Confidence and good decision-making have always been prized in the workplace. Having stellar conversation skills, not so much.
For most of her 30-year career, executive coach and Benchmark Communications CEO Judith Glaser says having "conversation intelligence" was considered a lesser priority for leaders. It was a skill employers saw as too girly, too emotional, too unreliable and too detached from quantifiable results.
That attitude, she says, is finally shifting in a big way. Thanks to developments in neuroscience and new approaches to evaluating effective leadership, employers are realizing that conversations matter. A lot.
Case in point: The financial industry. Testosterone saturated, data obsessed, "let’s-talk-about-our-feelings" resistant, the finance world has traditionally been a place where conversation intelligence was dismissed out of hand. But Glaser is currently working with Bank of America to break this pattern. She teaches teams the dangers of defending one’s own position at the sake of all else and the importance of building relationships built on trust and the exchange of personal information (rather than simply the exchange of data points).
We sat down with Glaser at the C-Suite Network conference in Dallas, Texas, today to get the rundown on why conversational IQ matters.
Note: Responses have been edited for clarity and length.
Entrepreneur: First off, why is conversation so important? Why have you made it your career’s work?
Glaser: People used to think that conversations were simply about sharing information with each other, but after studying the brain and how it works we now understand that conversations help us connect, navigate and grow. When your umbilical cord is cut, the first thing a parent does is look you in the eyes and connect with you -- that’s part of the conversation space. When two people are living together and one of them dies, the other tends to die around the same time. That shows how important conversation is to each of us. It’s really the golden thread that holds human beings together.
Entrepreneur: Why do you think communication skills, especially in leadership positions, have traditionally been undervalued? Do you think it’s because they are hard to quantify?
Glaser: Yes – We get so excited by the end game that we forget conversation is what makes it possible to get there. I think leaders are starting to realize this. There’s an ongoing discussion that conversation is disappearing as an art, and we have to bring it back.
Entrepreneur: What caused this shift?
Glaser: The first reason is that in the late '90s, emotional intelligence became a word that was suddenly backed by science. And secondly, the concept of humility was introduced to leadership. You used to have to be tough, strong, smart and all the things that went with it…it was a ‘beat your chest’ [leadership] mentality. That’s flipping, as humility becomes part of the equation: it means I need to sit back and listen instead of pressing my imprint on you.
Entrepreneur: Can you explain some of the neurological science behind emotional intelligence and trust?
Glaser: We used to think that trust was a continuum. Nobody knew where it lived in the brain, but now we know that distrust resides in the amygdala where fear also resides; it’s the reptilian brain that’s responsible for our fight, flight or freeze reactions. Trust resides in the prefrontal cortex. When you get frightened, cortisol spews into that part of the brain and shuts it down. I often hear leaders say: ‘I thought I hired really smart people, but they got dumber.’ It’s because they are scaring their employees, which lowers their ability to think creatively, innovatively, and strategically.
Entrepreneur: I feel like – particularly in the tech industry, with the idolization of Steve Jobs – there’s been a tendency to equate prickly, emotionally difficult leadership with good leadership.
Glaser: Right. We used to think that if a boss said ‘Of you don’t get this done you are going to be fired!’ that it was a motivator. But we’re finding out that it’s not a motivator…it’ a frightener. Our basic instinct is to withdraw. It shuts us down.
Entrepreneur: Why do we struggle so much to effectively communicate in the workplace?
Glaser: We pick up in .07 seconds if somebody is dislikes us. It’s that guttural, it’s that fast. But most of us haven’t learned to address the issue, to check-in and say, wait a minute! Something is not right here.
Entrepreneur: So we recognize on a primal level that something is wrong, but most of the time our reaction is to ignore it? And this is true of both employees and managers?
Glaser: Oh yes. An employee can walk out of a meeting and think, that was weird! But instead of going to your boss and asking, ‘Do you want to talk about something else? I feel like we’re not on the same page’ you tell a friend instead. And as a boss, you usually have a lot of things on your mind.
Entrepreneur: So what are strategies for both employees and leaders to increase their conversational IQs?
Glaser: The first step is becoming aware of the impact you have on others. There are two common syndromes that happen at work: the first is called tell, tell, sell, yell. I tell you, you don’t get it. I tell you again, you still don’t get it. I try to sell the idea to you, but it seems to go over your head, so start I start to yell at you. It’s a very ineffective and unhealthy routine.
The second syndrome is an addiction to being right: I’m defending my point of view, to the point where my only goal is to make sure that you get what I get. It eliminates any give or take in a conversation.
Either syndrome will make you look egocentric. Strive instead for sharing and discovering. Ask non-judgmental questions. Ask more questions than you answer. Discover everything you can about the person you are speaking with.