Conversational Intelligence: Strategies to Boost Your Communication Skills

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  • May 22, 2017


Communication is one of the most critical parts of my job — it’s the reason for this blog, in fact, because I wanted to share my passion for self-improvement with others and communicate about the things I’m learning and trying. But while communication is important, it’s not always easy. Too often, we avoid hard conversations, drop hints instead of speaking freely or simply misunderstand what someone else is saying.

Recently, I read Judith Glaser’s Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results, and it helped clarify my thinking around how to have meaningful conversations that result in real change.

Glaser is the CEO of Benchmark Communications, Inc., and she helps corporations change how they have conversations to help improve communications, create a safe space for new ideas and ensure teams work together more effectively.

The Science of Conversations

One of the things I really enjoyed about this book was that Glaser broke conversations down into the neuroscience behind them (I admit, I geek out a bit about this stuff, so it’s always fun to find a book that is as enthusiastic as I am about this kind of thing).

I hadn’t really thought through the brain chemistry behind trust, but Glaser argues that conversational intelligence is actually hardwired into our brains. She says that our state of mind impacts our conversations; if our brains feel trust during a conversation, they will activate the “trust network,” which tends to occur primarily in the prefrontal cortex, where complex thinking occurs. If we feel distrust, that will trigger our fear network, which takes place primarily in the lower brain (the amygdala and limbic areas). You’ve probably heard of “fight or flight” responses — that’s the same fear network that is triggered. Essentially, Glaser says, if you don’t like or trust the person you are talking to, you will have a fear response that makes it hard to focus on what he or she is saying, because your brain is telling you to leave. But a conversation with someone you trust activates the part of your brain where most high-level thinking takes place, making it possible to think creatively and dig deeper to the heart of whatever it is you’re talking about. Pretty cool, right?

Three Conversation Levels

Glaser divides most conversations into three levels. She says that we are hardwired for all three, and we use them at different times and for different purposes.

Level I is informational conversations. These are entirely transactional, and information is simply given or received. When I tell my wife we are out of avocados, that is a Level I conversation. I just want her to know that information, and then we can decide if we need more avocados and who is getting them. There are no emotional stakes, and these conversations do not tend to activate much in our brains.

Level II is positional conversations. These are meant to understand how other people think and share our own thoughts and opinions. Conversations like this are more persuasive, and unlike Level I conversations, they can trigger stronger reactions, because people tend to be more strongly invested in the outcome. If one or more people in the conversation are more interested in pushing their point of view than in listening to everyone, it can trigger that fear network in the brain. I’m sure everyone has had the experience of listening to someone who talks over them or doesn’t seem to hear what they’re saying. What normally happens in these conversations? You shut down. Not only do you stop talking, you stop listening, too. This is a Level II conversation gone wrong. But when Level II conversations are done with mutual trust, respect and reciprocity, they can create a culture of sharing and collaboration.

Level III is relational conversations. They are meant to build connections, and when that happens, our brains release oxytocin, also known as the bonding hormone. When oxytocin is released, we trust the other person, making us more likely to open up to him or her, which releases more oxytocin, creating a positive feedback loop. Level III conversations are the rarest type, but also the most powerful, and they result in more creativity, energy and better partnerships.

Effective Communication

As many of you know, I’m a do-er, so one of the things I liked best about Glaser’s book was that she broke down conversational intelligence into a few simple steps. She calls it T.R.U.S.T.

T (Transparency). First, you have to be open about what’s on your mind. Be honest. Ask for what you need, and keep other people in the loop. This will help other people trust you.

R (Relationship). Build strong relationships before working on tasks. This is where empathy and consideration come into play; understand what is important to other people and speak openly and honestly about what’s going on with them. In my own company, we can get so focused on our narrow slice of the tasks we’re trying to accomplish that we can lose sight of the big picture. But those people who work cross functionally and build relationships with team members are more likely to be effective.

U (Understanding). This can be one of the hardest things to do, but this step requires setting aside pre-existing assumptions and instead actively listening to what other people say to get a better understanding of where they are coming from and what they need.

S (Shared Success). Focus on creating a shared meaning with other people and celebrate the success that comes as a result of collaboration. We’re all in this together, and by emphasizing our commonality instead of our differences, we can align our goals and create a broader definition of what success really means.

T (Truth). This is so basic, but so important. Be honest. Be truthful. At the same time, be kind. Sometimes people excuse rudeness with honesty, but it’s possible to be candid with someone without being hurtful. But if others know you will tell them the truth, they are more likely to be honest with you, and creating a space where honesty is valued and rewarded means people can focus more on building relationships than worrying about hidden meanings.

Glaser argues that conversational intelligence is critical to businesses seeking success, and I think she’s right. Literally every job function requires communication of some kind, and in my own life, I’ve seen that people who may be incredibly talented and good at what they do fail because they are unable to communicate effectively with other people. By following some of the techniques outlined above, however, people can build relationships and create a culture of collaboration, transparency and teamwork. And that can only lead to greatness.

About Todd Zipper

President & Chief Executive Officer

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