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We are all leaders when it comes to conversation

Our well being, health and success depends upon the quality of our conversations.

4 min read



Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today’s post is by Cheri B. Torres.

Ever said or overheard, “I can’t do anything about it. I’m not the leader!” Nothing could be further from the truth.

No matter what role you play in an organization, you have the power to influence conversations. And everything that happens in an organization is influenced by conversation.

Conversation is like water in which we swim. We are always engaged in conversation, either internally with ourselves or externally with others. Yet, we are seldom aware of our words and the influence they are having. Just like fish, who’s health and well being depend upon water quality, our well being, health and success depends upon the quality of our conversations. Research has determined they can add or deplete years from our life and predict success in teams and organizations.

Here’s why: Our words affect our brain chemistry.

  • If we feel devalued, threatened, blamed, shamed or judged, a flood of stress hormones, including cortisol, norepinephrine, and testosterone, are released. These hormones stimulate fight, flight, freeze or appease behaviors. They leave us with an urge to protect ourselves, inhibiting our ability to connect with others and limiting our creative and critical thinking. Over time, stress hormones weaken our immune system and steal years of life.
  • When we feel valued, safe, included and encouraged, a different set of hormones are released, including oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine and endorphins. These are “feel good” hormones. They open up and expand our brain’s capacity for connecting with others and give us access to creative and critical thinking. Feel good hormones improve our immune system and add years to life.

Since each one of us starts or enters into conversations, each of us can take a leadership role in making sure we engage in conversations that help everyone in them feel good. Being intentional about how we talk to each other allows us to foster “we” thinking, helping to build strong and productive teams.

How do we do that? Two simple practices:

  1. Ask generative questions — of yourself and others. These are questions for which you don’t have answers and about which you are curious. The answers to them help make the invisible visible, build shared understanding, deepen relationships, and surface possibilities. For example:
    • If you suddenly withdraw during a meeting because you’re feeling threatened or unsure, instead of staying there, ask yourself: “Where’d that response come from? Is it justified? Could I have misunderstood? What might I ask here or how could I add value?”
    • If you observe someone else acting defensively or devaluing another, instead of joining in or getting defensive yourself, you can ask: “What’s going on for you? What would you like to have happen? How can I support you? What do you need?”
    • If people (including your boss or the “official” leader) are stuck or dealing with a complex challenge instead of throwing up your hands along with everyone else, you can ask: “Do you think the whole team working together might be able to break through this? What is it that our customers really want? What are we trying to accomplish? What’s our bottom line aspiration?”
  2. Begin with a positive frame. Talk about what you want instead of what you don’t want. Create an appreciative tone and a positive direction for your conversations. For example:
    • If a colleague isn’t holding up their end of the workload, instead of talking about how they are failing, initiate a conversation about what they need to meet deadlines or workload.
    • If meetings in your organization are a waste of time, instead of talking about how bad meetings are, frame the conversation to talk about making meetings efficient, effective and engaging.

People at any level of an organization can use their words to initiate or shift a conversation. Anyone can ask a question that might disrupt ordinary thinking to make way for new ideas. We are all conversational leaders — if we choose to be.


Cheri B. Torres, Ph.D., is the co-author of bestselling book, Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement, with Jackie Stavros. She’s also a keynote speaker, senior consultant with and partner at Innovation Partners International, specializing in training and development.

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