Tag Archives: difficult conversations

Conversations and neurochemistry

“Conversations are not what we think they are.”  And so begins my new favorite book Conversational Intelligence by Judith Glaser. Powered by both neurological and cognitive research, she says that conversations go much deeper than simple information sharing. They impact the way we connect, engage, interact, and influence others, because they actually have a chemical component. Conversations can stimulate the production of hormones and neurotransmitters, stimulate body systems and nerve pathways and change our body’s chemistry, in both good and bad ways.

Think about it. When was the last conversation you had that didn’t go well? How did you feel? Threatened? Sick to your stomach? Did it change how you continued the conversation? What did you do? Retreat? Become more forceful? Or even antagonistic?

Glaser states that even at the simplest level, of asking and telling – I ask a question, you tell me an answer – conversations can become complex as questions provoke thoughts and feelings about what you mean or your intentions. If a question feels threatening, that can activate the defensive role of the amygdala to “handle” a threat.

Of course, conversations can also trigger dopamine and serotonin, those good-feeling chemicals, as you experience an exchange that increases sense of belonging, care and concern for your well being, and a shared sense of purpose. Those conversations tamp down the defensive role of the amygdala and free the prefrontal cortex to generate new ideas, insights, and wisdom.

In every conversation, we are constantly reading content and emotions sent our way and we are sending content and emotions to others. In fact, Glaser asserts that leaders are communicating that they are happy or sad with almost every communication.

Her book is full of helpful information to help increase conversational intelligence for leaders and their teams.  Here is a brief summary of Glaser’s 5-step STAR (Skills That Achieve Results) model that can help tamp down the amygdala’s threat response and can turn adversaries into partners.

  1. Build Rapport – get on the same wavelength as the person you are talking to; connect with them as a person and demonstrate you care
  2. Listen without Judgment -pay full attention to the other person as they speak and set aside the tendency to judge the person; resist the temptation to formulate your response while they are speaking; just listen
  3. Ask Discovery Questions – be curious; ask smart questions that may change your views as you listen and learn
  4. Reinforce Success – see and validate what “success looks like” for both people
  5. Dramatize the Message –  ensure understanding by telling a story or drawing a picture if needed; this can elevate awareness to make sure you are on the same wavelength

Using STAR’s five steps, Glaser says leaders can create a positive shift in brain chemistry (theirs and others) as they work towards having productive conversations that can shape reality, mind-sets, events, and outcomes in a collaborative way.

Anita Rios



Talk straight

honest abe“If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?” – Abraham Lincoln

As leaders we can sometimes create our own communication noise, by not communicating clearly, leaving out important information, or glossing over difficult conversations. In one of my favorite leadership books, The Speed of Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey, discusses the importance of talking straight which not only leads to more effective communication, but increases trust in an organization.  Abraham Lincoln, joking about himself in the quote above, embodied the behavior of talking straight and even his rivals who might not have agreed with him, knew where he stood and respected him.

In his book, Covey says, “most people don’t flat-out lie – at least not blatantly.” But they may beat around the bush, withhold information, use double-talk, flattery, positioning, posturing, or “spinning” to manipulate other people’s thoughts, feelings, or actions. These behaviors lead to employees discounting the words of their leaders and becoming skeptical and cynical, creating all kinds of communication noise.

Think about the last difficult conversation you had with an employee. Perhaps you were addressing some performance issues. Were you able to talk straight? Or did you beat around the bush? What kept you from talking straight? Fear of hurting their feelings? A lack of courage? Fear of the consequences?

Covey advises leaders to learn to get to the point quickly, saying that “if you’re explaining, you’re losing.” He clearly and simply describes the specific behaviors leaders must adopt to talk straight:


  • Be honest
  • Tell the truth
  • Let people know where you stand
  • Use simple language
  • Call things what they are
  • Demonstrate integrity


  • Don’t manipulate people or distort facts
  • Don’t spin the truth
  • Don’t leave false impressions

What has helped you talk straight in a difficult situation, where it might be easier to avoid a difficult conversation? What strategies did you use?