Conversational Intelligence: On the Thresholds of the Discomfort Zone


By Isabelle St-Jean

We like to believe we have control of our emotions 100 per cent of the time, but this is rarely the case. Do you remember the last time someone on your team seemed to be hijacked by their amygdala?

In neuroscience and among executive coaches, amygdala hijacking occurs when someone is being intensely triggered by a perceived threat which causes the amygdala in their brain to switch on and go into overdrive;  this unleashes stress-induced chemicals associated with the fight, flee or freeze response.  At this point, the higher (more reflective) brain functions simultaneously shut off, and the afflicted the person is bereft of the ability to speak or act in a thoughtful or calm manner.

As HR professionals, the ability to maintain higher brain function control, while encouraging its growth in others, is tantamount to personal and organizational success. Moreover, with critical conversations a daily occurrence, bringing a heightened emotional intelligence to those conversations is essential to building trust and a healthy workplace.

Build Trust for Extraordinary Results
As Judith E. Glaser explains in, Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results, when we are stuck in distrust mode our perceptions of reality become distorted through filters of fear.  In this state, we expect the worst, we become short-sighted and guarded; we close down and justify our narrow mindset.  In contrast, when we interact from the seat our conscious awareness, our pre-frontal cortex, we see reality more clearly, with poise, while exuding positivity and transparency.

Drawing upon real-life workplace examples, and considerable research, Glaser explains the inner workings of conversational intelligence as it best serves HR professionals navigating the channels between leaders, managers and employees. Likewise, the insights and practical suggestions are useful to anyone intent on helping shape a trustful workplace culture—or to influence leaders to improve their ability to generate trust with employees which in turn enhances engagement and productivity.

From Transactional to Transformational
The centrepiece of Glaser’s book is the Conversational Intelligence Matrix, a model that helps to understanding the patterns, dynamics and intentions behind our most important conversations. It describes three typical levels of interaction she calls:

  • Transactional—Level 1
  • Positional—Level 2
  • Transformational—Level 3

In the transactional mode, we tend to ask/tell while giving and taking information with the primary intent to inform, but without being significantly open to influence.  While his way of interacting is limited, it can be useful and relevant when information exchange is the primarily goal.

In level two conversations, people will be more likely to exchange power as they advocate/positional themselves with the intent to persuade the other while embracing limited and conditional trust.  One entrapment of this level is that people tend to become attached to “being right” and to ask questions for which they already have the answers.

At the transformational third level of conversational intelligence, we actually exchange energy while sharing and discovering each other’s insights with inquisitiveness and the intent to co-create and innovate. While this level of interaction involves high trust and can lead to breakthroughs and mutual success, we must guard against the tendency to get carried away into “all talk, no action.”

In Conversation We TRUST
Although these levels of conversations can each serve their purpose when used in the right context, most people tend to form conversational habits on one or two levels.  What is often left unrealized is the transformational aspect of conversing at level three while optimizing and engaging our most collaborative, reflective and insightful faculties.

Given the trend towards growing transparency in our workplaces, Glaser shares practical suggestions for how to “orchestrate a conversational makeover.”  Recognizing that while leaders know about the imperative of building and sustaining trust, yet may not always know how, she suggests the following simple, yet crucial, steps:

  • Being Transparent and telling the truth
  • Focusing on building Relationships, respect and rapport before focusing on task
  • Listening more deeply to Understand other’s perspectives
  • Focusing on Shared success rather than only self-interest
  • Testing assumptions to reality gaps and varied perceptions so they can be openly discussed.

Fittingly those five key words both explain and quite literally spell out the importance of TRUST.

Breaking Through Discomfort
Testing assumptions, exploring, and revealing reality gaps and divergent perceptions can feel uncomfortable, as if we had ventured out into a mine field.  To make the most of these types of conversations and help others transcend their limitations, another valuable read is Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs by Marcia Reynolds, a top leadership coach.

Within, Reynolds uses a warm, personal style to examine the criteria and conditions required to achieve a positive outcome while venturing into the discomfort zone in conversations.  Additionally, she clearly explains the steps needed to establish the trust and the positive intention to guide us towards our goals when we do depart the safety of the comfort zone—as HR does daily.

One common area where difficult conversations predominate is in giving feedback or a performance review. When striving to instigate positive change in an employee who may be stuck in unproductive habits or behaviours, Reynolds drives home the need to:

  • skillfully provide honest feedback;
  • use reflective and informative statements;
  • ask powerful questions to gently breakdown barriers; and
  • broaden the awareness of the employee in question.

Lead with Head, Heart and Guts
Most importantly, while fostering good skill development, Reynolds also provides methods for observing our own internal processing and protection systems, as well as those of others, so that we can learn to truly listen—from the head, heart and gut—while staying present and engaged. This level of engagement is similarly conducive to achieving the results that Glaser speaks about in relation to transformational conversations.

When we master the art of conversational intelligence, while knowing when and how to cross the thresholds of the discomfort zone, we are bringing our best selves forward. At the level of transformational conversation, we also help create and cultivate a culture of leadership that draws forth the best within each one of us.

Professional speaker, author and business coach, Isabelle St-Jean, RSW, PCC brings to her clients a decade of experience in leading, educating and providing practical solutions to major work/life challenges and transitions. (

(PeopleTalk Fall 2015)

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