Conversational Intelligence®: A Key to Building Trust and Leading Change

Over the years I’ve coached clients to imagine their presentation is a conversation. In many cases, this meant their content was at the right level for the audience and that they planned time for questions and interaction. This focus on conversations is still important today, but for more important reasons.

The speed and scale of change we’re experiencing impacts organizations, large and small. Executives search for ways to rebuild trust with a work force that is frustrated by shifts in strategy and organizational structure. Managers want to connect with new teams and gain commitment to a common vision. Individuals work to establish trust with new groups of stakeholders and partners.

It takes more than a series of presentations to address these challenges. Leaders at all levels need to engage people at a deeper level to build trust and create new ways of working together.  To do that, they must build their Conversational Intelligence®.

Management consultant Judith Glaser pioneered the concept ofConversational Intelligence®. I recently graduated from the first certification program led by Judith and am excited to share two concepts you can use to create an environment where people thrive in times of change.

Image Source: Judith Glaser

Image Source: Judith Glaser

The Brain-Trust Connection

The level of trust or distrust we feel impacts how we experience change. When there is trust, the level of positive hormones such as oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin in our brain increases. We feel empowered to work out issues and challenges, open ourselves to new experiences, and connect with others. When we are in a state of distrust, the world seems threatening and our brains experience higher levels of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. We shift into ‘protect mode’. We fight, flee, appease others or freeze in our current state.

The Conversational Dashboards below provides a graphical look at brain-trust connection and how it impacts the way we engage in times of change. For example, with Low Trust the reptilian/survival parts of our brain are activated and we become resistant/skeptical and focus on protecting ourselves.

How You Can Put This Into Practice
⦁    Identify the signs that tell you how people are responding to the change. What words do people use to describe the change? How are they engaging, or not engaging, in change efforts?
⦁    Learn more about people’s hopes and concerns. They may worry about whether there is a place for them in the new organization, how they’ll perform in a new role, of if they’ll lose important relationships they’ve nurtured over the years. If people are in Protect Mode, they focus on their own situation and aren’t listening to what you have to say.
⦁    Be aware of how you are experiencing the change. How are you reacting? Avoid assuming that other people react the same way or that they believe the same issues are important.

The good news is that when you are more aware of the brain-trust connection, you can take steps to engage people and create a culture where people shift from a Protect to a Partner mindset.


Create Space

What the brain-trust connection tells us is people experience change differently. It’s important to make time to understand their experience and create an environment where they can thrive. Creating space means carving out time for conversations.

In fact, the word TRUST provides a model for how to set up conversations for success. As you plan your conversations, you can focus on:

Transparency:    Be open about your goals and concerns, so you make it safe for others to do the same.
Relationship:    Plan for how you can establish a sense of collaboration where everyone is engaged in creating solutions.
Understanding:    Step into other people’s shoes, so you can see their perspective on the
impact of change.
Shared Success:    Take time to create a shared picture of what success looks like. Be open to outcomes other than then ones in your mind.
Truth Telling:    Practice radical candor.  Share your point of view and show that you care about what others have to say.

When you follow these steps you shift your mindset to focus on trust, which means you set up an environment where other people are more open to sharing their ideas.

How You Can Put This Into Practice
⦁    Make conversations part how you communicate with people about the change.
⦁    Take time to plan your conversations, just like you plan your presentations.
⦁    Set aside time in meetings and 1:1 conversations where you ask questions and listen.

As I work with leaders throughout an organization, it’s clear they work incredibly hard to meet their commitments. Add in a strong dose of organizational change and there seems to be even less time to create space for conversations. In the next section, I’ll share a brief story of how one leader made this happen.


Stan took over a high-performing sales team whose leader had moved on to a new group. Since this team delivered substantial revenue for the company, Stan’s first thought was to convene a team meeting to ensure everyone was on track for meeting their goals.

As we planned for his first presentation to the team, I asked him what his main concern was and he said “Retention. I need to keep people with the team. When changes like this happen, at best people are in wait/see mode and often start looking for new positions. I need to sell them on me and how I can help them succeed.”

We immediately shifted our focus to the conversations he needed to have with individuals before the first team meeting. Stan used the conversations to understand how each person viewed the change, what had worked well in the past and what they needed to succeed in the future. He also shared a bit of his background and thoughts on opportunities for the team moving forward.

At the team’s first off-site meeting, he used information from the 1:1 conversations to present his vision for the team and asked for their input to create picture of what shared success would look like. As a team, they also looked back to identify what had worked in the past and then looked forward to what changes were necessary to succeed in the future. This allowed them to honor their past leader’s contributions, while buying in as a group to Stan as their new leader.

This combination of conversation and presentation built a high level of trust between Stan and the team. One person did leave the team to deal with a personal situation, but otherwise the team stayed together and was energized about the future.

In Summary…

The scope and speed of change are only going to increase as we move deeper into the 21st century. This makes it even more important that leaders use their Conversational Intelligence® to build trust and engage people in solving the challenges we face.

“A single conversation across the table with a wise person is worth a month's study of books.”

Chinese Proverb