals, then our brain automatically thinks about people. That’s how much people need people in healthy ways. And so, if we can . . .
The Hendrix work said . . .
We use to think empathy was the high point, because . . . (and we do have empathy because of prefrontal cortex abilities). However, empathy is: “I feel your pain.” That’s how we articulate it in words: “I feel your pain.” And we use to think that was like the high point if somebody says to you “I really feel what you’re feeling,” you know, and all that kind of thing. It’s not, because if I feel your pain, now I’ve gone from happy to being in pain. So now, you have two people being in pain, producing more cortisol, activating more distance from each other, not together.
So Hendrix and his team realized that there’s something higher than that; and it’s called compassion. And compassion is when we say, “How can I help you? What can I do to help you,” you know.
And that’s pure coaching. That’s why coaching is so important. That’s why good leadership is so important. All you have to do is say, “How can I help you?” Now you have somebody on your side. Now you articulate what you need and you move from (and this is beautiful, this is beautiful work) you move from being in the limbic, emotional space where you feel things, but we don’t have words for that, right? So instead, you go to a place of: “I’m not going to sit and feel your pain. I want to know what I can do to help you. What will elevate you?” And when people do that, when leaders do that, it actually activates more oxytocin, it down-regulates. The chemistry happens in our brain; it’s automatic, hardwired, unconscious ability in our brain that gets activated. And this is what I love about John Barge’s work, for example, because he talks about the unconscious, and that we’re hardwire for all of this stuff. And it’s primitive as all get out.
It is! It goes way back.
Way back, way back! And we’re just now making room for it. We’re saying, “Okay, enough of this ego stuff, enough of this addicted to being right stuff, enough of this I’ll tell you what to do, and I’ll be so smart, and you’ll give me an A, and I’ll get a higher bonus,” or whatever. It’s that we’ve created a world that is hooked on stuff. And that’s why . . . Look what’s happening with opium and opiates and all these kinds of things. I mean, it’s all coming together at the same time. So, imagine that words create worlds, imagine that words are mechanisms of action. And so, if I say, “How can I help you?” And you say, “Oh my god! Nobody’s asked me that in forever. Ah! It would be a little thing, could you help me with this?” Fine. Great! Bingo!
And there we go. And it wasn’t empathy. It was that higher order of compassion, which is: “I see you as capable; let’s see what we can do together in partnership,” instead of: “Oh, let’s both feel bad together.”
Yes, Yeah! You’ve got it beautifully. That’s it. Don’t go down to the lowest common denominator, because that will activate 26-hours of shelf life. And then, you’ll feel bad about yourself. Now you’ve got 26 more. You could have, like this woman, six months more, like I had when I went to school, years more of embarrassment, or feeling, you know, not good enough, and all that kind of stuff.
Now that we’ve listened to Judith explain more about the chemistry of conversation, let’s talk about how you and I can increase oxytocin, and facilitate people to show up, to be their brightest, boldest, best decision-making, innovative self. And let’s also discuss how you and I can decrease the amount of angst, overwhelm and cortisol that we foster in our conversations with other people. We’re going to pull a page right from Judith’s book, Conversational Intelligence. And we are going to talk about something she explains as the Trust Model. I’m going to abbreviate her Trust Model a bit. And what you’ll want to do, if you’re taking notes, is to actually write the word trust, T–R–U–S–T, on a piece of paper or a document. And write the word vertically versus horizontally, because each letter of the word “trust” indicates a little cue that we can use to help people stay in their executive brain and not go into a primitive mindset or primitive behavior. Here’s the first part:
T in trust stands for being transparent, being willing to share context, being willing to be a bit more vulnerable than maybe you have in the past. Be transparent. Let people see where you’re coming from, what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling, what you’re wanting. And ask them what are they thinking, feeling, wanting, needing in the situation?
The second letter R stands for building respect, and building the relationship. So, share with one another, join with one another, come from a place of respect and a desire to build the relationship.
The U in trust stands for understanding the other person’s perspective. Stand under their umbrella of perspective. How do they see the world? What are they thinking? What are they wanting?
The S in trust is to create a vision of shared success. Give support to people, and find out what success looks like to them. Be reciprocal and share what success looks like to you.
And finally, the last T. Tell the truth. Get to the reality of what’s going on. Keep peeling the onion, and make sure that you are having an open, honest conversation.
Carry this little note about trust around with you, and practice it over the next 5 days. See how many conversations you can have where you build trust, and you build the relationship.
If you’d like to work with Judith, please check out creatingwe.com and sousalt.com for myself. If you’d like to find someone who is certified to work with you on Conversational Intelligence®, send an inquiry to firstname.lastname@example.org.
What’s Your Conversational Intelligence® is produced by Benchmark Communications, Inc., and SoulSalt, Inc. Editing by Jessica Draper and Gavin Bruderer. Research and writing on this podcast was completed by Alicia Bird, Lyn Christian, and Judith E. Glaser. Shannon Dee and Molly Levine are in charge of scheduling and logistics. Thanks again to Judith E. Glaser.