Transformational leaders are able to be so because of the way they communicate. The transformational leader communicates powerfully. It is powerful because as a result of the leader’s communication, he is able to gain the trust of his followers, get them to believe in him and follow him to fulfil the vision he has set before them. And they willingly commit themselves to following his lead, to obey and to work with him and for him.

This kind of conversation has been called conversational intelligence. Coaches and counsellors are probably the professionals that are into this kind of conversations when they are seeking to establish the connection known as the “therapeutic alliance”. When established, this alliance is a powerful influence to help the professional institutes change in the lives of their client. It has also been called appreciative inquiry.

But probably the most powerful exposition of this concept of conversational intelligence is by the late psychologist, Judith E Glasser PhD, in her book “Conversational Intelligence” with the provocative subtitle: “How Great Leaders built Trust & Get Extraordinary Results”. Indeed, Conversational Intelligence gives incredible results.

The strength of Glasser’s exposition is that she made extensive use of neuroscience to explain conversational intelligence. Without too much technical details, she was able to simply communicate these neuroscience concepts in simple yet effective ways for all to understand.

Essentially, when we communicate and relate socially, besides all the psychological reactions of love and hate, stress, encouragement, respect and denigrate, there are corresponding stimulation of nerve cells and nuclei. Most well known are the Mirror Neurons within the emotional brain. These are the nerve cells that mirror behaviour, emotions and facial expression, allow humans to  “connect” when we have rapport during social conversations and the neurological basis of empathy.

So, conversations in the workplace, for employees relating to a superior about expectations, work performance and so on, are likely to be stressful. With a superior with conversational intelligence the conversation is likely to be feeling supported and understood.

If the conversation is stressful, the stress hormone cortisol would be secreted, and when one is supported, the hormone oxytocin is secreted by the body. Now oxytocin is known as the “love” hormone and is the hormone also involved in bonding and collaboration. 

Glasser called the “Power” language of superiors that give stress the language of “I-think”, while the language of conversational intelligence “we-think” as it promotes inclusiveness. From the perspective of followers and employees, the effects of Power language are “hassles”, while that of conversational intelligence are “Uplifts”. These names are from Richard Lazarus’ Hassles and Uplifts Scales which research has shown are highly correlated to the daily experience of chronic stress.

Hence, the “I-think” language of bosses, gives hassles to employees and the resultant stress felt by such employees leads to the secretion of the stress hormone Cortisol which can be detected by scientific measurement. Conversely, a boss who is conversationally intelligent and uses the language of “we-think” gives uplifts to his employees, and such employees will feel supported and understood and their bodies will secrete oxytocin because of their collaborative stance. Again this oxytocin can i be detected by scientific measurement.

The above is a simplified account of neuroscientific patterns of change in response to communication, the reality is more complex than just the 2 hormones, cortisol and oxytocin. The truth is with cortisol and oxytocin respectively, there is an accompanying cocktail of hormones, neurotransmitters, and peptides all acting in a unique way to refine and regulate these 2 hormones with diverse shades and gradations of responses.

If you are able to understand this account, you will find the conversational dashboard of Dr Glaser  meaningful. (Figure 1) The left side of the dashboard is associated with Distrust. The associate feelings are fear, paranoia and suspicion. The stance is defensive and meant to protect the listener from harm. The hormone involved is the stress hormone Cortisol.

Towards the right of the dashboard is the conversation of Trust. This is where the Transformational Leader operates. The stance is collaborative and meant to support, with understanding and inclusiveness. The hormone involved is the love hormone with concern and care. In between is a mixed pattern.

Figure 1: Conversational Intelligence Dashboard (Judith Glaser)

When one is conversationally intelligent, one is speaking less and listening more. In this regard, most leaders in business tends to tell a lot instead of listening. The nett result is they miss the opportunity to understand their followers.

Listening is a skill that needs to be cultivated. To understand one must listen with full attention to understand. This means that you do not just listen with your ears, but also with your eyes as well with full attention and concentration. 

In order to deepen that understanding, you need to ask powerful, open ended questions in order to drill down to what it is that you should know. Powerful questions are questions that provoke the imagination and stimulate thinking. Too often as leaders, we often listen so that we can respond with better arguments instead of better understanding. Indeed for most people who are longing to be heard and be understood, conversational intelligence will cause the receiver to feel supported and they respond by being collaborative. With the mediation of mirror neurons, trust develops into a commitment of followership. Truly a neuroscience phenomenon involving oxytocin.

The leader still has to lead with his strategic intent and he engages his followers by story telling. Unlike just telling facts, a story or parable has many symbolic analogical touchpoints. Different people will be moved by different touch points of a story/parable, and what engages one person will be different from what engages another. Because the engagement is emotional, so the commitment to followership is also an emotional experience. 

One can see that the transformative conversation is wholly inclusive. It brings people in and binds them in a fellowship bond and unite them together for goals that are over and above them to which they are drawn by virtue of the emotional ties that are forged by their experiences.

When followers are thus engaged they trust their leaders implicitly, and that is how we can get people to change to abandon the old and together with you march to embrace the future with its benefits, that is how employees give their best productivity when they are thus engaged too.

A typical change management process in a typical company would probably not be like that. The typical leader would mostly tell his people what they need to do and explain to them so. Of course this does not bite with his followers. The leader will try to persuade and cajole, and if that does not work, the leader will try yelling and get people to comply by coercive methods.

At this point, we need to ask what kind of conversations we are having? Conversational intelligence  shows us the different types of conversational pattern. Referring again to the dashboard, there are 3 levels of conversation, the first is transactional associated with Distrust and stress, and the highest level is level 3 associated with Trust, collaboration and support. In between we can find a Positional level where influence is exercised through attributes of power and position.

Figure 2: Levels of conversational relationship

If a leadership is transactional there may not be effective teamwork and the organization may be operating as silos. Transformational leadership and transformational conversations would be ideal to face modern challenges of competition and change of digitalization.

Then why are not more leaders transformational? The answer lies in the fact that conversational intelligence involves trust and a loss of control. To support and collaborate is to invite others to share control and responsibility. For control freaks, this is frightening.

But if one is willing to give up some control for increased collaboration, the result is innovation, an increase of productivity alongside an increase in commitment and loyalty to corporate objectives.

Because of the sharing of responsibility, there needs to be a framework for transformative conversations. The framework should allow for space for everyone to contribute to build trust. The aim is to create understanding as the basis for problem solving. Allowance should also provide for when a breakdown of trust occurs because or errant behaviour unintentionally or otherwise, where such behaviours can be discouraged or perhaps sanctioned.

To trust, connect and be in a community is hard-wired in our brain. That’s why the social brain evolved. Deficits in the social brain such as seen in Autism is maladaptive. Hence level 3 transformation conversation will get a welcome reception in a majority of people, and it clearly works in corporations.

When I first started in my career, I was fiddling with biofeedback equipment. These are miniaturised sensors which picks up changes in GSR (skin resistance) heart rate, muscle tone etc as indirect indicators of stress. For me, these are better measures of stress than questionnaire surveys.

Similarly, with the advance of neuroscience and technology, we have now sensors that can pick up the cortisol secreted by the sweat glands of stressed people, and similarly, there are sensors that can detect the presence of oxytocin secreted by sweat glands of supported and included people.

So, we can actually confirm, if we want to, whether your communication is indeed transformational or not. Just have the sensors to assess the impact on your listeners by measuring the hormonal profile of your listeners with the appropriate scientific tools when you speak.

So will you now step up and commit yourself to learn to be a transformational leader? Now is the time to change your conversational pattern to Level 3 and be conversationally intelligent.

References:

  1. Edit Glaser (2013): Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Built Trust and Get Extraordinary Results. Routledge.
  2. Richard S Lazarus & Susan Folkman (1989): The Hassles Uplift Scales (HSUP) Mind Garden Inc.
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Dr Douglas Kong is a Certified Executive and Life Coach specialising in helping individuals, teams and organization to function optimally with peak performance in the workplace. He helps people by assisting them to overcome their personal performance barriers and by increasing their social and interpersonal functioning and communication skills. He is a retired psychiatrist whose past training and experience are focused on Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Developmental Psychiatry and Group Dynamics.