Why do bad conversations tend to stick with us so much longer than good ones? 

A critique from a boss, a disagreement with a colleague, a fight with a friend – the sting from any of these conversations can make you forget a month’s worth of praise or accord. If you’ve been called lazy, or careless or a disappointment, you’re likely to remember and internalize it and discount all the times people said you were talented, conscientious or made them proud.

For years, I studied the ‘why’ behind successful conversations and unsuccessful ones as I explored a discipline I came to call Conversational Intelligence. At night I found myself dreaming about conversations, and during the day I found myself watching and recording the interactions and dynamics of everyone I knew to figure out the mystery behind why some people succeed and others fail. This April, I launched a research study called “The Chemistry of Conversations” with Qualtrics, one of the world’s largest survey companies. We surveyed 2000 entrepreneurs and business owners. What the research uncovered has changed my life forever.

There’s a chemistry to our conversations, with cortisol and oxytocin acting as red and green lights to our brain. When we face criticism, rejection or fear, when we feel marginalized or minimized, our bodies produce higher levels of cortisol, a hormone that shuts down the thinking center of our brains and activates conflict aversion and protection behaviors. We become more reactive and sensitive. We often perceive even greater judgment and negativity than actually exists. And these effects can last for 26 hours or more, imprinting the interaction on our memories and magnifying the impact it has on our future behavior. Cortisol functions like a sustained release tablet – the more we ruminate about our fear, the longer the impact.

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Positive comments and conversations produce a chemical reaction too. They spur the production of oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that elevates our ability to communicate, collaborate and trust others by activating networks in our prefrontal cortex. But oxytocin metabolizes more quickly than cortisol, so its effects are less dramatic and long-lasting.

This chemistry of conversations explains why it’s so critical for all of us –especially managers – to be more mindful about our interactions to encourage people’s ability to connect and think innovatively, empathetically, creatively and strategically with others.

Putting this into practice boils down to two simple ideas.

#1. Tell the Truth.

People are hyper sensitive to being fooled, or lied to. Years ago when we wanted to tell someone their work was not good, we started with a positive comment, then something negative – the truth – then ended with something positive. This became knows as the ‘compliment sandwich’ and its recipients were quick to spot what they really wanted to say.

Instead. Be straight. We open our brains to others when we combine candor and caring. When we let people know that we care enough to share how their behavior impacted someone in a less-than-desirable way, we can open up conversations, sharing and discovering alternatives, working together for a better impact. Truthfulness actually opens up our brains to learning and building stronger relationships.

#2. Appreciate what’s new. Too often when we come up with really different ideas, in meeting or just during casual conversations, our knee-jerk reaction is to reject the other person’s ideas. We don’t really mean the person is stupid, we may think the idea is a bit crazy or off the wall so we say something spontaneously like – that’s a weird idea, or that won’t work.

Instead: Understand that ‘our ideas are us’ and when rejection of an idea is a rejection of our ingenuity. It’s important to step back, appreciate and not judge. People who are very creative who get rejection of their novel ideas can feel the rejection is ‘a red light’ and it can take time for them to feel comfortable contributing new ideas or becoming re-engaged with a team.

Understanding the chemistry of conversations is not just for the chemist or the scientist, its’ for all of us. Conversation is life changing, business changing and potentially world-changing. It builds a solid case for why it’s so important that all of us, especially, entrepreneurs, to become more mindful of all our interactions if we want to better understand the impact we make in the world.

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