How to Talk Intelligently

By Don Officer

Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.

                                                                                                           – Arthur Ward


Don’t feel bad if you ever tried to express sincere gratitude to someone, attempting to offer your honest appreciation, yet somehow you made an embarrassing hash of it. Don’t beat yourself up over the disappointment. The last thing you need at that moment is self-deprecation.

As Judith Glaser, author of Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results explains it, “I discovered that by looking back at a conversation and deconstructing it, I was able to see what I was doing to impact the situation, either negatively of positively. I called this skill ‘looking back to look forward’ and I found it was a skill I could teach people.” Could it be you didn’t know how to articulate your gratitude feelings in that awkward moment?

You might have told yourself, “Sincerity is supposed to be natural and spontaneous.” As with so many myths surrounding emotions, society regards ease of self-expression as the signature of good character and fundamental self-confidence. Think about your last job interview. Where did we get this crazy idea that expressing ourselves well comes automatically? If Judith Glaser can teach people ways to understand the contexts of their conversations, it follows they are capable of learning them. Let’s investigate this further.

What Glaser says is much more hopeful than the sinking feeling that accompanies being misunderstood. There’s no guarantee you will either understand or be understood whenever you open your mouth. Conversational intelligence is not a talent you are magically endowed with. It is much like emotional intelligence in the sense that it is a skill associated with a new level of perception as you build on your acquisition. It would be better to call it conversational education. For that matter I believe we would be better off today if Daniel Goleman had named what he identified as emotional intelligence emotional education instead. Many people know perfectly well how they would like to feel in many situations but can’t bring themselves to make the leap.

All of us, especially those reading these posts make it our business to practice gratitude daily. We appreciate what we have and how we live. In dealing with others we express our gratitude for what they contribute, then go on to make this emotion a core part of our leadership and collegial styles. However, only you know whether or not your sense of gratitude is truly a stretch exercise contributing to better relationships, genuinely better off recipients of your generosity, and in that stretch a better world, a better you.


Conversations, according to Glaser and many neuroscientists, shape our brains. If the words we share are supportive, they help build trust which leads to strong positive neuronal connections that sustain relationships which in turn mold culture. Harsh and critical language at formative points unravel the same processes. Nonetheless, context is always crucial. If the conversational muscle is strong enough to let you look backward to look forward, you will be wiser and more skilled next time around. A word of caution though, this is a lesson for you, not for those you are conversing with. Effective leaders do not run marine style bootcamps to build tougher employees who can take rougher criticism. You don’t know how your words will be taken or more importantly, the broader context of the message you are ultimately delivering.

At the heart of many workplace conflicts expressed or repressed is a spiral in the direction of distrust. Trust as you might expect moves in the opposite direction. What you might not expect is that they “…have different addresses in the brain.” The two inclinations form in different parts of the brain. You do not eliminate one by building the other. This can be frustrating if you try to operate from the wrong model. Addicts who build a powerful new set of positive habits are sometimes shocked at how easy it is for them to slip into old patterns under the right (or wrong) circumstances. Both sets of neural connections are still there. When they resume self-destructive behavior they aren’t back sliding, they are going down an entirely different slide. Triggering the healthier pattern is not a simple, linear, stimulus-response toggling process.

Conversations, relationships, cultures and strong positive emotional experiences make the difference because they take us to a better cerebral region. Gratitude is one of those positive emotions that gravitates to the right location, maybe the most important. Trust as you may have recognized after reading the above paragraphs, is a core ingredient in building it up. Grateful leaders come to know this intuitively and to act on it reflexively.

One of the aspects of human response that complicates our interactions with others is the discovery that our cerebral functioning continuously jumps between multiple neural input tracks one to another. This leads to an interesting range of opinions and responses. Recent neuroscience and some established biophysics actually demonstrate that one or a consortium of these tracks actually decides what we will do or feel before we are consciously aware of the conclusion. Somehow, we convince ourselves the process runs the other way around just as the boss who hears your solution is so pleased with himself for thinking of it.

Glaser, using an earlier model, described the separate neural responses as distinctive brains based on evolved structural design. She lists five of them: the reptilian (sensitive to threats to our safety); the limbic (concerned with emotions and relationships); the neocortex (the memory making, data sorting, interpretive outside layer of brain tissue); plus, two more component systems: the heart brain (the biochemical reader that interprets energetic and hormonal messages) and; the prefrontal cortex (the executive brain engaging with the world and the future, sorting out the other responses, showing foresight and positive feelings). One of her recent students tells me she has updated her model recognizing exciting new knowledge about plasticity and networking.

The previous paragraph contains more information than we probably need here. What it does help us realize is that conversational intelligence is much more than a background decision calculus prompting us with the right words. All of Glaser’s five components are essentially intertwined neural networks attempting to keep each of us focused on first safety then ultimately higher-level needs or aspirations.

This last target is perhaps the most important idea and the strongest connection between conversational intelligence and grateful leadership: the level three conversation. Our neural networks operate to an extent like a hierarchy, with all component levels being important and contributing to the quality of the next rung up. Not surprisingly, conversations also have their levels. We don’t escape toddlerhood without some grasp of level one conversations which are informational and transactional with little skin in the game. Not long after, we develop interests, needs and desires for which we might have to argue or compete. This is the level two conversation. Sadly, quite a few of us never really climb out of this sandbox.

Level three conversations are mostly where we want to go. They involve the positive emotions more than the other two and should regularly include expressions of gratitude. If your style of grateful leadership keeps slipping out of the level three bracket. – time to reassess. Level three conversations are the kind that build character, relationships organizations and institutions. Glaser’s book focuses on what these third level conversations look like. They are dynamic not formulaic, meaningful and fun. In a relationship inspired by third level conversation even unspoken gratitude is in the air. But don’t forget to put words to your thoughts and feelings. Who among us wants to miss the chance to give voice to our best feelings?

Conversational Intelligence is full of exercises and framing tools to build general conversational competence and keep everyone working towards level three conversational environments. Glaser is adept at coining acronyms and imagery to hammer home her program. She is active on the international stage as part of the global management training circuit as well. On the consulting side, she has had some enormous well-known successes with cultural transformation and rebranding. Pretty much anything she says about interpersonal trust or growth building also applies to both the individual and the bigger picture. I’d say she has much to be grateful for.




What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute of Learning Vice-President, Judith Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment will help you see the possibilities.