I’m often asked to provide training in conversation skills. Whether it’s for confident or commercial conversations as part of the networking skills toolkit or part of a relationship building or sales conversations. I often wonder whether the perceived conversation skills gap was caused by the imposed isolation during the Covid lockdowns or a by-product of the digitisation of communications. Clients also ask if there are any books to supplement people’s conversational skills learning – or for those who want a deeper dive into the topic. So I’ve selected three books – depending on whether you are a beginner or a pro and whether you are in the UK or the USA. So here is Conversation skills book review 3: Conversational intelligence – How great leaders build trust and get extraordinary results by Judith E Glaser. The first two books in my series are:
- Conversation skills book review 1 – How to talk to anyone about anything – James W. Williams (2021) Conversation skills book review (kimtasso.com) for beginners
- Conversation skills book review 2 – How to talk to anyone – 92 little tricks for big success by Leil Lowndes (1999, 2017) for intermediates Conversation skills book review 2 – How to talk to anyone: 92 little tricks (kimtasso.com) for intermediates
Conversational intelligence – How great leaders build trust an get extraordinary results by Judith E Glaser (2014)
I’ve suggested this conversation skills book for advanced practitioners because it is rather different from the first two. First, it looks at the way leaders communicate with their people and help shape organizational culture. Secondly, it uses neuroscience and is evidence-based to understand the power of communications in building trust. So this is another “intelligence” to add to emotional intelligence and cultural intelligence .
The author was an organisational anthropologist, CEO of Benchmark Communications, has advised leading global businesses and has made numerous media appearances (including Harvard Business Review, New York Times and NBC). Learn more about Judith E Glaser here: The CreatingWE® Institute – Principals. C-IQ has been adapted for sales professionals, educators and for couples.
In the introduction, the author reports “We are now learning, through neurological and cognitive research, that a conversation goes deeper and is more robust than simple information sharing. Conversations are dynamic, interactive and inclusive. They evolve and impact the way we connect, engage, interact and influence others, enabling us to shape reality, mind-sets, events and outcomes in a collaborative way”.
There are some principles of conversational intelligence™ (“An organisation’s ability to create shared meaning about what needs to be accomplished and why”):
- To get to the next level of greatness depends on the quality of our culture, which depends on the quality of our relationships, which depends on the quality of our conversations. Everything happens through conversations
- Conversational intelligence gives us the power to influence our neurochemistry in the moment
- It also gives us the power to express our inner thoughts and feelings to one another in way that can strengthen relationships and success
- And it gives us the power to influence the way we interpret reality
- We need to move from being I-centric “power-over” others to We-centric “power-with” others in conversations and C-IQ enables us to turn adversaries into partners (this is particularly well illustrated with examples of how salespeople used C-IQ to co-create conversations with customers to increase success)
- Be mindful of your conversations and the emotional content you bring – either pain or pleasure
- Conversations have the ability to trigger emotional reactions. In good conversations, we know where we stand with others – we feel safe. The words we use in our conversations are rarely neutral
- Conversations are rituals we embed into our culture and relationships
There are several compelling stories about how the author worked with a variety of leaders to help them understand how they were communicating with their teams and how to drive different types of conversations to propel organisations onto success.
Trust and distrust have different addresses in the brain. Distrust is signalled through the amygdala (primitive brain – assessing threat) and trust through the prefrontal cortex (executive brain assessing credibility, intentions and predictability of a person’s behaviour). Yet they overlap in times of uncertainty. Protecting ourselves is hardwired into our brains – so the amygdala can be hijacked when triggered by threat signals. Emotional threats (both nonverbal messages or a single word) send us into a state of fear. When someone shows concern for us, our brain chemistry makes a shift. We become calmer, regain our composure and we begin once again to think in a constructive way.
The book describes some useful models
- Consider our five brains:
- Reptilian brain (the amygdala informs us of threats to our safety)
- Limbic brain (helps identify friends and foes and how we fit in)
- Neocortex (sorts data from our senses, memories and experiences to make sense of reality – the master of our journey giving us scripts)
- Heart brain (oldest brain reads the biochemistry of our bodies)
- Prefrontal Cortex/Executive brain (engages us with outer world and the future and helps us make judgements, have empathy and anticipate the future)
When conversations trigger the primitive brain, we lose our executive functions. The author suggests our third eye notices when all goes well in a conversation and we have an intention to communicate and we connect. She suggests activating a third eye where wisdom resides to reflect on what is happening from a neutral perspective.
- STAR skills™ (Skills That Achieve Results) to build trusting relationships:
- Build rapport
- Ask smart discovery questions
- Listen actively and without judgement
- Dramatize your message
- Reinforce success
- The conversational dashboard shows how we move from amygdala distrust to prefrontal cortex trust through the following:
- Level I – Tell-Ask (Protect – Resistor, Sceptic) for low trust (The Tell-Sell-Yell syndrome creates protect behaviours and loss of engagement)
- Level II – Advocate-Enquire (Wait and see) for conditional trust (we get hooked neurochemically hooked on being right)
- Level III – Share-Discover (Partner – Experimentor, Co-Creator) for high Trust
- Conversational intelligence matrix
- Level I transactional (exchange information) Inform
- Level II positional (exchange power) Persuade
- Level III transformational (exchange energy) Co-create
- The Ladder of Conclusions – moving from:
- Conversations (create bio-reactors and feelings)
- Thoughts (meaning), Beliefs (interpretations) and Conclusions (assumptions)
- The TRUST model – five steps a leader can take to restore trust by
- Transparency through quelling fear
- Relationship through heart coherence (connect and engage by sending messages of friendship that shift energy to appreciation)
- Understanding through sharing and understanding needs and emotions
- Shared success through opening minds to others and creating strategies for mutual success
- Testing assumptions and telling the truth (through truth, empathy and judgement)
The book provides practical advice for better conversations
The author describes five conversational blind spots:
- assumptions that others see what we see, feel and think
- failure to realise that fear, trust and distrust change how we see and interpret reality
- an inability to stand in each other’s shoes (i.e. lacking empathy)
- assumption we remember what people say whereas we remember what we think others say
- the assumption that meaning resides in the speaker, when it resides in the listener
The way to address these blind spots and bridge our reality gaps is by asking open-ended questions.
She also describes the five hardwired questions that our mind toggles though when we connect with others:
- How do I protect myself and do I need to?
- Who loves me, who hates me and can I trust this person?
- Where do I belong and fit in?
- What do I need to learn to be successful?
- How do I create value with others?
Priming causes us to think in a different way and changes our mind about how we will approach a task. When priming for Level III conversations the author explains that the best communicators learn to align their intentions with their impact. She mentions our vital instincts that are hardwired into our sensory systems allowing us to pick up cues about others’ trustworthiness. She describes these as FORCE: Fairness, Ownership, Reciprocity, Cooperation, Expression and Status. She notes the experiment by John Bargh at Yale University who found that people assessed someone as warmer if they had previously held a warm cup of coffee rather than an iced one.
On page 111, she mentions her work with a large global professional services firm where she does an exercise with 50 partners where they are given a list of seven adjectives that describe a fictitious person. The words cold and warm are the only ones that are switched and those that received warm word assess the person as trustworthy. She goes on to mention that you can raise the level of trust neurochemically by shaking hands (and doing so before a negotiation increases the chance of a positive outcome).
There’s helpful guidance on shaping the space for trust and openness with a list of several things you can do before a meeting. And a suggestion to call a break to disengage for a short while to restore warm feelings in a meeting. The author urges leaders to shift from task to relationship behaviours – something I have stressed in my training for many years. There was also material about the importance of appreciation. I often mention the work of psychologist Nancy Kline who found that a five-to-one ratio of appreciation to criticism helps people to think for themselves. She argued that change takes place best in the context of genuine praise (see The art of giving feedback – top tips (kimtasso.com)). There are also references to the work of Naomi Eisenberger in how emotional pain (e.g. social exclusion) is perceived by the brain the same as physical pain (see Leadership: Lessons from Star Trek and Neuroscience – Kim Tasso).
Conversational agility coves reframing, refocusing and redirecting (There’s further information on one of my favourite techniques: Reframing). Her roadmap for building conversational agility includes:
- From fear to transparency
- From power to relationship-building
- From uncertainty to understanding
- From a need to be right to mapping shared success
- From Groupthink to group cohesion and partnering
The toolkit for Level III conversations starts with a plea to engage in the face of conflict (whether caused by power, politics or personalities). There’s a great exercise she calls double-clicking – requiring people to draw a circle and surround it with 12 spokes with words to describe success. And then to compare and discuss as a team to agree how you are aligned as a group. Her research shows that successful teams take the time to align their thinking in many ways.
There’s a good exercise to assess meetings using a LEARN technique:
- Like: What did you like about the meeting?
- Excite: What excited you the most?
- Anxiety: What created the greatest anxiety?
- Reward: What can we celebrate about the way we handled this meeting?
- Need: What are the next steps we need to take to stay on track?
There’s a chapter dedicated to leading with trust with an interesting case study of how the CEO of Burberry used the techniques to achieve a dramatic change at the business. And a summary of the seven conversations to elevate collective intelligence:
- Co-creating conversations
- Humanising conversations
- Aspiring conversations
- Navigating conversations
- Generating conversations
- Expressing conversations
- Synchronizing conversations
There’s a mention of Bruce Tuckman’s four stages of team development (Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing) and shows how the ideas in the book map onto these stages.
The final chapter focuses on change management with advice to:
- See resistance in a new light
- Welcome and facilitate conversations
- Engage head, heart and spirit
- Create the space for change
The advice in the book also provides an executive coaching toolbox – to help leaders communicate more effectively with and co-create with those they lead. This supplements the material in Helping people change: Coaching with compassion (kimtasso.com).
Interesting highlights on conversational intelligence
- University of Wisconsin-Madison found convincing evidence that growing up in severe poverty affects the way children’s brains develop, potentially putting them at a life-long disadvantage. As much as 20% of the gap in test scores could be explained by slower development in two parts of the brain: the frontal lobe (controlling attention, inhibition, emotion and complex learning) and the temporal lobe (important for memory and language comprehension). Healthy conversations between parents and children can lay a dramatically better growth trajectory for children – even those who live in poverty.
- Exciting new research in epigenetics is emerging to validate the importance and power of conversations shaping our DNA.
- magazine identified Conversational Intelligence as one of our top five business trends in 2016 and Microsoft has said that it is spawning new innovations and influencing their product development for the next decade.
- The neural network that allows us to connect with others was discovered in 1926 by Constantin von Economo who found unusually long neurons in two places – in the prefrontal cortex of the brain – the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and fronto-insular (FI) cortex – and these extend into the gut. As our bodies read a person’s energy – which we pick up within 10 feet of the person – the process of connectivity begins.
- The moment we enter a conversation, our brain maps out interaction patterns and we read information from that – including whether the person is a friend or foe and whether a “giver, taker or matcher”
- We surveyed over 4,000 leaders across all industries and identified the two least-developed skills in the workplace – the ability to have uncomfortable conversations and the ability to ask “What if?” questions
- Reset relationships for trust to create “rules of engagement” so that people can express their feelings without fear of recrimination or withdrawal (this is similar to the concept of psychological safety – see How to facilitate groups – 2 (Herding cats in professional services) (kimtasso.com) and A general law of interpersonal relationships? (kimtasso.com))
- People learn best by doing, not by being told what to do
- What we are learning is that the heart’s electrical patterns send messages to the brain, signalling the brain to either open up or close down. When our heart beats in a coherent pattern we feel safe, and when incoherent and erratic we feel unsafe and the prefrontal cortex closes down.
- If it is true that human beings sense friend or foe in .07 seconds it means we can tell whether we can trust a person just by the way he or she moves.
- In a study examining healthy self-regulation, there was a 23% reduction in cortisol and 100% increase in DHEA (a steroid hormone) with intentional practice of regulating negative thought loops.
- Change is the nature of every successful company’s journey
Book outline – Conversational Intelligence
The book is organised into 12 chapters in three parts:
Part I Conversational intelligence and why we need it
- What we can learn from our worst conversations
- When we lose trust, we lose our voice
- Moving from distrust to trust
Part II Raising your conversational intelligence
- Challenges of navigating the conversational highway
- Harvesting conversational intelligence
- Bringing conversations to life
- Priming for level III conversations
- Conversational agility: Reframing, Refocusing, redirecting
- A toolkit for level II conversations
Part III Getting to the next level of greatness
- Leading with Trust; Laying the foundations for level III intractions
- Teaming up through conversational intelligence
- Changing the game through conversational intelligence
Other books on conversation skills
One of my favourite books remains Book review “How to win friends and influence people” by Dale Carnegie (kimtasso.com) It’s a timeless classic but one that never ceases to amaze me at how much psychology and sales knowledge (supported by research many years later) he managed to include. Most of the success lay in smiling, showing interest in other people and making them feel good about themselves.
There are also a number of networking books that I like which cover some conversational skills. The most recent – by Alisa Grafton a corporate lawyer in London – published last year.
book review persuading, networking and selling (kimtasso.com) A former barrister
This book looks at how you create trust across teams when using digital communications Book review: Digital Body Language – How to build trust by Erica Dhawan (kimtasso.com)
Book review: The psychology of successful women by Shona Rowan (kimtasso.com) (2022) covers topics such as confidence, self-belief, imposter syndrome, relationships, assertiveness, public speaking, impact, influence, visibility, intuition and resilience.
My book Better Business Relationships book by Kim Tasso (Bloomsbury) covers many of the underlying principles and skills in conversations and relationships in the following areas: difference and diversity, adaptation, communication, relationships and conflict, internal relationships and external relationships.
As this book is more about leadership skills and internal engagement, the following books may be of interest:
Conversation skills book review (kimtasso.com) How to talk to anyone about anything – James W. Williams (the first in the series – for beginners)
Conversation skills book review 2 – How to talk to anyone: 92 little tricks (kimtasso.com) By Leil Lowndes (the second in the series – for intermediates)