We all recognize the need for courage to start a business, play competitive sports, incur risks in investments, lead a diverse team in competitive markets, or take on an outback adventure. But do we really need courage to have a conversation?
Curiously, I know many people who have the leadership courage to engage in risky ventures, heroic quests, and brave actions and yet lack the relationship courage to initiate and engage in meaningful conversations with the people who matter —family members, business partners, employees, investors and others.
By definition, courage deals with matters of the heart (the word “courage” derives from the Latin “cor” meaning “heart.”) To have conversational courage means having the inner strength to share innermost feelings and to speak your mind, openly and honestly, by speaking from your heart.
Every conversation has a physiological impact. As we converse, neurochemicals are released in our brains, making us feel either good or bad, strong or weak, positive or negative, energetic or enervated. Feel-good conversations spark high-level brain activity, making us open to trust, empathy and the ability to process complex situations. These talks keep the blood flowing, the energy pumping and light up our ability to see the world in new ways. Feel-bad conversations, on the other hand, trigger lower-level brain activity and our primitive instincts for fight, flight and appeasement. They leave us defensive and close us off to new perspectives and opinions.
With Conversational Intelligence, you can summon your courage to engage in conversations that improve your relationships and your results. Here are three steps you can take to create quality conversations.
1. Set rules of engagement. If you’re heading into a conversation or confrontation that could get testy, start by outlining rules of engagement. Have participants suggest ways to make it a productive, inclusive conversation and note the ideas. 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 see how you and the group did and seek to do even better next time.
2. Listen with empathy. 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 empathy 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 one person is likely to dominate a group, create an opportunity 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.
When you converse with courage, you gain access to the brain’s prefrontal cortex, or executive functions, which allow for sophisticated strategies. You can then respond intelligently and creatively to investors, banks or customers, without feeling fear, freezing, or becoming defensive, protective, or argumentative. You can pay attention to what is going on in others and manifest empathy. The other person will feel that positive neural connection and cooperate. We are wired with mirror neurons that pick up signals in others’ brains. When we approach people with empathy, the mirror neurons in their brains synch with our own, and they feel understood and open to our influence.
So, raise the bar in your conversations—put your intelligence in action—all by summoning and showing your courage.
Judith E. Glaser's latest book is best-seller "Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results." She is Chief Executive Officer of Benchmark Communications, Inc. and Chairman of WE Institute. Her clients range from IBM and Bank of America to American Express and Target.