Conversational Cocktails

The ancient Chinese philosopher, Laozi, said, “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”

For years I have been a student of what constitutes, influences, and improves Conversational Intelligence (CI), and lately there has been a tremendous amount of neuroscience giving us great insight into how we can master our CI.

We are complicated beings. When we communicate, our reactions, body language, pace, tone, and word choice are slaves to our emotions. And our emotions are slaves to our interpretations of reality. Our emotions trigger a whole cocktail of neurochemicals which determine which parts of our brain we’ll operate from at any given moment.

When we feel safe and supported, we release oxytocin which increases our feelings of ease, calm, trust, and an inclination for bonding. We also release dopamine and serotonin which contribute to our sense of well-being. These neurotransmitters clamp down on the defensive nature of the most primitive part of our brain, the amygdala, and redirect to the more recently evolved part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex. It’s here where our new ideas, insight, reason and wisdom reside, develop, and flourish. This part of our brain is also the place that contains what neuroscientists call mirror neurons which help us to experience empathy for others.

But, when we sense a threat, feel unsafe, hurt, angry, or lack trust or we are personally intent on being right at any cost, we operate from the amygdala, which is hard-wired with the ancient, well-practiced responses of fight, flight, freeze, or appease. In an effort to survive and win, all other parts of the brain go into lockdown and are no longer open to influence- an extremely limited and handicapped place from which to communicate unless our lives are truly in danger.

Science has shown that when we come within 10 feet of another person, we start to pick up on their electrical energy and immediately begin to interpret it through layers of old memories, personal values, emotional triggers, and all kinds of stuff we make up about what we think is actually happening and what the current reality is.

Like I said… we’re complicated. Our conversations are one giant cocktail of hormones, chemicals, energies, beliefs, memories, assumptions, and emotions.

Frequently, I am painfully aware of the vast difference between my intention and my impact when I communicate. As I’ve become more aware of this idea of a “conversational cocktail,” I’ve raised my awareness to notice what triggers my various responses, how they feel physically, and what my normal reactions are. This awareness has helped me immensely to circumvent, if you will, the moments when I would normally be reduced to the limited primal reactions from my amygdala and to redirect them to the more expansive use of my pre-frontal cortex.

For example, as Tom and I have unloaded boxes in our new place, we’ve had hundreds of small decisions to make about what things to keep or throw out, where things should go, and how best to organize our belongings. Like most couples, we haven’t always agreed on those answers. We were usually fine unpacking inside the house, but if I went to his office or into the garage and began to unpack those boxes, he was almost immediately agitated. I read his reaction as a sign that he didn’t trust me and, in some moments, maybe didn’t even like me. This, of course, caused an instant, unconscious feeling of not being safe and before I knew it, I was raising my voice, throwing out insults, giving him the cold shoulder, and generally acting like a tantrum-throwing child. And I’m the communications expert! Hmmm.

As I began to really pay attention to these little episodes and deconstruct how they worked, I noticed patterns within myself. Eventually, I’ve been able to catch them earlier and use a series of internal “What if?” questions to bring myself back into my “smart brain,” thus allowing me to respond in a much more constructive way. What if there was a reason I wasn’t aware of that caused him to feel protective of those physical spaces? What if there was something I had done unintentionally in the past to make him not trust that I would handle this well? What if this was personally important for him to do himself for reasons I did not yet understand?”

Sure enough, there were amazing insights and understanding for both of us when we worked through those questions… instead of fighting, fleeing, freezing, or appeasing. The instant result of this understanding has been that he feels less threat and I feel able to respond more productively.

Laozi was right. Conversational Intelligence happens when we take responsibility for the results we’re repeatedly experiencing, become curious about our internal and external responses, and begin to master them with not only the conversations we’re having with others but also, maybe more importantly, the conversations we’re having with ourselves. Mastering our conversational intelligence is the gateway to gaining true and deep wisdom and stepping into our most powerful self.

This week, pay attention to (or deconstruct) the moments when you are triggered to respond in a less than productive way. Be curious about what you feel and what triggers those feelings. Practice asking yourself “What if” questions and bringing yourself back into the more sophisticated part of your brain so you can begin to strengthen your own conversational intelligence.