One thing I've realized about the most successful people I've met is that whatever their varied personalities and idiosyncrasies, there is one attribute they consistently share: high "conversational intelligence."

Simply put, conversational intelligence is the currency of success. It's the rare ability to create trust by achieving a balance between telling and listening--sticking doggedly to a vision while also being open to hearing the opinions and criticism of others so that you can co-create the future with your employees, partners, and marketplace. 

Being able to achieve this difficult chemistry is the fundamental formula for great success, and especially great leadership.


I first learned about conversational intelligence from Judith Glaser, who spent the past 30 years studying the science and brain chemistry of conversation--the subject of her latest book. This isn't soft and fuzzy, touchy-feely new age stuff; it's hard science involving the way our brains work at the molecular level to engage with or detach from others through conversations. What she found is that people and organizations that excel exhibit high levels of conversational intelligence. To call her work an eye-opener would be an insult--it's more appropriate to say that her insights cracked my brain wide open to an entirely new way of looking at conversations. (Yes, get this book!)

Here are three simple takeaways from Glaser's work that are absolutely essential to not only leadership and how you run your business but also the way you run your life.

  1. Don't talk over others.

We've all been in conversations where we can’t get a word in edgewise. Not only are those conversations frustrating, but they also trigger us to produce cortisol, a stress-induced chemical that wreaks havoc with our brain and body, causing us to tune out, shut down, and go into protect mode. We stop hearing the other person and eventually lose interest in contributing to the conversation. The problem is that people who talk over others, especially leaders who are given the license to do it without restraint, are not cognizant of what they are doing.

This leads to the first lesson of CI: You need to be consciously aware of the balance you are striking between listening and telling. That simple act can have a profound effect on encouraging the sort of dialogue that would otherwise be nonexistent.

So try this: Next time you're on a phone call, track the amount of time you spend talking versus listening. Get used to sensing that balance; always be conscious of it.

  1. Listen to connect, not to judge.

So, now you're listening. But how often have you found yourself during a conversation, while the other person is talking, thinking about what you're going to say next, so much so that you start losing track of what the other person is saying? When our brain is listening to make judgments about what to say, when to say it, how to say it, and how to ensure what we say has impact, we are activating (in ourselves and the person talking) the lower, more intuitive, part of the brain, which is all about protection from harm, especially social harm from rejection and judgment. This is not listening; it's just not talking.

When we intentionally listen to connect, we activate our prefrontal cortex, which sends messages to the brain that it's safe to connect and open up. This is when the brain releases dopamine, the brain's feel-good chemical, which controls reward and pleasure, creating trust and openness. It's why we feel good when we're with people who really "get us."

So, try this: Next time you find yourself listening, repeat the other person's point once he or she is done and then tie what you say next directly to that point. This simple gesture changes how the brain works by activating what neurologists have found to be a mirror neuron system in the prefrontal cortex, an area where we start to develop deep empathy and create exceptional connections with others.

  1. Ask questions for which you have no answers.

One of the most difficult things I've had to teach the hundreds of consultants I've trained over the years is to withhold judgment and ask questions for which they feel they already have an answer. I've come to realize that the hardest thing in the world is to get someone who believes he or she is extremely smart and perceptive to just shut up and listen!

Asking what Glaser calls discovery questions--intended to encourage exploration--rather than leading questions--which lead to preconceived solutions--moves people into transformational conversations--a state of co-creating in which both parties benefit from taking risks to think more innovatively.

So, try this: When you find yourself in that aha! moment, in which suddenly the solution is crystal clear to you, ask the other person to explain why he is doing what he is doing because you really want to understand his perspective. Suspend judgment and listen (back to point No. 2).

I said at the outset that conversational intelligence is the currency of success. Be honest: What does your bank account look like?

It takes courage to stop and listen when you think you can expedite the solution; to co-create when you think you've already created; to focus on the apparently fuzzy value of conversation when the task at hand is so urgent. But that's your role as a leader, to set the conversational tone for your team and to model the sorts of behaviors that may not yield instant results but rather invest in the deep bonds of trust that are critical for success in any relationship, in business and in life.