Three decades ago, 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. It would be my first experiment in Conversational Intelligence.®
For two weeks, I had the executives role-play potential conversations with “customers” and I charted what they said. The patterns were clear: The executives used “telling statements” 85 percent of the time, leaving only 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 — and all the time thinking that they were still conducting good, 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 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 feel cut off, invisible, unimportant, minimized, or rejected, which releases the same neurochemicals as physical pain.
Feeling rejection sends people into a “fight-or-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. To compound the conversational challenges, the brain disconnects 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.
These are natural impulses. But we have to learn to master them, because clear, compassionate, non-judgmental two-way communication is how deals get done, projects get run, and profits get earned.
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 really only remember what you think about what they say.
Don’t underestimate your propensity to have conversational blind spots. Start paying attention to and minimizing the time you “own” the conversational space. Share that space by asking open-ended discovery questions to which you don’t know the answers, so you stay curious. Then listen non-judgmentally to the answer and ask follow-up questions.
Through coaching, the Union Carbide 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.
Hooked on Being Right
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 a colleague and correct their point of view. They push back, so you try to convince everyone you’re right. It feels like an out-of-body experience — and, in many ways, it is: In terms of neurochemistry, 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 — and as a result, we are unable to regulate our emotions or handle the gaps between 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 him).
These harmful responses prevent the honest and productive sharing of information and opinion. I find the fight response to be 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 successful leaders 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 dampening impact their behavior has on those around them. While one person gets high on his or her dominance, others are drummed into submission, experiencing the fight, flight, freeze, or appease response, which diminishes their collaborative impulses.
Luckily, there’s another hormone that 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 (in communication) those spikes of cortisol and adrenaline.
Three Exercises to Try Today to Cure Your Addiction to Being Right
1. Set the rules of engagement. If you’re heading into a meeting that could get testy, start by outlining the rules of engagement. Have everyone suggest ways to make it a productive, inclusive conversation and write those ideas down for everyone to see. For example, you might agree to give people extra time to explain their ideas and to listen without judgment. These practices will counteract the tendency to fall into harmful conversational patterns. Afterward, consider how you and the group did and seek to do even better next time.
2. 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.
3. Plan who speaks. In situations when you know that one person is likely to dominate a conversation, create opportunities for everyone to speak. Ask all parties to identify who in the room has important information, perspectives, or ideas to share. List them and the areas they should speak about on a flip chart and use that as your agenda, opening the floor to different speakers, asking open-ended questions, and taking notes.
Connecting and bonding with others trumps conflict. I’ve found that even the best fighters — the proverbial smartest guys in the room — can break their addiction to being right by getting hooked on this oxytocin-inducing behavior instead.
Judith E. Glaser is the CEO of Benchmark Communications, Inc., and the Chairman of The Creating WE® Institute. She is an organizational anthropologist, author of the business best seller Conversational Intelligence, How Great Leaders Built Trust and Get Extraordinary Results (Bibliomotion, 2013), and consultant to Fortune 500 companies. www.creatingwe.com; www.conversationalintelligence.com; firstname.lastname@example.org.