Winning the Business

The Power of Words

Using language to increase your Conversational Intelligence

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As proposal managers and writers, we know the power of words to communicate and persuade. But how many of us are consciously aware of the power of words to connect with—or alienate—others and to help us work together to achieve our goals and aspirations?

We’re Wired to Be Social

Humans are social, and our brains have evolved to help us navigate interpersonal exchanges. We’re really good at it, too: Science shows us that our brains assess for trust or distrust within the first 0.07 seconds of an interaction.

Not only that, but our brains process social rejection in much the same way as physical pain. “Humans have a fundamental need to belong,” said psychologist C. Nathan DeWall, Ph.D., in an American Psychological Association article.

Humans are social, and our brains have evolved to help us navigate interpersonal exchanges. We’re really good at it, too.

Can I Trust You?

Seven hundredths of a second. That’s how long it takes our amygdala to react to any perceived physical or ego threats, such as a judgmental or angry tone; fear of rejection, exclusion, or failure; and territory or status violations. These lead to a release of cortisol and what Judith E. Glaser, author of Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results, refers to as an “amygdala hijack,” which primes us for self-protection and shuts down the thinking centers of our brain that are responsible for innovation, empathy, creativity, and strategy.

What about when the opposite happens, and we decide within those first nanoseconds that we lean toward trusting someone? Oxytocin enters the neurochemical bath of our brain and primes us for connection and higher-level thinking.

How Do the Words We Use Impact Our Experience?

Priming for greater trust is core to the practice of Conversational Intelligence® (C-IQ), and it can be accomplished through awareness of the language we use. For example, Glaser suggests we avoid saying, “I’ll handle it myself”—which sends signals to the amygdala of exclusion, rejection, and judgment, kicking off the release of cortisol and accompanying distrust. Instead, we should try saying, “How would you handle this?”—which signals openness, a willingness to be influenced, and an invitation to share, and it releases oxytocin and higher levels of trust.

Language that reflects or communicates judgment, rejection, or pushing creates resistance and skepticism in those around us, while language that communicates appreciation, discovery, sharing, and inclusion fosters trust and opens the door to innovation and co-creation.

Priming for greater trust is core to the practice of Conversational Intelligence® (C-IQ), and it can be accomplished through awareness of the language we use.

Why It Matters

Whether we’re conversing with potential clients during capture or working with team members to get an important proposal out by a pressing deadline, what we say and how we say it plays a big part in shaping the level of resistance or co-creation we encounter. And thanks to emotional contagion, the vibe spreads quickly through the group—as either negativity or enthusiasm.

According to Alex “Sandy” Pentland, researchers at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory found “patterns of communication to be the most important predictor of a team’s success. Not only that, but they are as significant as all the other factors—individual intelligence, personality, skill, and the substance of discussions—combined.”

Salespeople at Boehringer Ingelheim who increased their C-IQ by using skills that promote what Glaser calls in her book “supportive engagement” were able to dramatically expand sales and market share within 18 months, moving from No. 39 to No. 1 in the eyes of physicians. Leaders who demonstrate high C-IQ actively shape “the quality of the conversational environment” to encourage safety, candor, trust, appreciation, and idea sharing.

What do you observe within your own team and organization—language that shuts down or opens up trust and innovation? What opportunities do you see to apply the power of increased C-IQ?


Judy Wolf, ACC, CPC, is a certified professional coach for Core Integrity Coaching and a government contracting coordinator for the Mohawk Valley Small Business Development Center. She can be reached at judy@coreintegritycoaching.com.

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