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Judith E. Glaser
Judith E. Glaser

The Neurochemistry of Power Conversations

Leaders who activate trust

Michael Bud, Benchmark Inc.
Source: Michael Bud, Benchmark Inc.

You will recognize this familiar situation: The boss has gathered all the teams reporting to business unit heads, including you, for a meeting. The boss wants everyone to brainstorm ideas that will eventually result in a major shift in your organization’s product focus. You dread the encounter. Your boss dictates the format of the meeting and how the discussion will be handled by speaking only to his favorite Business Unit Heads. He excludes other groups with his judgmental comments, even though he is well-meaning and wants to move the company past stagnant sales and poor customer feedback.

Put yourself in the shoes of one of the leaders who is being overlooked as part of the inner circle. You know you have to be at the meeting, and although you have a terrific idea to suggest, you again remind yourself not to speak up. You know from past experience the likelihood is high that your boss will sarcastically belittle the recommendations that come from your group. Your colleagues are encouraging you to speak up but you feel truly threatened. You expect that your boss will just exert his influence of “power over” everyone and he’ll run his own agenda, and your opinions will not be received very well, if at all. You feel very unsettled and anxious (your heart is pounding, and you have a knot in your stomach) and your state of uncertainty seems to override your intuition that your idea would be an important contribution.

What’s going on here? You have a good idea; your colleagues support you bringing it up; and yet when you anticipate or encounter a "power-over" boss, you shut down. Many people react to power-over communications by going into some version of fight, flight, or freeze, because they are experiencing a threat. Our body’s neurochemistry is activated first unconsciously (Liddell et al., 2005), and then consciously, by our perception, and fear, that our competence, or even our very being, is under threat.

My colleagues and I have studied what is going on behind the scenes and in our minds when we engage with others in conversations. Our nervous systems are constantly evaluating the environment and making internal neurochemical adaptations that impact our range of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors – and most of all impact our conversations.

This automatic and out-of-awareness process has been termed “neuroception” (Porges, 2003) and describes the instant reading of cues and corresponding physiological shifts to neural states that support safety and healthy connection and conversation with others (associated with producing more oxytocin), or those neural states of defensiveness, or immobilization where unhealthy conversation is almost inevitable (these states are associated with higher levels of cortisol).

The quality and the impact or potential of the meetings we attend are affected by the neuroceptions of all the participants. Even having memories of “power-over” comments – which are often experienced as a disregarding tone of voice and a felt sense of exclusion - can create a nervous system response to the feared future threats while simply anticipating the next meeting. And since we are social beings, automatically responding to perceived cues of relational safety or danger, we are very likely to carry this feeling and anticipation with us into the next meeting, influencing how we show up, how we influence and what we take away as our beliefs and our judgments about what is true and what will happen next.

When we are connecting with others in nonjudgmental ways, we are exercising higher levels of conversational intelligence, and a healthy balance of our connecting neurotransmitters emerges within us – including oxytocin, the bonding hormone. When we feel we distrust others and are not connecting in a healthy and non-judgmental way, there is an elevation of different hormones, for example, the neurotransmitter cortisol, considered the stress hormone, is secreted - and we may activate more cortisol by having the self-appraisal or self-talk that we will be judged as wrong—or worse, as stupid and not valued (Thagard & Wood, 2015).

Elevated levels of cortisol can exert a detrimental effect on the prefrontal cortex, which mediates judgment and decision making, thus interfering with our ability to think clearly and express ourselves with confidence (Diorio, Viau, & Meaney, 1993)—just when we need to do so most. Just the act of imagining ourselves being criticized publicly, in front of colleagues, elicits fear and a neurochemical shift. When we feel threatened and our thinking brain closes down, we are in what Daniel Goleman (1995) labeled an amygdala hijack. The amygdala (which alerts us and in this case signals: "be afraid!”) exists in an ongoing dynamic interplay with the prefrontal cortex, the evolutionarily newest areas of our brains, essential for our best work. Just seeing a face that we perceive as untrustworthy can trigger even higher levels of cortisol and amygdala activation (Said, Baron, & Todorov, 2009).

The team member, the boss, and the organization all lose when a good idea gets lost due to an amygdala hijack!

Leaders like the boss described invariably mean well. They are action-oriented and have been rewarded for getting results. As they move up the ranks, they take their go-getter behaviors with them and can become bosses that exert “power-over” rather than “power-with” behaviors in engaging with their organizations. Unwittingly, they shut down the creativity and ideas of their team, and they sabotage the results that they so desperately want to create with others. Team members with good ideas stay silent. The team can feel stuck, stagnant, or destructively competitive.

What can a leader do to transform this dictating, or “power-over,” stance to a “power-with” environment, one in which team members feel safe and feel free to offer their ideas even in challenging meetings or other workplace conversations. When leaders and their direct reports work together to down-regulate fear and distrust, and up-regulate appreciation and trust, everyone’s internal environment and chemistry shifts and the conversational environment feels safe. The prefrontal cortex opens up—enabling what my colleagues and I call co-creating conversations—which foster co-creating solutions amongst the team

Taking Next Steps…

1. Leaders can start by understanding how their interactions with others activate neurochemistry – and how neurochemistry triggers emotions and impacts how we make decisions, how we engage with others, and the quality and effectiveness of what we can accomplish with others.

2. Next, leaders can understand how to up-regulate oxytocin and down-regulate cortisol: Let’s focus in on two key neurochemicals that reflect whether people are feeling stressed and defensive or safe to engage. Cortisol and oxytocin work in balance almost like a seesaw, corresponding to stress or a positive state (Heinrichs, Baumgartner, Kirschbaum, & Ehlert, 2003). Both a leader’s stance and behaviors can increase (up-regulate) cortisol and decrease (down-regulate) oxytocin when those around the leader feel stressed (McEwen, 2006).

3. Next, leaders can intentionally shift a fear-based environment to a co-creating environment. Research evidence suggests that a leader’s behaviors can also decrease cortisol and increase oxytocin (Zak, Kurzban, & Matzner, 2005). In a review of oxytocin research, Carter, Harris and Porges (2009) summarize that research suggests oxytocin not only supports our social engagement, it decreases fear and even increases stress tolerance, expanding the neuroception of safety.

Leaders who understand the shifts they need to make, to elevate conversational intelligence in their relationships and teams and organizations, are the game changers of the future.

We are at a time in our evolution where we now know how to activate the healthiest and most powerful states in others. Not only can this knowledge influence our meetings, it can influence how we think together, behave together, and influence together, whether we are in a meeting or in any difficult conversation about to happen.

How can leaders activate trust?

Think back to the example at the beginning—the team member with the excellent idea who was afraid to speak up because of a boss that demonstrated "power-over" behaviors. In this example, the impact of judging others in the room resulted in an increase in cortisol, and the loss of a potentially golden idea. The authors have all had the opportunity to coach such leaders. We find that when they understand the basics of the brain and neurochemistry, and how to both down-regulate cortisol-producing behaviors and up-regulate oxytocin-producing behaviors, incredibly powerful and significant changes occur. And they occur not just in one leader but in whole teams and organizations!

coauthors include:

Marcia Ruben, Ph.D., PCC, President of Ruben Consulting Group, a San Francisco Bay Area firm that specializes in executive leadership development.

Debra Pearce-McCall, Ph.D., LP, LMFT.

Sandra Foster, Ph.D., PCC , psychologist and business coach.


Carter, C. S., Harris, J., & Porges, S. W. (2009). Neural and evolutionary perspectives on empathy. In J. Decety & W. Ickes (Eds.), The social neuroscience of empathy (pp. 169-182). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Diorio, D., Viau, V., & Meaney, M. J. (1993). The role of the mdial prefrontal cortex (cingulate gyrus) in the regulation of hypothalamic-pituatary-adrenal response. Journal of Neuroscience, 13(9), 3839-3847.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence: why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bantam Books.

HeartMath Institute. (2016). The Heart-Brain Connection. Retrieved from…

Heinrichs, M., Baumgartner, T., Kirschbaum, C., & Ehlert, U. (2003). Social support and oxytocin interact to suppress cortisol and subjective responses to psychosocial states. Biological Psychiatry, 54(12), 1389-1398.

Liddell, B. J., Brown, K. J., Kemp, A. H., Barton, M. J., Das, P., Peduto, A., Willams, L. M. (2005). A direct brainstem-amygdala-cortical 'alarm' system for subliminal signals of fear. Neuroimage, 24(1), 235-243.

McEwen, B. S. (2006). Protective and damaging effects of stress mediators: Central role of the brain. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 8(4), 283-297.

Porges, S. W. (2003). Social engagement and attachment: A phylogenetic perspective. Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 1008, 31-37.

Said, C. P., Baron, S. G., & Todorov, A. (2009). Nonlinear amygdala response to face trustworthiness: Contributions of high and low spatial frequency information. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 21(3), 519-528.

Thagard, P., & Wood, J. V. (2015). Eighty phenomena about the self: representation, evaluation, regulation, and change. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1-15. Retrieved from… doi:10.3389

Zak, P. J., Kurzban, R., & Matzner, W. T. (2005). Oxytocin is associated with human trustworthiness. Hormones and Behavior, 48, 522-527.

Source: Michael Bud, CreatingWE Institute
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.