“Human beings are the most highly social species on this planet. When we succeed in connecting deeply with othersheart to heart and head to headtrust is at its all-time high, and people work in concert in extraordinary ways.” ~ Judith E. Glaser
Conversations are more than a vehicle for sharing information. As social beings, our interactions involve words that trigger powerful physical and emotional responses. Our words can facilitate healthy, trusting conversations or cause others to shut down with fear, caution and worry.
Bad conversations trigger our distrust network; good conversations trigger our trust network. This influences what we say, as well as how and why we say it. Our trust and distrust networks shape each conversation’s outcome.
If you project positive intentions, your employees will likely respond to questions positively and feel more confident about taking risks and accomplishing tasks. When you offer support and praise, employees believe you trust them and will go the extra mile.
Negative conversations can occur despite our best intentions. Others internalize messages based on what they think we said not our actual words. As Glaser notes:
“Unhealthy conversations are at the root of distrust, deceit, betrayal and avoidance which leads to lower productivity and innovation, and ultimately, lower success.”
When you want to win and subsequently fight hard, you may go into overdrive as you persuade others to adopt your point of view. You push instead of attempting to pull others in your desired direction. If you try to win at all costs, your conversations will trigger others’ primitive fight-or-flight response. Your conversation partner’s brain will effectively shut down, and he’ll no longer be open to influence.
3 Conversation Levels
Leaders commonly rely on two types of conversations: telling and selling.
When telling, they try to clearly specify what employees need to do. When selling, they try to persuade them with reasons for doing it.
Employees may understand “what” to do and even “why” they should do it. But they’ll never fully engage unless they’re part of meaningful conversations that encourage connection, sharing and discovery.
The following table offers a graphic representation of Glaser’s identified conversation levels:
Too often, we get stuck in Level II conversations because we’re addicted to being right. We fail to realize the negative impact this has on others. We may start out with an exchange of ideas, but we then become trapped in a power dance.
Only when we participate in Level III conversations can we transform ourselves and our conversation partners by sharing thoughts, ideas and belief systems. We realize that:
Conflicts commonly arise when there’s a reality gap (an opposing interpretation of reality). They trigger an array of fears that activate our distrust network. We begin to process reality through a fear-based (vs. trust-based) lens.
Conversational Blind Spots
Five common conversational blind spots plague us.
Blind Spot #1: False Assumptions
When we assume others see what we see, feel what we feel and think what we think, we’re operating with blinders on. If you’re engrossed in your own point of view, you can’t connect with another’s perspective.
Blind Spot #2: Underestimating Emotions
Words can trigger strong emotions: trust, distrust, excitement and fear. When this happens, we may misinterpret reality. If we feel threatened, we move into protective behaviors and fail to realize we’re doing so.
Blind Spot #3: Lack of Empathy
Fear prevents us from empathizing with others. We become insensitive to others’ perspectives and cannot hear important parts of the conversation.
Blind Spot #4: Making Our Own Meaning
We assume that we remember what others say. In truth, we actually remember our responses to what others say. A chemical process within the brain seizes on our responses to others’ words and these responses form the basis of memory.
Blind Spot #5: Assuming Shared Meaning
We assume that the person speaking creates the message’s meaning. In truth, the listener decodes the message and assigns meaning to it. As a listener, you run a speaker’s words through your personal vault of memories and experiences and attempt to make sense of the conversation.
Two conversation partners can’t be sure they’re on the same page until they take the time to validate a shared meaning.
Improve Your Conversations
You can take several basic steps to enhance the quality of your conversations:
If you’re like many leaders, you tend to march forward at a breakneck pace to achieve goals and objectives a pattern that prevents you from seeing the impact your conversations have on others. You may forget that your words are rarely neutral and have histories informed by years of use. Every experience you have adds a new layer of meaning to your conversations.
It’s crucial to work on managing any underlying feelings of rejection and protection. Only then can you harness your ability to reach out to others and achieve mutual understanding.
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