Connection Trumps Conflict: 3 Exercises to Improve Your Leadership Communication Skills

I’m sure it’s happened to you: You’re in a tense team meeting trying to defend your position on a big project and start to feel yourself losing ground. Your voice gets louder. You talk over one of your colleagues and correct his point of view. He pushes back, so you go into overdrive to convince everyone you’re right. It feels like an out of body experience — and in many ways it is. In terms of its neurochemistry, your brain has been hijacked.

In situations of high stress, fear or distrust, the hormone and neurotransmitter cortisol floods the brain. Executive functions that help us with advanced thought processes like strategy, trust building, and compassion shut down. And the amygdala, our instinctive brain, takes over. So we default to one of four responses: fight (keep arguing the point), flight (revert to, and hide behind, group consensus), freeze (disengage from the argument by shutting up) or appease (make nice with your adversary by simply agreeing with him).

All are harmful because they prevent the honest and productive sharing of information and opinion. But, as a consultant who has spent decades working with executives on their communication skills, I can tell you that the fight response is by far the most damaging to work relationships. It is also, unfortunately, the most common.

That’s partly due to another neurochemical process. When you argue and win, your brain floods with different hormones: adrenaline and dopamine, which makes you feel good, dominant, even invincible. It’s a the feeling any of us would want to replicate. So the next time we’re in a tense situation, we fight again. We get addicted to being right.

Luckily, there’s another hormone that can feel just as good as adrenaline: oxytocin. It’s activated by human connection and it opens up the networks in our executive brain, or prefrontal cortex, further increasing our ability to trust and open ourselves to sharing. Your goal as a leader should be to spur the production of oxytocin in yourself and others, while avoiding (at least in the context of communication) those spikes of cortisol and adrenaline.

Here are a few exercises for you to do at work to help your (and others’) addiction to being right:

  • Set rules of engagement. If you’re heading into a meeting that could get testy, start by outlining rules of engagement.  These practices will counteract the tendency to fall into harmful conversational patterns. Afterwards, consider see how you and the group did and seek to do even better next time.
  • Listen with empathy. In one-on-one conversations, make a conscious effort to speak less and listen more. The more you learn about other peoples’ perspectives, the more likely you are to feel empathy for them. And when you do that for others, they’ll want to do it for you, creating a virtuous circle.
  • Plan who speaks. In situations when you know one person is likely to dominate a group, create an opportunity for everyone to speak. Ask all parties to identify who in the room has important information, perspectives, or ideas to share. List them and the areas they should speak about on a flip chart and use that as your agenda, opening the floor to different speakers, asking open-ended questions and taking notes.

Connecting and bonding with others trumps conflict. I’ve found that even the best fighters — the proverbial smartest guys in the room — can break their addiction to being right by getting hooked on oxytocin-inducing behavior instead.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Judith Glaser

Judith Glaser

Judith E. Glaser is the CEO of Benchmark Communications and the chairman of The Creating WE Institute. She is the author of six books, including Creating WE (Platinum Press, 2005) and Conversational Intelligence (BiblioMotion, 2013), and a consultant to Fortune 500 companies.

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Recent Comments
Well the church I used to go to in Carrollton Tx was a lot more friendlier. Maybe we need to learn from them, the one that I'm going to now is the SA and its in Manchester CT. The people rarely say Hi to me, but they greet my mom, because she has been a member for the past 30 yrs, and also because she give's a lot of money to the church. It seems they're so focused on tithes, which really turns me off, I would have to say they would get more people giving if they just say give what you can and nothing more, instead of 10 minute sermons on why tithes are so important. Also, put the collection into drop boxes or buckets, that is what my other church did in Tx and they would get thousands of dollars, of course it was a mega church, but that's not the point, the people were giving because they didn't feel like they were going to be punished if they didn't t give. It would also be nice to here a fire and brimstone sermon but I don't think I will ever hear one coming from the SA, or in other churches as well.
 
— Julie
 
Its important to measure leading indicators and not lagging indicators. People and contributions, for example, may not be a good leading indicators; they tell only what happened and not a prediction of what will happen. Consider the drivers that cause people to come, or be generious in their giving. You improve what you measure and if what you measure is impactful regarding the future you have the right metric. Don't measuring what was, measure and improve those things which will affect the future.
 
— David Johnson
 
I was on a committee that closed churches. It killed me that we could close a church one week and the next week it would open with a different name and different denomination and cars would be parked up and down the street. Why? Why? Why?
 
— Carolyn vines
 

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