How smart is your conversation? That might sound like a dumb question, but the answer affects your success in business and in life.
Conversational intelligence has been Judith E. Glaser’s life's work, and the world is catching up with her. Inc. magazine rated the concept of conversational intelligence as one of the five top business trends of last year, alongside the industrial Internet of Things and datafication.
Judith has been digging into research that shows conversation not only shapes opinion and motivates action but also actually changes the neurochemistry of the brain and can even affect DNA.
The latest of her seven books, Conversational Intelligence, focuses squarely on the subject after years of research. Judith has been an adjunct professor at The Wharton School. As CEO of Benchmark Communications, she has worked with American Airlines, American Express, Cisco, Coach, ExxonMobil and IBM.
Judith started the Creating WE Institute to spread the message of conversational intelligence around the world, certifying coaches in 65 countries.
In this conversation with Publisher Paul Feldman, Judith discusses how conversational intelligence drills all the way down into our DNA.
FELDMAN: What is the significance of conversational intelligence?
GLASER: Conversational intelligence is a new intelligence that I’ve discovered, and I’ve worked with many neuroscientists, scientists and psychologists to answer the question “Is this really a step beyond emotional intelligence?”
What we’re learning from the research is that every human being is hardwired with the conversational intelligence capability — how to connect with others, to navigate with others and to grow with them.
And it’s something that happens when you’re very little. Even, we’ve discovered, in the womb, babies and their mothers are exercising their DNA for conversational intelligence.
FELDMAN: We’ve all heard about IQ and EQ, but it seems that people don’t understand that leaders find success because of the way they communicate.
GLASER: Exactly. We have spent 35 years in my business working with companies, including in the insurance and the financial industries. I’ve been studying what makes great leaders, and it turns out that great leaders have a sensitivity to how their conversations impact others.
People who are less successful focus much more on what they want to say or advocate, and they have less sensitivity toward their impact on others. Therefore, they frequently end up being asked to leave their companies because of the negative impact they may have, focusing too much on themselves. It’s that “I”-centric nature that some leaders have, versus the “we”-centric nature that is evolving in the world today.
Great leaders take the time to connect with others. They listen to connect, not to judge or reject. Those are some of the early insights we had that helped us realize there’s a global interest in conversational intelligence.
FELDMAN: You say there are three levels of conversation. Can you explain a little bit about that?
GLASER: It’s a really fascinating part of my research, and it took me by surprise so much that I stopped my publisher from publishing the book Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results. They actually stopped the press so that I could talk more about what I call levels one, two and three.
It turns out that all human beings connect with each other on these three levels.
The first level is very transactional — that’s when people exchange information, when they confirm what they know. If we were to watch it, the patterns would be telling and asking — back and forth, tell and ask. Level one has a lot to do with getting together and confirming what they know so they’re on the same page.
Brokers have ideas about what types of things to recommend for their clients, so level two is where we have a thought about what we want to recommend and what we want to advocate to our clients. Level two is called “positional” conversations because I have a position and I want to make sure my clients understand that these are powerful tools that would be great for them to have.
Level three is the one I spent most of my life researching because I started to see there was another level where, when people come together and connect in a great way, their brains actually open up. This is where the neuroscience of conversation fits in.
If we trust someone, our brain will open up and enable us to have exchanges that I call “share and discover.” That’s the dynamic. It’s not a push and pull; it’s not a tell and ask.
It’s sharing because I feel trusting that I can share something with you and you won’t harm me. It’s discovering in that I feel I’m going to learn something from you, and it’s going to make it better for both of us.
Level three is called “transformational” conversations. I have given it a subtitle, which is “co-creating.” When I observe people, such as insurance agents, working with their clients, there’s something wonderful that happens where the agent goes from pushing or selling into sharing and discovering.
FELDMAN: So how do conversations trigger neurochemistry in the brain?
GLASER: This is actually one of the big parts of conversational intelligence and what we spent a huge amount of time researching and validating with neuroscientists.
The subtitle of my book is How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results. One of the things I started to look at is what the brain is doing when we’re in trust with another person. And what is the brain doing when we’re in distrust?
I looked at lots of neuroscientists’ research and discovered Angelika Dimoka, who joined Fox Business School at Temple University over a decade ago. I think she was the first neuroscientist in the world to join a business school’s staff.
She pulled together more than 100 researchers and scientists to look at where they thought trust lived in the brain. The output from that research is still one of the best examples of collective wisdom or the co-creation of psychologists and neuroscientists to put insight into the world.
They figured out that trust exists in the prefrontal cortex, which is right behind your forehead, and it is the youngest part of our brain. It’s the most sensitive part of our brain because when we’re interacting with each other and I feel that I can’t trust you, I start to get a cortisol bath in my brain. That actually closes down the door to the prefrontal cortex, which is what I need to make really smart decisions.
That particular part of the brain looks at wisdom, insights, strategies, decision-making, how to trust somebody and how to empathize with people. That takes us from the animal into what it means to be human.
You can consider it like two feet on the pedals of a car. One is what’s going to stop us from connecting, and that’s going to be the amygdala, located in the limbic brain. The amygdala and the primitive brain talk to each other and say, “Close down. We’re not going to share. We’re not going to be open to engage with this person because we don’t trust them.” That’s what cortisol does.
The other is a go if I’m engaging with you and I feel trust and that you have my best interest at heart.
We toggle back and forth a lot, feeling uncertainty — “Do I trust or do I not trust?” But those are the dynamics, the chemistries and the locations in our brains where trust and distrust live.
For everybody in business, in a family or a relationship, understanding the chemistry of the brain, specifically relating to how people form a “we”-centric partnership, is vital.
FELDMAN: Can you tell us about your STAR skills — Skills That Achieve Results?
GLASER: I was benchmarking the best leaders in the world, those who run big businesses and small businesses, to find out who really stood out among the rest, and why.
So I designed a whole concept called STAR skills, Skills That Achieve Results. And each one of the points of the star had an attribute that a salesperson or a leader in a business should understand and practice in order to create a chemistry that makes people feel trusted and trusting.
The STAR skills model has building rapport first and not putting the task or the sale in front. The second two skills go hand in glove with each other. One has to do with how we engage around questions, and the other has to do with how we engage around listening.
It turns out that listening to connect, not judge or reject, is something that’s very different from typical listening. Many times, people fall into listening to validate what’s on their mind, like in level one. Or in level two, people are listening so they know how to influence somebody to their point of view. All of those feel manipulative to the brain and to the heart and to our being.
There is something different about listening to connect, not judge or reject, that changes the way one human being perceives another or feels about another. Those customers who were experiencing someone who was listening to connect rated that salesperson much higher than the people who were listening to influence or listening to have their sales point heard.
FELDMAN: Is listening to connect the same as active listening?
GLASER: It’s actually a step beyond active listening, because what you need to be doing is actually talking to your own brain and getting centered on focusing on “In what way am I going be able to connect with this person? In what way am I going to appreciate who they are and what their story is?”
Every time we engage with somebody, there’s their story and our story. If my story is “I’m going to see if I can sell as much as I can to this person,” it activates distrust. Believe it or not, we have found people feel that.
I’ll give you an example to make a distinction. Many times, clients will say, “You know, I really think I should have a policy, but I’m not quite sure I’m able to afford it.”
Somebody who’s listening actively might repeat that back and say, “So what you’re saying is that some of the policies you’ve seen so far are too expensive or not appropriate?” They interpret what the other person said very quickly, because that’s one way of clarifying what people say.
But we’re pushing it a step further. We’re saying that in order for us to be appreciated by the people we’re selling to, we must step into their world. And instead of quickly confirming what they’re saying, we must do more discovery.
We get to know what their world feels like or what it feels like to be in their shoes. That’s a different experience than confirming what we know by repeating what the client said, or some version of it, in order to move forward.
FELDMAN: How do you suggest using discovery questions?
GLASER: It’s asking questions for which you don’t have answers. In a sense, it’s actually asking questions, not leading questions.
I worked with a consulting firm in the U.K. years ago. I was practicing these skills with them, and people were asking leading questions such as “You’d really like to come on board with this program, wouldn’t you?” or “It looks like this is what you want, isn’t it?”
You’re actually asking them to say yes to something that they’re not interested or potentially not interested in saying yes to.
Listening to connect and asking questions for which you don’t have answers get you more deeply into the mind and heart of the person you’re working with. It’s a whole different approach. “I’d love to get a better sense of how the world looks from your point of view” is an example.
People who are successful create a pull energy, and those who are not as successful create a push energy. That could be “push away” energy, which is the worst case for somebody who’s in sales.
Human beings who are in conversation love to feel connected to another person. When you and the other person are speaking and there’s some type of coming together of the minds, there’s an opportunity to celebrate success. Something like, “Wow, it sounds like we’ve been through a journey together in this conversation. The things that we’re connecting on now seem to be so important to you, and I’m really thrilled to be able to help you with this.”
You’re celebrating your moment of time with them. You’re celebrating the understanding that you’re having with them. Success and celebration are experienced in the brain with a lot of beautiful neurotransmitters that make us bond with another person and feel good. And, in fact, we feel good the next time we see them. So it’s really creating a platform for current and future success.
FELDMAN: And then, to wrap up the STAR skills, there’s dramatizing the message.
GLASER: A lot of times, we’re in a conversation and it’s so easy to want to push and sell and push and sell. But what helps the person buy is to use different ways to express what we do.
For example, if I were to talk about insurance and say, “It’s like having a safety net always sitting there waiting for you to ensure that your future is safe,” that’s a metaphor. And, boy, does that have power on human beings. The idea of a metaphor activates different parts of our brain, not just a linear brain but the holistic brain — in this case, about taking care of the future.
Clients would then connect on being safe and bring you into their world by buying, because they think you care enough to take the time to help them envision what this product is all about. Sixty-five percent of the brain is visual, so this really amplifies that part of our brain as we’re engaging with others in the conversation.
FELDMAN: How important is storytelling to conversational intelligence?
GLASER: Stories are wonderful. People hearing stories about other people’s success is like having somebody next to them, patting their back and saying, “Everything will be great. Just move forward and you’re going to be fine.”
It’s such a security blanket when the stories tell us what is great and what is good and help us step into that picture, even though it’s somebody else’s. Stories that tell us to be careful or cautious about something are a way in which somebody says, “I want to help protect you from the challenges you’re going to have.”
So, two different kinds of stories — one to tell you to avoid something and the other to tell you to move forward in something. In either case, if they’re used appropriately, they can be another way to bond you and that other person.
FELDMAN: You say that we’re hardwired to immediately recognize people’s intentions, and you call those “vital instincts.” Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
GLASER: In 0.07 second, human beings can pick up whether we’re going to like another person or not like them, whether we can trust them or not.
There are questions that people ask in their brain. They may not be fully conscious, but at the chemical level, they’re asking these questions — “Is this person a friend or a foe? Can I trust them or not? Can I be open with them? Can I connect with them and engage with them in a fair way?”
They’re these mini-questions that I believe live in the cells. Those cells are designed, as part of our DNA, to pick up on the trustworthiness of another person as quickly as we can. If that’s the case, we can walk into a roomful of strangers and gravitate toward a certain person because we feel trust or we avoid another person because we feel distrust.
It’s a phenomenon I’ve watched over and over and over again and studied, and so it’s really fascinating. In fact, I’ve had some physicians who’ve been studying this tell me that it’s even quicker than 0.07 second, which is hard to fathom.
FELDMAN: Is that need to connect overriding everything else?
GLASER: We crave connection. We crave appreciation. We crave being part of the inner team. There’s research showing that people’s minds gravitate toward relationships, and they think about how to enhance a relationship or how to deal with a relationship that’s not in good shape.
There was a time when it was said that physical safety was the most important thing in the world for human beings, but we’ve discovered that it’s not anymore. It’s that ability to be connected and bond with other human beings that is the thing people crave most.
Some people have even said they’d rather be hit by a car than be embarrassed in front of colleagues. So, being appreciated in the eyes of others is a powerful and important vital instinct. It’s something we must consider when we think about how to shape and create workplaces or relationships that really are supportive of each other in many important ways.
FELDMAN: What is the “third eye,” and how does that work with conversations?
GLASER: The third eye is something that exists in every human being’s brain. It’s the ability to make a link between intention and impact.
This is one of my favorite stories because it’s so profound and really tells a lot about conversational intelligence. There was this executive who reported to the CEO at Verizon. Out of the seven people who reported to the CEO, he got some of the lowest ratings this particular year.
It turned out that he put somebody in the hospital because he had such a heavy hand with people who reported to him. He thought of himself as a “best practice” leader. But he was putting pressure on people to be as successful as they could — read books about leadership, write perfect memos, whatever it was. His idea was “I’m a best practice, and I want my people to be too.”
Well, human resources finally got involved, and they said, “We need to get this guy a coach to see if he even belongs in our company.” Because when somebody who has been working with the company for 25 years ends up in the hospital, saying, “I’d rather leave the company and forget my pension than work with this guy,” you know you’re dealing with somebody who’s really a terror in the workplace. We worked together on all the things he was doing. He would redline his people’s papers that were going to go to the CEO and sometimes have 12, 13, 14 iterations. And each time, people’s ability to connect with him went down and their fright about him went up.
FELDMAN: How did you approach this manager?
GLASER: First, I let him get clear with me about what he meant by “best practice leader.” I didn’t go in and say he was wrong. I was trying to figure out his definition so we could explore what to do.
It was a little hard for him to get that he wasn’t the best leader in the world, but he was willing to do with me what I call “being an experimentor.”
I wanted to help him develop his third eye so that he could see the impact he was having on others and, in some way, be able to modify how he engaged with people.
So I asked him to experiment with one thing. I said, “I notice that you do a lot of telling — telling people what to do, telling people how to do it. And I’d like to find out if we could shift something and just experiment with it.”
I said, “What if, before the next meeting, you created an agenda, but first you asked the people who are coming to the meeting what they’d like to put on the agenda, not just have it be what you want?”
That was something new for him, but he said he would be willing to try it. Then I said, “What happens if you could also go into the meeting the next day and again ask people to look over the agenda with you, to see if there’s anything they want to add? Ask them, ‘Is there something really important missing?’ or ‘How should we deal with this particular issue?’” Again, something he had never done before.
So, all of a sudden, he was not in the bad side of level one or two, which is where people then start to get locked into addiction to being right or “Hell, I’ll show you all” syndrome. But he was level three, engaging with how they can make the business better.
He did that with his people for the first time in maybe forever, and four of his people gave me a call at the end of the day. The quote from one of them was, “What did you give my boss to drink?”
FELDMAN: You gave him some Kool-Aid.
GLASER: I gave him the right Kool-Aid. And the boss was so profoundly impacted by this, he allowed me to facilitate a meeting with his direct reports to talk about “What would success look like?” If we could make sure that we build a business unit that’s going to have the most successful things happen in it, what would success look like?
And he got so hooked on not being right but learning about how to elevate his leadership. He’s a changed person, and he soared the next year and the next year and the next year after as a real best practice leader.
FELDMAN: What are some tools that you can give for getting in and maximizing level three conversations?
GLASER: We’ve been doing what are called 15-day or 30-day projects, or challenges, in companies all over the world and asking people to just take one of the three approaches I’m going to give you and let people do it. But we also ask them to also stay living in it, to see if they could keep a journal and keep track of things that change in their world as a result of it.
The first one is listening to connect. Again, people listen for information. They listen to confirm what they know. They listen to influence others. There are far fewer people out in the world today who listen to connect with other human beings and really step into their world.
I would say take on a 30-day challenge or a 15-day challenge and record how your life changes when you’re listening to connect. What do you see different in your families? What do you see different in partnerships?
The second is to ask questions for which you don’t have answers — again, a beautiful way for you to connect with other people — and keep track of what happens differently as a result of asking those kinds of questions.
Third, keep in mind that the words that you think you hold and others hold are probably further apart than what you thought. Really get inside the other person’s thinking and see what happens.
I would suggest those very simple “conversational essentials” will serve you well. Would you like me to share a story that’s absolutely one of the most amazing ones I’ve ever had in my career?
GLASER: I got a call three years ago from someone who heard me on the radio. She said, “I just have an instinct that you’re going to be able to help me and help my family with something that we’ve been struggling with for a while.”
She said, “We have a daughter and it’s not fully clear in our mind or the doctor’s mind if she’s on the [autism] spectrum or whether she has something that is disabling her from connecting with other people. But something’s going on in there, and we haven’t been able to figure it out.”
After four minutes with the woman, I said, “Your energy is very strong. My sense is that you need to give people more space in engaging with you. And if it’s your daughter, I think that she was trying to connect to you, but it wasn’t satisfactory to you, and she was feeling the negative judgment or the frustration that was coming across.”
They had moved out of the city and to a farm. They were spending a lot of money on trying to figure out how to give an environment to their daughter and nothing was working.
They came from Australia to visit me in New York City, the whole family, and we sat together. Her daughter, had already benefited from what the mother was doing to shift their interaction dynamics.
They went back and later moved into another house. They didn’t have to live on a farm with horses and sheep. They just had to get through some conversational intelligence coaching. And all of a sudden, their lives as parents and their daughter’s life as a beautiful, young child evolving into the world changed so dramatically that they’ll never forget this.
And as a result of this, we formed a Creating WE institute in Australia, run by this woman because she wants to bring this work around the world with us.
I met them in Australia just a couple of weeks ago, and their daughter is one of the most superstar kids in her school. The parents cannot believe how she started to grow up into a whole different perspective because the parents gave her a beautiful environment. She was conversationally sensitive to helping herself step up into who she was becoming.
She’s working with the United Nations, Kids for UN. She has the ability to stand in front of an audience and make them laugh — the adults in the audience can be adults, not just the kids. She takes care of her friends in beautiful ways.
FELDMAN: It seems so basic, but they don’t teach that stuff in school. That’s a basic human function to be able to have a conversation with others.
GLASER: That’s right. It’s kind of like we assume just because we’re all human beings and we talk to each other that we’ve nailed that, and it’s so not true.
We now know epigenetics is a big field. We now know that conversations turn genes on and off. That’s powerful.
Every parent should know that when they’re holding a baby inside, how you have conversations with your child internally, in your belly, has an influence on how they show up when they come into the world. All the atmosphere that gets created is going to be translated into what your body knows to do or not do.
And now that we are learning more about the genes and how they work, we have to sit back and revisit a lot of things — education and schools, how we onboard people into companies, what kind of environment we create.
There’s a world here of phenomenal research. I’m actually going to go back and get another graduate degree, a Ph.D. in neuroscience and phenomenology and anthropology, because this is like the beginning of a whole new wave of thinking about what it means to be human.
So you’re right. You’re absolutely right. Why don’t we do this?