How to Strengthen Your Conversational Intelligence


“I felt this chemistry between us.”

If you’ve ever expressed this sentiment (or its opposite), you already have an idea of how conversational intelligence works. It is, quite literally, the chemistry of conversation, and the chemistry behind trust.

Conversational intelligence is a neuroscience-based approach to more successful interaction that all of us can achieve. That “chemistry” you feel with others is driven by two chemicals in particular: oxytocin, which kicks in when there is agreement, and cortisol, which escalates when there is argument.

Strengthening conversational intelligence levels leads to more successful mentoring, particularly in the peer-to-peer mentoring that YPO supports. It also helps leaders lead more effectively.

In a YPO Mentoring Facebook Live, YPO Global Mentoring Chair Catherine Hodgson interviewed the foremost expert on conversational intelligence, Judith Glaser, to explain how YPO members can develop a high “conversational IQ” for their professional and personal relationships.

A level one conversation is the “ask-tell” aspect, where there is low trust and skepticism. People who are in this level are usually not open to influence and tend to tell more than ask, which can lead to “tell-sell-yell syndrome.” Level two conversations advance to conditional trust, characterized by advocating and inquiring. Our desire to influence can make us “addicted” to being right, asking questions for which we have all the answers. Level three is the share-discover phase, where we move to a position of high trust with the other person. We engage in co-creating conversations that lead to partnering with the other person, where we listen to connect and ask questions for which we don’t have the answers.

It’s important to know which levels you and your mentee, or you and your team members, are operating in whenever you meet. Recognize when one or some of you may be stuck in the first or second level. The goal is for all participants in the conversation to reach the third level of co-creating conversations.

One way to reach that third level is to alter the way you handle a conversation so that there is more pull than push. If the conversation is focused too much on telling, which it frequently is in the first level, it can cause those being talked at (rather than to) to push away. Instead, pull your team — or mentee, or family member — into the conversation. Down goes the cortisol, up goes the oxytocin.

When we achieve a high level of trust — that level-three conversation where transparency takes over, and we are willing to share and discover — it releases more of the feel-good oxytocin that affects the part of our brain that’s critical to strong leadership, the prefrontal cortex. This is where advanced brain activity takes place; it’s the WISE FIT at work, where our brain develops such attributes as wisdom, integrity, strategy, empathy, foresight, insight and trust.

It’s also important to act on your empathy. Empathy says, in effect, that you feel someone else’s pain. Compassion is what gives you the power to help mitigate that pain. “Compassion says, ‘How can I help you with your challenge?’,” says Glaser.

Be a “mind reader.” There is a neuroscientific phenomenon known as mirror neurons. “It’s a replication in some way that I’m picking up your energetic field,” Glaser explains. “When those energetic fields connect, we start to almost mind-read another person’s mind.” When you feel you’re not connecting with someone, engage in mind reading. Look for common ground of some kind, which you’ll often discover when you are forthright in sharing your values and aspirations. Co-creating conversations catalyze functions in the prefrontal cortex that stimulate mirror neurons, which enable you to see the world through others’ eyes.

“You can hear and see when people connect,” says Glaser. “And that’s literally the energy fields that are starting to be formed between two people that you might have thought were not really connected, but now can be.”

And then you just might feel that chemistry between you.

Watch the YPO Mentoring Facebook Live to learn more about conversational intelligence

Mim Harrison is an award-winning writer whose client relationships include the Smithsonian Institution, the MacArthur Foundation, the Library of Congress, the Folger Shakespeare Library and other cultural institutions. She is also the author of three mini biographies of John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt.

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