Michael Sterling

When You Speak, Are You Being Heard?


Our daily conversations have a remarkable impact on our careers. When you speak, are you being heard? Maybe not. I’m learning more about the fine art of leadership conversations in Judith E. Glaser’s book, Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust & Get Extraordinary Results.


As leaders, the more we become aware of reality gaps and conversational blind spots, the more we can converse clearly.


In conversations, conflicts commonly arise when there’s a reality gap (an opposing interpretation of reality). This triggers an array of fears that activate our distrust network. We begin to process reality through a fear-based (vs. trust-based) lens. We start to make stuff up.


When we talk past one another, we are conversationally blind. We become focused on making a point and persuading others we’re right. Winning becomes the goal instead of co-creating a shared solution.


In some studies, executives were found to use statements 85 percent of the time, asking questions only 15 percent of the time. Even their questions often turned out to be statements in disguise.


One’s conversational ability isn’t necessarily innate, but you can improve upon it. Conversation partners must agree to share thoughts, ideas and beliefs to co-create a shared sense of mutual reality.


Conversational Blind Spots


It’s all too easy for us to retreat into our biases, assumptions and conversational blind spots. This invariably leads to misunderstandings, miscommunications, conflicts and negative relationships.


Five common conversational blind spots plague us as leaders.


Blind Spot #1: False Assumptions


When we assume others see what we see, feel what we feel and think what we think, we’re operating with blinders on. If you’re engrossed in your own point of view, you can’t connect with another’s perspective.


Sensitive people pick up on others’ lack of connectivity, and they’ll push harder to persuade others that they’re right. Their payoff is a burst of dopamine that may feel great, but it leaves their conversation partners in the dust.



Blind Spot #2: Underestimating Emotions


Words can trigger strong emotions: trust, distrust, excitement and fear. When this happens, we may misinterpret reality. If we feel threatened, we move into protective behaviors and fail to realize we’re doing so. When we’re afraid, the brain releases chemicals that shut down its logic centers.


Blind Spot #3: Lack of Empathy


Fear prevents us from empathizing with others. We become insensitive to others’ perspectives and cannot hear important parts of the conversation. When we’re able to listen deeply, without judgment, we can feel what others are feeling.


Blind Spot #4: Making Our Own Meaning


We assume that we remember what others say. In truth, we actually remember our responses to what others say. Research shows that:


  1. We drop out of conversations every 12–18 seconds to process what others are saying.
  2. A chemical process within the brain seizes on our responses to others’ words — and these responses form the basis of memory.


Blind Spot #5: Assuming Shared Meaning


We assume that the person speaking creates the message’s meaning. In truth, the listener decodes the message and assigns meaning to it. As a listener, you run a speaker’s words through your personal vault of memories and experiences and attempt to make sense of the conversation.


Two conversation partners can’t be sure they’re on the same page until they take the time to validate a shared meaning.


Improve Your Conversations


In my work as a career coach, we take time to observe and reflect on conversations. The first thing to notice is how you act and react in conversation. Do you “drop out” as you process information in your mind? What can you do to remain focused on what the person is saying?


Next, ask the other person if you’ve understood them fully. This not only gives you an opportunity to verify meaning, but gives you time to finish your mental processing and adjust for misunderstandings.


You can take other basic steps to enhance the quality of your conversations:


  • Slow down. A conversation is not a race.
  • Breathe deeply. Take appropriate pauses. Allow time to process conversations.
  • Check your emotions.
  • Ask discovery questions.
  • Validate shared goals and meanings.


If you’re like many leaders, you tend to march forward at a breakneck pace to achieve goals and objectives — a pattern that prevents you from seeing the impact your conversations have on others.


You may forget that your words are rarely neutral and have histories informed by years of use. Every experience you have adds a new layer of meaning to your conversations.


It’s crucial to work on managing any underlying feelings of rejection and protection, both yours and your listener’s. Only then can you harness your ability to reach out to others and achieve mutual understanding.


There’s a lot more to conversations than meets the eye, or ear. When you take time to reflect on and process how you manage conversations, you’ll become more effective as a leader who has high conversational IQ.


What about you? Do you recognize any reality gaps or blind spots in your conversations? I’d love to hear from you. Connect with me on LinkedIn.


Interested in more insights on communication and career development? Check out the Career Wellness library on the SterlingFreeman website.


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