Twenty-eight years ago I began my first experiment in Conversational Intelligence. I was hired by Union Carbide 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 percent of the time, leaving a paltry 15 percent 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 good, productive conversations.
Having observed thousands of executives in similar situations—from prospecting to performance reviews, business development to innovation—I know that 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.
There is a biological explanation for this: When we express ourselves, our bodies release a higher level of 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 consciously or subconsciously 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 lower brain, take over. To compound conversational challenges, the brain disconnects every 12 to 18 seconds to evaluate and process, meaning we're often paying as much attention to our own thoughts as we are to other people's words.
In business, we must learn to master these natural impulses because clear two-way, empathetic, non-judgmental communication is critical for high functioning. It's how deals get done, projects get run, and profits get earned. That's why I now teach more executives, like those at Union Carbide, how to become more intelligent in conversations.
Our blind spots spring from reality gaps. Your reality and mine are not the same. You and I have different experiences, we know different people, we came from different parts of the world, and we use different language to label our world. Even those of us who are in the same room at the same time will take away different impressions of our time together. That is why culture is so important. It creates the conversational rituals and practices that harmonize our experiences, create a shared language, and help us bridge and connect with others more fully—it creates a shared reality.
Too often we fail to recognize or acknowledge that our reality is not the same as the reality of the person we are speaking with. Through coaching, the Union Carbide sales team learned to use the term “reality gaps,” and learned to make their invisible blind spots visible. They began to notice when they were making assumptions, interpreting incorrectly, and jumping to conclusions.
Through coaching, the Union Carbide sales team began to notice when they were making assumptions, interpreting reality 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 sales people. And, they won the contract!
Judith E. Glaser is CEO of Benchmark Communications, Inc. and Chairman of The Creating WE Institute. She is an Organizational Anthropologist, and consults to Fortune 500 Companies. Judith is the author of 4 best selling business books, including her newest, Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results (Bibliomotion, 2013)