“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” —Maya Angelou
Most business encounters start with some version of a “How are you?” and an exchange of “I am fine, thank you.” What participants are actually feeling and thinking is often not verbalized in the interaction.
These unexpressed feelings can be compared to the foundation of a conversational iceberg. The unspoken norm in many organizational cultures is to stick to business, perhaps with a bit of small talk. Beneath the surface conversations can get messy, while avoiding them can feel safe.
Unfortunately, saying nothing about what truly matters to the individuals involved comes at a price. According to the Boston Consulting Group, work is the number one source of stress for a quarter of Canadians. It was reported that 40% of employees ages 18 to 24 are at a mental breaking point. When inner-iceberg conversations are ignored, they surface in unproductive ways, changing the tone of voice, body language, facial expressions and even the culture of the workplace. Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen, authors of the book “Difficult Conversations,” compare communication without emotions to opera without music. That music is conversational biochemistry.
A common oversight in organizations is a failure to recognize that communication is not just a way of sharing information. Activating certain neural pathways, communication can trigger both physical and emotional changes. Biochemically — even after human evolution over millions of years — we are still programmed to tackle social threats the same way our ancestors dealt with saber-toothed tigers. What scientists call the older brain includes the amygdala that supports emotions such as fear, anxiety and aggression.
When we feel stressed, unappreciated or embarrassed, the amygdala is triggered to fight or flight. Blood rushes to the parts of the brain that handle these threats — actual or perceived. A neurotransmitter called cortisol may shut down the prefrontal cortex, part of the newer brain that enables advanced human capacities, such as trust, empathy, strategic thinking, learning and connection with others. High-stakes situations, such as a crisis, can be stressful even for seasoned executives. Young professionals just entering the workforce may listen with threatened ears, even to routine feedback.
Trust, on the contrary, produces higher levels of oxytocin that helps experience connection. Scientists call it the cuddle hormone because of its power to create a feeling of well-being. When people are connecting, mirror neurons, located below the prefrontal cortex, are firing off. That’s when we feel true to ourselves and fully engaged with others.
Reading one’s own biochemistry is the first step to conversational excellence. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “Knowing others is intelligence, knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power.”
When there’s a surge of adrenaline in the body, a default reaction may be to spring into action to problem-solve, even when it would have been more productive to pause and reflect. A “let me sleep on it” verbal cue can help create space for this intentional response of listening and discovery. If sleeping on it is not an option, a quick walk down the hallway or even a verbal pause can make a difference. In media interviews, I coach spokespeople to take up to two seconds to detangle their tongue from the brain so they can activate their neocortex.
Another issue is having reality gaps. Colleagues around the boardroom table may think they are talking to each other when, in reality, they are on parallel conversational tracks and have different takeaways from the same meeting. Participants may be convinced they remember what their colleagues said. However, research shows that we drop out of conversations every 12 to 18 seconds. Often, we remember what we think about what others say and how we respond to it, rather than what’s actually verbalized, because that’s a stronger chemical signal.
Reality gaps are unavoidable. After all, we all come from different backgrounds, experiences and even parts of the world. However, when we fail to check in, each side may start to see the world from their own perspective and not the other’s. Communication goes off track. This is especially tricky in virtual and hybrid environments. In terms of importance, we allocate only 7% to words, 38% to tone of voice and 55% to nonverbal behaviors. In the absence of the contextual richness of in-person communication, colleagues may miss important cues, misinterpret messages, jump to conclusions and fail to recognize their own shortcomings.
When we begin to check in, we may discover multiple stories in the conversation. We can then choose a response that meets our objectives. “Help me understand where you’re coming from” is an example of the discovery language that helps explore the perspectives of others. As colleagues, we can also look for opportunities to share more of our experience. In fact, storytelling is a powerful way to connect the heart to the brain. For example, when leaders share their personal experiences of struggle and how they worked through setbacks, they form bonds of trust.
Psychological safety is not about playing it safe and keeping communication at the tip of the conversational iceberg. Emotional intelligence expert Carolyn Stern claims that “what killed the Titanic is the ice below the surface.” True psychological safety is about creating conditions where deep human connection doesn’t feel threatening.
As strategic advisors to our leaders and clients, communicators have an opportunity to champion conversational excellence as a foundational behavior. This in turn will drive safe and productive workplaces where colleagues are more aware of their inner icebergs, sensitive to biochemical reactions and smart about choosing their conversational responses.
Natalia Smalyuk is an award-winning advisor and trainer with a focus on strategic communication, planning, stakeholder engagement and crisis leadership. She runs a Women Business Enterprise (WBE) certified consultancy called NBAU. What is NBAU? Not Business as Usual. Why NBAU? Because there’s no such thing as business as usual for leaders who think ahead and see a landscape of opportunity — and risk — across the unchartered global space.