The art of conversation: interview with Judith E Glaser

Written by
Colin Hatfield

31 Oct 2016

31 Oct 2016 • by Colin Hatfield

According to organisational anthropologist Judith E Glaser, conversations are rarely only about the exchange of information, even in a work setting.

In her research and writing, she explores the emotional and neurochemical context of everyday conversations, reminding us that we are “more like lions and tigers than computers”, and so subject to the brain chemistry that drives all animals - whether we like it or not. Hers is ground-breaking work that brings together disciplines as varied as neurochemistry, anthropology, psychology and semiotics. We were keen to understand better how such insights might help leaders to be better communicators.

Trust is the fuel of healthy conversations

Judith Glaser believes that the way conversations play out has a chemical effect on the brain that impacts our performance, our creativity, our ability to listen and our ability to understand what is being said to us. This conviction underpins all her work, and runs through conversational Intelligence as a driving theme and idea.

At the heart of the book is an analysis of the impact of trust and distrust on everyday conversations. Interestingly, recent scientific studies show that the conversations that take place when people genuinely trust each other are neurologically different to conversations played out in an atmosphere of distrust.

Judith has spent a lifetime exploring what happens to the brain when we trust each other, and what happens when we don’t. In particular, her work looks at reactions to distrust in the more primitive, reptilian parts of our brain (the amygdala) which we can’t easily control or counter.

Judith says: “When we distrust someone, our amygdala sees this as a threat to our safety. Cortisol and catecholamine flood the brain, stimulating the primitive limbic brain, which stores memories of previous threats, replayed like a semi-conscious movie. This closes down our prefrontal cortex. We literally lose bandwidth in the higher functioning areas of our brains if we feel fear or distrust.”

This matters in all situations. But, in work situations, the closing down of the prefrontal cortex is especially negative. This is because the prefrontal cortex (sometimes called the “executive brain”) powers creative thinking, good judgment and empathy. It is not only anecdotally true that people who are fearful make bad business decisions. It is also a neurochemical reality.

Distrust and fear, even within the relative safety of a modern office, trigger a rush of primitive, potent chemicals that unplug the very part of our brains that we most need to be effective leaders, communicators and decision makers.

Put crudely: when fear and distrust are aboard, our amygdala hijacks our prefrontal cortex and we become a little more reptilian and a little less intelligent as a result.

Understand the chemistry of conversations

You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to figure out that these chemical highs and lows must affect those who lead and those who are led. But the key question is: what can any of us do about it?

Click to download the full interview report with Judith, which explores:

  • How you can better understand how conversations work
  • How conversational 'blind spots' can undermine effective communications
  • The three types of conversation and how these work in business life
  • How you can build trust as a leader through your conversations.