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Judith E. Glaser
Judith E. Glaser

Conversational Blind Spots

Recognize them, share the conversational space, and ask questions!

Seeing Around the Corner…

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.

Recognize your blind spots:

STOP underestimating your own propensity to have conversational blind spots. We all have them – it’s part of being human. Identify which blind spots are yours!

  • Blind Spot #1 The first blind spot involves an assumption that others see what we see, feel what we feel, and think what we think.
  • Blind Spot #2 Thefailure to realize that fear, trust, and distrust change how we see and interpret reality, and therefore how we talk about it.
  • Blind Spot #3 An inability to stand in each other’s shoes when we are fearful or upset.
  • Blind Spot #4 Theassumption that we remember what others say, when we actually remember what we think about what others say.
  • Blind Spot #5 The assumption that meaning resides in the speaker, when in fact it resides in the listener.


  • Paying attention to and minimizing the time you "own" the conversational space. When you open the space for othrs to contribute you allow them the time to process new insights that can have a dramatic impact on 'what comes next' in the conersation.
  • Sharing that space by asking open-ended discovery questions, to which you don't know the answers, so you stay curious. (i.e., What influenced your thinking? What ideas might be valuable for us to discuss? How might we address this challenge together?)
  • Listening to connect not judge or reject. When we listen to connect we connect through our heart, and prefrontal cortex - which also activates our centers of empathy, openness and receptivity to others points of view. When we listen to judge, we are listening to see when we fit our ideas into the conversation, we look for what is missing in the other person's perspective and we often 'trump them' which creates resistance and 'lock down.'
  • Double-clicking on what others say to facilitate sharing and discovering and opening the space for deeper connection and relationship building. Too often we listen to confirm what we know or defend what we know. Double-clicking on what others are saying keeps us in the higher brain, expands our connectivity, and builds a stronger partnership with others.

Conversational Intelligence & Reality Gaps

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)

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About the Author
Judith E. Glaser

Judith E. Glaser, the author of seven books including Conversational Intelligence, was a founding member of the Harvard Coaching Institute. She passed away in 2018.

Nicklas Balboa now manages her blog.

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