Articles & Publications

By Judith E. Glaser |
Published: September 16, 2014


We are all familiar with the “chemistry” factor in relationships and the chemical attraction metaphor; now we are learning that such insights are more than metaphor— they are reality!

Positive comments and conversations provide a temporary chemical “high,” while negative ones languish longer. A critique from a boss, a disagreement with a colleague, or a fight with a friend can make you forget praise. If you are called lazy, careless or unprofessional, you are likely to remember it and internalize it, easily forgetting all the past compliments.

Chemistry plays a big role in this reaction. When we face criticism, rejection or fear, when we feel marginalized or minimized, our bodies produce higher cortisol, a hormone that shuts down the thinking center of our brains and activates conflict aversion and protection behaviors. We become more reactive and sensitive, perceiving greater negativity than exists. These effects can last for days, imprinting the interaction on our memories and influencing our future behavior. Cortisol functions like a sustained release tablet—the more we ruminate about fear, the longer the impact.

Positive comments and conversations also produce a chemical reaction. They spur the production of oxytocin—a feel-good hormone that elevates our ability to collaborate, communicate, and trust others by activating networks in our prefrontal cortex. But, since oxytocin metabolizes faster than cortisol, its effects are less dramatic and sustainable.

Chemistry of Conversations

This “chemistry of conversations” necessitates being more mindful of our interactions. Fear, rejection and criticism increase cortisol levels and reduce your conversational intelligence or C-IQ—your ability to connect and think innovatively, empathize, and strategize with others. (Remember: positive comments and trust-inducing behavior such as active listening spark oxytocin and boost C-IQ.)

When we partnered with Qualtrics, the online survey software company, to analyze the frequency of negative (cortisol-producing) versus positive (oxytocin-producing) interactions, we found that managers use positive, oxytocin and C-IQ elevating behaviors more often than negative ones. Survey respondents acknowledged all five positive behaviors, such as “showing concern for others” more frequently than all five negative ones, such as “pretending to be listening.” That’s the good news.

However, about 85 percent of respondents also admitted to “sometimes” acting in ways that could derail not only specific interactions but also future relationships. When leaders exhibit both behaviors, they create dissonance or uncertainty in followers’ brains, spurring cortisol production and reducing CI-Q.

If you tend to tell and sell your ideas and challenge people to produce results, your negative (cortisol-producing) could easily outweigh positive (oxytocin-producing) reactions. Instead of asking questions to stimulate discussion, showing concern for others and painting a compelling picture of shared success, you enter discussions with a fixed opinion, determined to convince others you are right. You are not open to others’ influence—and you fail to listen to connect. Just think what this does to innovation, decision-making and other growth initiatives.

Next, 3 ways to improve the quality of your conversations.

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