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Pleased to Meet You: On Three Levels
Conversational Intelligence (CI) functions on three levels. At Level I – the most basic level – people ask and answer questions, share information or conduct transactions. At the next point, Level II, people share viewpoints and try to guide others toward them in “positional” conversations. At Level III – the highest level – people speak and listen in order to “transform and shape reality together” in a “co-creating conversation.” The brain is hardwired to achieve Level III conversations, but negative emotions – fear and distrust – often interfere with reception. Trust enables healthy conversations and allows relationships to flourish.
Part I – Trust and Distrust in Conversations
When you trust people, you’re more receptive to what they say. When you lack trust, you’re not receptive. Your brain shuts down. You’re less likely to listen to others or to hear them out. The emotions of trust and distrust activate different areas of your brain. Distrust occurs in the more primitive, emotion-centered amygdala; trust takes place in the higher-functioning “executive level” prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex makes judgments, analyzes information, builds strategies, and so on.
Initial contact leads to fulfilling relationships or fruitless ones, depending on what occurs during the first face-to-face meeting, phone call or email. How you connect and communicate can be “healthy or unhealthy.” In a healthy conversation, you feel connected and safe. Here, safety refers to a lack of harm or punishment. You may disagree on the subject of the conversation, but trust each other enough to express different points of view.
Scientists refer to situations when perceived threats shut down your brain’s ability to process rational thinking as an “amygdala hijacking.” To recover from an amygdala hijack, be aware of your reactions. If you respond to apparent threats by trying “fight, flight, freeze or appease,” that’s normal, but for peace of mind consider some alternative reactions:
- Consider alternative reactions, such as taking time out to breathe.
- Develop awareness of what causes you stress and learn to interrupt your stress patterns.
- Shift your mind-set; move away from distrust and fear as you move toward trust.
Case History: Rob, the “I-Centric Leader”
Many employees complained about Rob, a Verizon executive who came to author Judith E. Glaser for coaching. The complaining employees included a 25-year company veteran who had survived a heart attack. He pleaded with HR for a different boss, anyone but Rob.
The coach asked Rob how he exercised leadership. He explained that he gives his employees homework about leadership, makes them revise drafts until they meet his expectations and checks in with his team on a frequent basis when he’s out of town. Rob said he considers himself a “best practice leader.” Asked if his employees were “reaching their best,” he responded, “Most are not, so I keep motivating them and pushing them…Maybe it’s time to fire them.”
Rob was an “I-centric leader” who lacked any hint of a “WE-centric perspective”; he saw the world only from his own viewpoint. His staff members said he treated them like children. He even used red ink to correct their reports. Employees said they sometimes revised drafts 10 to 14 times. One worker said, “Rob was redlining his own writing, not ours. We are not valued, not treated with respect, diminished.” They echoed the same theme: “Just for once, he should ask us what we think, or what we want to talk about, or what’s on our minds.” The coach asked Rob to make one simple change: Ask his employees for their ideas. When Rob shifted his mind-set from telling to asking, a whole new world opened up for him, and his employees felt respected.
“Moving from Distrust to Trust”
During an amygdala hijack, the brain releases the neurotransmitter cortisol, which halts executive function even if you want it to work. In contrast, when people bond on an emotional level, the brain releases the hormone oxytocin and other neurotransmitters that support positive responses.
Most people want to do well at work. When their performance suffers, they become fearful, embarrassed, angry or resentful, or they might exhibit other negative emotions. Most people clam up when they feel under attack, for example, when a boss openly criticizes them in front of their colleagues.
To boost your oxytocin level while dampening your need for fear-induced cortisol, apply the “TRUST” model to your conversations by incorporating: “Transparency, Relationship, Understanding, Shared Success, and Testing Assumptions and Telling the Truth.” Be completely open about your fears and how they block trust. “Extend the olive branch, even with people you may see as foes.” Invite other people to share what they’re thinking. Be open to their viewpoints.
When the heart beats out of sync, due to fear or anxiety, the higher-level prefrontal cortex closes down and the more primitive amygdala takes over. That triggers feelings of being scared, unsafe or mistrustful. Workplaces generate fear and turn toxic when people gossip, take their frustrations out on others or shut down. They may refuse to talk about their feelings, cooperate or put forth more than the minimum of effort. Leaders must be willing to listen to others, as must employees.
Part II – Increasing Your Conversational Intelligence
Conversational intelligence is the ability to gauge and conduct a conversation. This form of intelligence “differentiates humans from other species and enables us to develop and handle complexity, ambiguity and change.” To raise your CI, become aware of these “blind spots”:
- Don’t assume that others share your point of view.
- Don’t let distrust or fear distort your perception of reality.
- Don’t let fear kill your empathy.
- Don’t assume that you remember what others say. Your interpretation of what people say is just that – your interpretation.
- Meaning does not reside in the speaker; it resides in the listener.
These common blind spots show how perception differs from reality, which is relative to each speaker and listener. Your reality is not the same as another person’s, so you have blind spots that “spring from reality gaps.” Closing those gaps requires self-awareness.
Most communication is nonverbal and subject to interpretation. As early as 1967, psychologist Albert Mehrabian discovered that words, tone of voice and nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions or eye contact, work together when you “convey feelings and attitudes.” In that context, words are the least important aspect of communication (7%) compared to tone of voice (38%) and nonverbal behavior (55%).
When the heart and brain are in sync, you form deeper connections and create an atmosphere conducive to Level III conversations. However, many people get trapped in Level I conversations, which occur when you tell others what to do, give advice, focus on a specific strategy and remain set in your ways. “Getting stuck in Level I conversations” is the “Tell-Sell-Yell Syndrome.” You also can bog down in Level II conversations when you “get neurochemically hooked on being right.” Sadly, the pleasure of the feel-good hormones released when you win an argument and get to be “right” can become addictive.
Level III Conversations
“Prime the pump” for Level III conversations by thinking about the outcome that you want to achieve. “Because intention matters, priming must be done with the goal of sincerity and honesty.”
Your physical environment matters. Yale University researcher John Bargh discovered that the temperature of your coffee affects how others perceive you. Hot coffee is associated with “warmer” personalities and iced coffee is linked to “cold” personalities. “Physical warmth can make us see others as warmer people, but also causes us to be warmer – more generous and trusting – as well,” Bargh said. Other neuroscientists concur. “It turns out that a physical sensation of coldness and the feeling that a person is behaving coldly toward you are registered in the same place in the brain.” Consider whether this applies to you, whether you become defensive, withdraw from others or exclude them. And, if so, how might you change these exclusionary patterns to become more inclusive.
Make meetings more productive by establishing “Rules of Engagement.” Ask participants to define what they want the meeting’s outcome to be, for example, “have an open, trusting conversation and…follow through on our agreements.” Be sure to:
- Send out an agenda.
- Provide a revised agenda based on corrections or new submissions.
- Sit next to your partners – not across the table – so you can work on line items and make notes together.
- Keep conversations open and collaborative.
Use the “three R’s” – “Reframe, Refocus, Redirect” – to work past unhealthy conversations. Create a comfortable environment by reframing statements that might provoke negative emotions. For example, if someone says, “I don’t feel good about myself because I make so many mistakes,” you could respond with this sentence, “Those who make mistakes are taking risks – and that is how we learn.” You also can rephrase reprimands, such as, “I am really annoyed about how much time you spend on these small projects that don’t seem to go anywhere.” You could reframe this concern by saying instead, “I’d love for you to apply your care about your work to a number of new projects rather than just a few small ones…My guess is you have a lot of great expertise now that you can bring to some new and challenging initiatives.”
Redirecting helps people emotionally stuck in the past to move forward. When a colleague says, “There is no way we can do anything other than what we did,” you could respond, “Last week I worked with someone with the same issue and challenges you had. He, too, thought it was a dead end. Here is what he did. I never would have thought of it – but it really is amazing and offers a new way to look at things…”
Enlist trusted friends to help you shift your mind-set when fear takes over. They can tell you when your inner power monster rears up, help you recognize when these problems spiral out of control and work with you to develop coping strategies.
Part III – Teamwork at Level III
In 1965, psychologist and professor Bruce Tuckman defined the four major stages of team development as “forming, storming, norming and performing.” Teams come together in the forming stage, when members decide who they can trust. Team members suffer from low trust levels in the second stage, storming. They jockey for power by guarding information, playing politics or inflating their self-importance. Teams turn a corner when they reach stage three – norming – when they begin to collaborate. The best teams reach performing when members perform at their peak and collaborate without undermining their peers.
Michael Morris, a Columbia University psychologist, warns, “The inner conformist is stronger than the inner activist.” People in teams need to bond, to feel that they belong. If team members are uncertain of that acceptance, they will hesitate to speak before others express themselves first. Fear keeps people from speaking up, especially in groups. They fear failure, rejection, exclusion, being judged, and more. Trust eliminates fear. To establish trust, turn conversations from monologues to dialogues. “Be present.” Be honest but tactful, and “tell people where they stand.” Co-create conversations.
As you learn to trust your team members, you will feel more comfortable contributing to the group. Without that trust, your team may never hear your good ideas.[/text_block]