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Trust, impactful conversations, leadership and diversity, effectiveness

Updated: May 29, 2021

Last weekend I took a virtual course at Stanford named” Conversational Intelligence: Increase Your Impact One Conversation at a Time” taught by Amy Wong.

This course could not have come to me in a more serendipitous time. Here are some of my takeaways, observations, and feelings that come to me as I clear my head and I reflect on the past three weeks, including knowledge I have gained during Amy’s course.

Some of my friends and family know what I have been going through, and I am super grateful for their support, kindness, care, believing in me, and for cheering me on. Knowing that I have such an amazing team of people standing alongside me gave me a lot of courage and confidence. I feel that no words can describe how much I appreciate them being able to listen and be there for me.

How does this point relate to Amy’s class of Conversational Intelligence?

1. Neuroscience — a friend or a foe

Amy’s class was about impactful conversations; however, it was about more than that. Amy explained that to have impactful conversations, we need to be able to build TRUST. Amy explained to us the biological responses and neuroscience wiring we are born with that helps categorize someone in .07 seconds as a FRIEND or a FOE. At work, at home, at school, in our community — in any social group setting — our brain is continuously measuring our environment and making a judgment about whether someone is our FRIEND or whether it is a FOE. Can I trust this person to share with him/her who I am, or do I run away from this person? The interesting thing about this is how our brain and wiring triggers the biological responses to what we are experiencing. For simplicity, I will focus only on two key hormones — oxytocin and cortisol.

Oxytocin is released when we feel safe and when we are experiencing joy and happiness. Oxytocin powers our “flow” state. It drives our creativity, and by default, it improves our productivity and effectiveness. It helps us be our best selves.

Cortisol, on the other hand, is here to protect us from the FOES. Cortisol signals our body that we are not safe. It helps trigger our “fight-or-flight” response. This reaction comes from the evolutionary survival mechanism, enabling people and other mammals to react quickly to life-threatening situations. Cortisol mutes our prefrontal cortex and has a shelf-life of up to 26 hours. The long-term activation of the stress-response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follow can disrupt almost all of our body’s processes. We cannot be at our best because we are less productive, and our focus and memory get negatively impacted. We may not be able to sleep and rest. If we are in a situation where too much cortisol is released too often, it can lead to permanent anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, memory and concentration impairment, etc.

This information was super helpful as it made me understand and realize that what I am experiencing is completely normal. I am a human, and my brain and biological responses are triggering this reaction. A large amount of cortisol, which is a normal biological response to the situation I found myself in, was being released in my body. I understood the biological reality.

Great! Now, what do I do with it, and how do I shift my state of mind and focus? (I thought to myself.)

I didn’t have a clear answer to that question yet, but the good thing was that I had a starting point and better awareness. Other questions came rushing into my mind:

  • Is this the goal of the person?

  • Is this person actively trying to put me into this state?

  • How does the state I am in benefit the person who is causing me to be in this situation?

  • Is the intent of the person to make me feel small and powerless? Perhaps, that is precisely where the person wants me to be.

These questions allowed me to get an additional dose of rational thinking that I could not produce before as my body was overwhelmed with cortisol. I was able to start shifting my mindset back towards confidence and courage.

I know what I know! I know who I am! I stand up straight with my shoulders back!

I found myself.

2. Powerful and confident women threaten male-dominated hierarchies

It can be challenging to be a confident and ambitious woman in a male-dominated hierarchy. Men, please don’t take this comment personally. I am sure it is challenging to be a man in a male-dominated hierarchy as well. The purpose of this point is to explain my view and the reality I see from my perspective. I come from a small village in the Czech Republic. I grew up in a family full of strong independent women; however, our family hierarchy was always dominated by one or two powerful men despite having so many strong women in our family. I have been raised with values that hard work, resilience, dedication, perseverance, kindness, and integrity ultimately pay off in the long run.

Since I was a kid, my family set high standards for me, and by that default, my mindset started creating high standards for myself. I was raised to believe that if one wants something, then it is o.k. to work hard and “go get it” no matter how crazy that dream may sound. One may not achieve their dreams, but ultimately we will become a better person for trying. We will learn something along the way, and so at the end of the process, the journey is what makes us better, even if we don’t achieve our very ambitious goal (assuming the right set of virtues and core values govern the journey).

How does one find balance between being themselves and fitting in?

First, I never felt like I fit in anywhere. I have always felt like I am the “odd duck” in a row. The good thing about feeling like the “odd duck” from early on in life is that it taught me that it is o.k. to be different and that it is o.k. to be yourself because you have nothing else left. AND it is not the “fitting in” that makes us authentic. It is the uniqueness and the differences that make us stand out. As I grow older, I appreciate and embrace my authenticity more and more; at the same time, there seem to be the same amount of people who play the “fitting in” game as there used to be back in school.

I often hear:

  • Women are too quiet.

  • Women need to ask more questions.

  • Women need to be more ambitious.

  • Women don’t apply for jobs unless they are confident that they fit 100% of the job criteria.

  • Women need to be more curious and take more risks.

On the other hand, when we embrace some of what researchers categorize as the “masculine” traits, society doesn’t like it:

  • One can be categorized as too aggressive, intimidating, pushy, and non-collaborative.

  • We cannot be emotional and show tears about something we genuinely care about because then it “throws men off”

  • AND we cannot be driven and ambitious, and confident because it threatens the hierarchy.

3. Organizational effectiveness

Companies may not be paying enough attention to the quality of their managers/ leaders and the amount of trust they can create with their teams. We all talk about increasing value, growing output, productivity, effectiveness, and efficiency; however, we don’t speak enough about the habits and behavior that will fuel these outputs and allow us to achieve them with higher likelihood. We don’t talk enough about building the specific practices and principles that will enable us to get to those desired outcomes.

Food for thought:

  • Are we aware and willing to hear the negative impact that one can have on a team or organization when people are in an environment that causes too much cortisol and very little to no oxytocin?

  • How much more productive could our organizations become if the leaders who lead were more focused on creating trust and inspired the creation of oxytocin to boost creativity and output?

  • How much more impact could our teams/ organizations make if the people who lead us were just a bit more mindful, understood, and focused on building trust and having impactful conversations?

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