Articles & Publications

By Richard D. Glaser, Ph.D.

Most of my experience is with business clients. Organizations are made up of diverse populations and getting diverse teams to work together is a challenge we all face today. While the experiences and examples cited in this essay are business-related, they also relate to our personal lives.

Hence, what I do want to address is how each of us can create positive changes in our lives, for ourselves, our families and our communities – in effect, creating a culture based on what’s best for all of us (WE), not just for me, mine and my kind.  If each of us conveys Conversational Intelligence, we can create an exciting synergy among us – enhancing our capacity to connect, navigate, grow with one another, and achieve our highest mutual aspirations.          

Listen to Connect, not Reject

My late wife, Judith E. Glaser, author of Conversational Intelligence and founder of the CreatingWE® Institute, wrote: “Navigating the future is a wiser strategy than working on fixing the past. We’ve been trained to ‘fix problems’ and told that ‘success will follow’, but this is not true in a world of rapid change.”

We are at an epic shift in history. Not only do words matter, they shape how the world functions.  In effect, our words create our worlds.  Why and how we use our words determines the future course of action. If we choose our words wisely, we can all reach the next level of greatness together. However, if we twist our words to provoke others, intentionally or inadvertently, fear can overshadow our progress.

Language has a direct and powerful impact on our psychology and neurochemistry. Conversations change the brain, and change relationships from the inside out. The words we use – and how we use them – trigger physical and emotional changes in the brain and body that either open us up for healthy connection or close us down so that we speak from a place of fear and anxiety.

So, instead of focusing on who is right and who is in the wrong, we can achieve mutual success by connecting our intentions to our impact. This motivates us and others to listen to connect, not reject.  We can then move beyond transactional conversation – confirming what we know – and positional conversation – defending what we know – to transformational conversation – discovering what we don’t know and co-creating solutions.

Overcoming Roadblocks and Blind Spots

Behavioral roadblocks and blind spots prevent us from activating the higher levels of interaction dynamics that pave the way to trust and healthy connections and inclusion. For example, are we engaging in Tell, Sell, Yell tactics, where we force our point of view to the exclusion of others? Or are we Addicted to Being Right, where we try to persuade others that ours is the only right answer?  Or are we All Talk and No Action, where we talk about fairness, justice, equality and equity but fail to walk our talk?

The unfortunate truth is that we cannot simply force others to assume our position. Tell, Sell, Yell, and Addiction to Being Right and All Talk and No Action are at the core of our nation’s greatest divide. These behaviors erode trust, the cornerstone of Conversational Intelligence, and trigger our territorial instincts, bringing us into a defensive part of our brain. Only by finding ways to calm our instinctive protect mode, can we create transformational conversations!

The more our interactions are trusting, positive and supportive, and the more we live in the present rather than the past, the greater our chances of tapping into the most incredible and powerful energy we have to create the next-generation innovation – a WE mindset.

When it comes to healthy conversations, we must strive to go beyond territorial instincts and create space for actual change that generates action and real solutions. This willingness to explore uncharted territory together, with increased self-awareness and open-mindedness, enables us to create a new language of shared success and to co-create the future we desire.

Conversational Intelligence brings us out of our Protective Brain into our Social Brain that enables us to connect, navigate, and flourish together. Which brain are you living in? Moving into transformational conversations will ignite your brain power, shed light on blind spots and old habits, and help change the world.

Union and Unity or Uniformity?

Judith once told about the genesis of Conversational Intelligence:

“Three decades ago, I first experimented with Conversational Intelligence when I was hired by a multinational manufacturing company to work with 17 high-powered sales executives in danger of losing a bid for a key contract. My job was to figure out how they could raise their game and beat the other seven competitors.          

For two weeks I had them role-play potential conversations with “customers” and charted what they said. The patterns were clear: the executives used “telling statements” 85% of the time, leaving only 15% for questions. And almost all the questions they asked were actually statements in disguise. They were talking and talking, trying to bring their counterparts around to their point of view – all the time thinking that they were still conducting productive conversations.

Having observed thousands of executives in similar, real-world situations – from prospecting to performance reviews, business development to innovation – I can tell you this is a common problem. People often think they’re talking to each other when they’re really talking past each other. They carry on monologues, not dialogues.

With our coaching, the sales team began to notice when they were making assumptions, interpreting incorrectly, and jumping to conclusions. They started asking discovery questions and paying close attention to their customers’ answers, which expanded their frame of reference and gave them new insights into needs and opportunities. In so doing, the executives presented themselves as conversationally intelligent partners, not salespeople – and they won the contract!”

Biology Behind the Behavior

There is a biological explanation for this: when we express ourselves, our bodies release reward hormones, and we feel great. The more we talk, the better we feel. Our bodies start to crave that high, and we become blind to the conversational dynamics. While we’re being rewarded, the people we’re talking to might feel cut off, invisible, unimportant, minimized and rejected, which releases the same neurochemicals as physical pain.

Feeling rejection sends them into a “fight-flight” response, releasing cortisol, which floods the system and shuts down the Prefrontal Cortex, or Executive Brain, letting the Amygdala, or Limbic Brain, take over. These are natural impulses.  To compound conversational challenges, the brain disengages about every 12 to 18 seconds to evaluate and process; hence, we’re often paying as much attention to our own thoughts as we are to other people’s words.

For example, when you are in a tense meeting trying to defend your position and start to feel yourself losing ground, your voice gets louder. You talk over people to correct their point of view. They push back, so you try to convince them you’re right. It feels like an out-of-body experience – and in many ways it is. In neurochemistry terms, your brain has been hijacked.

In situations of high stress, fear or distrust, the hormone and neurotransmitter cortisol floods the brain. Executive functions that help us with advanced thought processes like strategy, trust building, and compassion shut down. And the Amygdala, our Instinctive Brain, takes over. The body makes a chemical choice about how best to protect itself – in this case from the shame and loss of power associated with being wrong or not getting our way ­– and as a result we are unable to regulate our emotions or handle the gaps between our expectations and reality. So we default to one of four responses: fight (keep arguing the point), flight (revert to, and hide behind, group consensus), freeze (disengage from the argument by shutting up) or appease (make nice with your adversary by simply agreeing with them).

These harmful responses prevent the honest and productive sharing of information and opinion. I find that the fight response is by far the most damaging to relationships. It is also, unfortunately, the most common. That’s partly due to another neurochemical process. When you argue and win, your brain floods with different hormones: adrenaline and dopamine, which makes you feel good, dominant, even invincible. It’s a feeling that we want to replicate. So the next time we’re in a tense situation, we fight again – and thus become addicted to being right.

Many people suffer from this addiction. They are skilled at fighting for their point of view (which is often right), and yet they are unaware of the damaging impact their behavior has on the people around them. If one person is getting high off their dominance, others are being drummed into submission, experiencing the fight, flight, freeze or appease response, which diminishes collaborative impulses. This leads to cancel culture.

Luckily, another hormone can feel just as good as adrenaline: oxytocin. It’s activated by human connection, and it opens up the networks in our Executive Brain, or Prefrontal Cortex, increasing our ability to trust and open ourselves to sharing. Your goal should be to spur the production of oxytocin in yourself and others, while avoiding spikes of cortisol and adrenaline.

Becoming One: Merger or Acquisition?

Here’s another relevant story Judith told about candor:

“When a $7 billion multinational pharmaceutical company acquired a $300 million diagnostic company, the CEO chose to call it a ‘merger.’ He wanted to establish a “power-with others” relationship with the new organization. ‘We’re becoming one company and together we can create something that never existed before.’

The executives discussed changes that needed to be made to maximize the new partnership. Then they broke into smaller teams to craft the new vision and values, and later reconvened with a spirit of trust, collaboration, and hope for the future.

The CEO once again stood before the group and said, ‘We can’t create the organization we want without making fundamental changes in ourselves. Change begins inside each person. So, I want to let you know that I’ve discovered 16 things I want to change about myself! Here are my top three: my arrogance, control, and lack of trust. Now I want you each to think about what you can do personally to inspire your growth.’

The CEO was as transparent and vulnerable as he had ever been when he acknowledged the personal work he needed to do to make the merger a success. As he left behind his flaws, so did the other executives, which made room for cooperation, partnership and growth. By creating a shared context for change, the CEO enabled others to find common ground on which to build the future. His candor elevated trust and enabled synergy during what was, at the time, the biggest transformation the company ever embarked upon. And the result: this merger became extremely successful.

Candor is the behavior that best predicts high-performing teams because candor leads to trust: I trust you have my back; I trust your intentions; I trust you care. Power and hierarchy become less important than results we can create together through trust, honesty, and teamwork.

Candor, truth, and trust activate the same networks in our Prefrontal Cortex, our Executive Brain, and enhance strategic thinking, empathy, foresight, intuition, good judgment, handling uncertainty with less fear and working through difficult challenges with others. Candor taps into wisdom for discovering new ways to handle the challenges we face when stakes are high and uncertainty abounds – conditions we all face today.”

Eight Exercises to Try

Here are 8 exercises for curing your addiction to being right and creating healthy cultures and synergistic conversations:

  1. Listen with compassion. In one-on-one conversations, make a conscious effort to speak less and listen more. The more you learn about other peoples’ perspectives, the more likely you are to feel compassion for them. And when you do that for others, they’ll want to do it for you, creating a virtuous circle.
  1. Recognize your blind spots. Stop assuming that others see what you see, feel what you feel, and think what you think (that is rarely the case). Your blind spots cause you to fail to recognize that emotions, such as fear and distrust, change how you and others interpret and talk about reality. You think you understand and remember what others say, when you only recall what you think about what they say.
  1. Start paying attention to and minimizing the time you own the conversational space. Start sharing that space by asking open-ended discovery questions – queries to which you don’t know the answers – so you stay curious. For example, you might ask “What influenced your thinking?” Then listen non-judgmentally to the answers and ask follow-up questions.
  1. Elevate transparency and trust. Our brain is highly sensitive to reading signals of friend or foe as we interact. In .07 seconds, we can tell if someone is telling us the truth, and when they do, we label them friend and our whole mindset reconfigures to allow us to engage more deeply. Being candid sends signals that we will be open and transparent in our conversations, and therefore we can trust each other to have our back.
  1. Deepen relationships. When we are honest and candid with others, we engage at a deeper level of connectivity. Our brain radiates energy, and the energy of connection is more powerful than any other; and yet we can’t access this energy unless we feel safe. Focusing our candor on enhancing our relationship – such as telling the truth about who we are or helping build relationships before focusing on task – shows we value others and want to build on each other’s strength.
  1. Deepen understanding. When we exercise empathy, we are able to step into each other’s world and understand each other’s perspectives rather than feeling we need to defend our own. The need to be right is an addiction which gets stronger when we are uncertain of where we stand. When we seek to deepen our connectivity by focusing on understanding others' intentions, dreams, and aspirations – we communicate we have their best interest at heart. Our Prefrontal Cortex and Heart connection actually strengthen physiologically – and the quality of our conversations escalates – magnifying our ability to achieve greater results with others.
  1. Build shared success. When we deepen understanding, we are able to spend more time exploring what success looks like with others – not just my success, our shared success. Rather than focusing on my needs, I am able to build a new world view that combines yours and mine in synergistic ways. Our Executive Brain – our Prefrontal Cortex – has the capacity to build holograms of the future, and when we are open enough to access this capacity, we join our best thinking into one new world view with Shared Success as the outcome.
  1. Elevate courage to tell the truth. When we seek shared success, we elevate our courage to step up, speak out and share what is on our mind. When we mask the truth or when we avoid difficult conversations, our body chemistry shifts. A disease is dis-ease – it’s a chemical discomfort that blocks the vital instincts for growth. Finding ways to be candid and caring at the same time creates the healthy space for truth telling while strengthening relationships with others.

Experiment with these eight ways to create and sustain change, growth, transformation, and synergy. Learning to have healthy conversations is the most vital skill of a transformational leader.  Making candor a priority opens the door to trust and synergy. We instinctively turn to those who make us feel good and turn away from those who make us feel bad. Connecting and bonding with others trumps conflict. Even the best fighters – the proverbial smartest people in the room – can break their addiction to being right by getting hooked on oxytocin-inducing behavior instead. Learning to down-regulate fear and up-regulate factors that stimulate growth is a winning strategy for business success and racial and cultural synergy.

Finally, as my late wife Judith often said: “Getting to the next level of greatness depends on the quality of the culture, which depend on the quality of the relationships, which depends on the quality of the conversations.  Everything happens through conversations!”

About the Author

Richard D. Glaser, PhD, is President and CEO of Benchmark Communications, Inc. and cofounder with his late wife Judith E. Glaser of The CreatingWE® Institute where they worked as coaches and consultants with multi-national firms to cultivate cultures of Conversational Intelligence® and highly effective teams. Richard worked extensively in the Pharmaceutical/ Biotechnology industry where he held executive global responsibilities in two Fortune 500 companies. As an entrepreneur, he served as the COO and Board member of two NASDAQ companies and President of a major Research Organization. Richard earned a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and a MS degree in Medicinal Chemistry from the University of Kansas and an MS in Pharmaceutical Chemistry and a BS in Chemistry from the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science (now The University of Sciences). Richard consults with companies on management issues, product design and development strategies, and regulatory affairs.

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