The Chemistry of Better Conversations

Here’s the neuroscience behind your best (and worst) client and staff interactions.

One of the best conferences you may not have heard of takes place each year in (of all times) early January, when the AICPA PFP Section hosts its annual Personal Financial Planning Summit.  Last year was the inaugural event, and this year the meeting returned to the Terranea Resort & Spa along the awe-inspiring coast in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA.  Presenters included Mark Tibergien, Philip Palaveev, plus Abacus Planning Group’s Bethany Griffith and Cheryl Holland. There was a detailed review of the new tax law and its implications—and most prominently, a terrific keynote presentation by social researcher and cultural anthropologist Judith Glaser, CEO of the Creating We Institute in New York city, author of, among other books, Conversational Intelligence and Creating We. 

Glaser started with two questions which outlined a problem you might not even realize you’re struggling with:

How many of you have been in meetings where everybody is waiting for their turn to talk? 

Have you ever been in a meeting where you can’t believe that the other person is understanding something that is so different from what you’re trying to communicate?

“That,” Glaser said, “is the reality that we live in every day.  We think we’re connecting with prospects, clients and co-workers, and then people walk out and make decisions based on input they received from you which was very different from what you actually said.”

Then she turned the question around.  “How many of you,” Glaser asked the audience, “have felt, when you interacted with somebody, that you just connected with them really well?”

Glaser estimated that nine out of ten conversations fail to achieve the goal of mutually creating positive outcomes, in part because all of us are constantly jumping to mental conclusions.  “In conversation, our brain is so active all the time, it is jumping ahead, trying to fit the pieces together, making assumptions, and we are not seeing the world through the eyes of the other person,” she told the group.  “We assume others see what we see, hear what we hear, think what we think.  But in reality, the pictures we make in our brain while we are in the room are our pictures, not what we’re hearing from the other.”

The key to overcoming this obstacle that is everywhere inside and outside our minds is to focus on how to have better conversations.  Glaser was not shy about the possibilities.

“How do you get to the next level of greatness, given all these challenges that we have as human beings?” Glaser asked the audience.  “Getting to the next level of greatness depends on the quality of your culture, which depends on the quality of the relationships, which ultimately depends on the quality of our conversations,” she said.  “The most important and effective area to work on in your work environment, and in your relationship with clients, is the conversations.  How,” she asked, “can you turn them into great conversations?”

The rest of the talk was about exploring how to move from the disconnect to the deeply connect—in your office environment, in your client relationships; indeed, in all your relationships where effective communication is important, and where you would like there to be a real emotional connection that facilitates growth on both sides.

Oxytocin vs. Cortisol

You start, she said, by doing something that is very difficult for technically-trained professionals: in your interactions with staff members, and especially with clients: focus on relationship before task.  Lest we miss that important line, Glaser repeated it: Focus on relationship before task in your conversations.

Later, Glaser used a different phrase to say the same thing: listen to connect. 

“The key is to SEE ME, don’t JUDGE ME,” Glaser told the group.  “That shift in mindset will forever change your brain chemistry inside, and it will also change the brain chemistry of those around you, and make it healthier, and create an environment where it is easier for trust to develop.”

Brain chemistry?  Glaser said that under the surface, as we navigate our matrix of relationships, our brains are constantly regulating and adjusting our feelings toward each other through complex interactions of chemicals that are triggered in two parts of our brain—and this constant production of one chemical or another impacts not just how we feel about others, but also how they feel about themselves. 

“The science behind engagement tells us that you can have a huge amount of influence on other people’s feelings,” Glaser told the audience.  “Our brains were designed for people to interact with each other, and we co-regulate each other every day.  A parent regulates how a child feels about himself or herself.  We regulate how we feel about each other, and it impacts every interaction we have.”

Glaser described the science of changing our mutual brain chemistry for the better as “the alchemy of conversations.”

The chemicals to be aware of are oxytocin and cortisol, which can be loosely labeled “good” and “bad” for effective bonding and communication.  Glaser talked about their impact on two general areas of the human brain—the prefrontal cortex, which is the most highly-evolved part of the human mind that helps people connect in a deep way, and the limbic brain, which sits below the prefrontal cortex and includes the hippocampus, which generates emotions (your so-called “heart”) and also remembers people and how your interactions with them made you feel.  This is the neuro-chemical reality behind the old saying that people don’t always remember what you said, but they remember how you made them feel.

“Oxytocin is the feel-good chemical that the prefrontal cortex thrives on,” said Glaser, “and it produces more of it when you connect with people in healthy ways.” 

When the body is flooded with oxytocin, she explained, it turns on a switch in the rostral-medial prefrontal cortex—what Glaser called the “like me/not like me” part of the brain.  “The rostral-medial-cortex part of the brain steps in and says, you have a lot in common with this person, and they’re okay to play with,” she told the group.  “If people feel you have things in common, the rostral-medial prefrontal cortex is the screen that says “go for it.”  If you cultivate that with your clients, if you truly listen to connect, you will build rapport, and find out what they really want.”

Later, Glaser added: “When the prefrontal cortex and the heart connect, it is the strongest energy that you can produce. The brain thrives on it.  It moves people to do things they never could have done before.”

Cortisol, on the other hand, is a deal-killer.  It’s produced whenever a client or co-worker feels threatened or dismissed.  When the client’s or co-worker’s mind is producing cortisol, the chemical shuts down their connection with the prefrontal cortex.  Imagine how difficult it is to build a relationship or get effective work done when the other person’s mind is not recording what you’re saying or processing any information that isn’t related to fight or flight. 

To make things worse, when another person’s brain is triggering the production of cortisol, it tends to trigger cortisol production in YOUR brain as well.  In those group meetings that Glaser alluded to at the beginning of her talk, where people are competing for the chance to talk rather than listen, the room is bathed in cortisol.  No matter how smart people are, or how good their ideas, very little will be accomplished.

Triggering behaviors

A key point of Glaser’s presentation is that it is extremely easy to trigger cortisol, just by being who we are. 

For example?  “Most of the time we, as professionals, will ask our clients leading questions,” she said.  “You know what the answer should be, and you prepare to give them advice about what you know.” 

This is not only hard-wired into the brain, but also happens to be the product of decades of cultural encouragement.  “We are trained to be smart and tell what we know and think,” said Glaser.  “All the reinforcement you got for doing things in school, doing great on tests, all of that produced dopamine in your brain, and dopamine is what reinforces.  You find yourself wanting to do that thing over and over again. 

“Even though that is how you make your money,” Glaser added, “consider that this perfectly natural-seeming behavior is something you want to avoid in client interactions.  When you do that, you fall into the role of expert, which closes down the other person.  It produces cortisol in the other person’s brain.”

Meanwhile, any group meeting can fall into the trap of what Glaser called the “tell-sell-yell syndrome.”  This happens when people start throwing out their ideas and recommendations before they’ve fully heard the problem or taken the time to consider the viewpoints of the other smart people in the room. 

“The cortex wants to speak up a lot,” Glaser said.  “It wants to quiet other people and make room for your voice.  But healthy interactions should be the opposite.”

When people are competing to give solutions, or when a client is presented with solutions before he or she feels truly heard, cortisol production begins to sabotage the effectiveness of the meeting.  You and the client never “click,” your staff never quite gets on the same page, your great advice is never fully implemented, and you never get the referrals that all your hard work and expert advice deserve.

Creating space

So where do you start?  How do you control those natural impulses that bathe the room in cortisol, and cultivate habits that trigger the production of oxytocin?

Glaser talked about ways to self-manage your brain chemistry, because if you’re carrying around a lot of cortisol, sooner or later the rooms you’re in will be bathed in it.  She told the audience that cortisol has a 36-hour shelf-life in the brain, which means we if we pick up negative feelings, we could be carrying them around for a full workday or more. 

There are several strategies to reduce cortisol in your own brain.  Meditation is one.  But simply taking calming breaths can be almost as effective.  “There is a ‘breathing through your heart technique’ and it refreshes the body’s chemistry,” Glaser told the group.

From there, she shared some ideas for producing oxytocin in your conversational interactions.  When you listen, Glaser told the group, make an effort to connect with what the other person is saying to you.  “Don’t make up meanings,” she said.  “Don’t throw your own expectations in there.  Don’t judge or reject.  Instead, think about, how do I allow people to have a voice?  How can I make sure they are being and feeling heard?  That puts more oxytocin in the room.”

Glaser gave the example of an executive she worked with who learned how to be terrific at creating oxytocin-infused meeting environments. 

“He would walk into a room where people were sitting around the table, and he would undo his tie—which signals, I’m being comfortable with you,” said Glaser.  “He would take off his jacket—which communicated: I’m not here to be the boss.  And then he would just listen.  His goal was listening to connect and learn what people were thinking.  The nonverbal communication practically shouted: I want to learn what you know; not tell you what I know.”

One additional strategy is, as you solicit ideas, make sure they’re written down somewhere where everybody can see them.  “The more people see our ideas, and see how they interact with others’ ideas, the more it activates our subconscious,” Glaser told the audience.  “All the wisdom that is hard-wired into our brains becomes available to the group.”

This produces what Glaser called “a Level 3 conversation.”  “When you get a room into Level 3,” she said, “and set the space open for people to have a voice, you potentially are mining things that nobody thought about before.”

A related strategy is what Glaser called ‘double-clicking.’  Just as you double-click on a computer icon to learn more, conversational double-clicking hits the pause button in the verbal interaction in order to make sure your interpretation of what the client (or staff member) just said is actually what that person intended to communicate.  “It’s where you are hearing things and you take the time to say, I know I heard the words correctly, but I’m not sure what your meaning is,” Glaser explained.  “So tell me a little bit more about it.  What are you thinking about as you share that? What are the pictures that you see?

“And you ask people, not to challenge them, but to help you see the picture through their eyes,” Glaser added.  “That produces a lovely feeling, when they see that you care enough to want to know what they’re really thinking.”

Glaser also talked about “creating space” in your conversational interactions with a client or co-worker.  This was not explained in depth, but it seems to be related to active listening, specifically giving the other person time to fully express herself.  Glaser recommended that you adopt a ‘three-second habit,’ where you make sure not to jump in and speak for at least three full seconds after the other person appears to have finished whatever she was saying.  Don’t feel it’s necessary to fill silences with your advice or ideas.

“If you don’t give a person that space,” Glaser said, “then they can’t process, and if that other person is having trouble processing, it is because somehow in the ‘like/don’t like’ part of her brain, it feels like the air that she’s breathing is being taken out of her.”

To take a specific example of creating space, suppose you have a client who is frightened into virtual inaction by the possibility that the markets will turn bearish and cause her to lose her hard-earned money.  Has anybody ever encountered that situation, where the money is stuffed in a mattress earning nothing, and a 0% return is not going to work in their financial plan?

“When people are focusing on problems rather than solutions, it triggers the generation of cortisol, and your client is not going to be able to give you the attention and cooperation you really need to be successful with them,” said Glaser.  And of course you’ll feel frustration that they aren’t hearing your great advice about market behavior.  Suddenly the room is flooded with cortisol.

For this fearful client, Glaser outlined a multi-step process that will not just reduce the cortisol in your mutual brain chemistry, but replace it with oxytocin.

“You need to shift them from: everything is a problem, to: What are your aspirations?” she said.

The oxytocin reclamation project starts with creating space for your clients to feel that their concerns are valid and recognized.  “You don’t want to say: that will never happen, because that’s not true,” Glaser told the group.  “You want to join them in their space, and acknowledge that you heard them and that it’s part of your professional responsibility to address those concerns with a protection strategy,” said Glaser.  

So step one is to acknowledge that something could and probably will rock the market, and there will be losses when that happens.  “It is really important for them to know you hear them and that you recognize the truth in what they’re concerned about,” said Glaser.  “That shows you care, and that caring effect has the biggest impact on relationships.”

From there, the conversation can be carefully shifted from fear to: What steps can we take to minimize the potential damage?  “You say to them: Let’s create a strategy that protects your money.  And then,” Glaser said, “you want to continue the shift, from the money and returns to who they are and what they really want.”

Meaning?  The conversation can move from your proposed asset protection strategy to what the money is for.  “Ask them: What do you aspire to create in the world, that you would like my help with?” Glaser proposed.  That refocuses the conversation all the way from their fears to their dreams.

One way to do that is to invite your clients to write down their 100 aspirations for life.  “They give you their 100 aspirations and you categorize them, and you see what’s driving them,” Glaser said.  “Helping people give voice to their aspirations is life-changing for some people.”

One might imagine that this non-technical financial planning advice would be at least mildly shocking to an audience of technically-trained CPA planners.  But in fact, the Personal Financial Planning Summit is open to advanced non-CPAs, and many were in attendance.  In addition, the Summit seems to attract the (larger than you might imagine) subset of CPA planners who recognize that their interpersonal skills are the key to client implementation and business success.  Glaser’s presentation was far from shocking: it was a big hit with the audience, who took away a number of tools, skills–and a nice oxytocin experience in the meeting room.