Letter No 3 - Conversational Intelligence

Hi there? How are you?

We ask this question several times every day.

The answer is usually one of these -
'All good!',
'I'm fine, how are you?',
'I'm ok, what about you?'.

It's a standard response. It's kind of a ritual. It's a little hollow. When someone asks me "How are you?", and if I believe that the person who is asking cares about me, I want to tell them how I really am. And then I have to think - how am I? What should I tell them? It's a very difficult question to genuinely answer.

We ask each other this question as a matter of habit. I am guilty of doing that too. We don't really want to know!

Two things bother me:
  1. When someone asks this question as a formality, and I feel they don't care about how I am
  2. When I ask this question and they say 'I'm fine', assuming that I'm just being formal and that I don't care about the real answer.

The truth is that this is a very personal question. I may not want to say how I am. Also, you may not want to know the real answer.


Here are some other ideas to begin a conversation:

Hi! It's so nice to see you / speak to you today. I'm glad that we could make this happen.
(makes both of us feel a little gratitude and opens up our minds and hearts)

Hi! I love the colour of your shirt/dress. This colour is looking good on you.
(a little appreciation never fails to cheers up our mood. Say it only if you genuinely think so, though)

Hi! What have you been busy with lately?
(this question gives both of us the space to do a quick scan of our past few days)

Hi! How was your day so far?
(this is much better than 'How are you?' because it asks only about this morning, and not the entirety of your existence!)

Hi! What's on your mind today?
(this a nice open-ended question permitting the other person to pick what they are okay to speak about)

So, what do you feel like doing/talking about today?
(Again, an open-ended question giving the other person the freedom to choose the flow of the conversation)

I use these often. One has to remind oneself to begin with something other than 'How are you?'. They work brilliantly. Try them out and see which one is your favourite!


Some conversations get me sparkly-eyed and tingly headed. I feel I'm being heard and like I'm walking on a high mountain and peering down upon the world. Birds chirp and ideas buzz and possibilities fizz. These conversations leave me feeling good about myself.

And of course, the other way is also true. Sometimes conversations feeling like quicksand. Or like walking into a dense garden of thorny bushes. They leave you feeling heavy and disheartened.

Conversations trigger physical and chemical changes in our brains. Sometimes we open up and have a healthy, trusting and fulfilling conversation. And sometimes we end up experiencing fear, caution, and anxiety.

Conversations have the power to change our brain. They boost the production of hormones and neurotransmitters that stimulate body systems and nerve pathways. Conversations directly affect our body's chemistry, not just for the moment, but perhaps for a lifetime.

Think about this for a moment - which conversations that took place many years ago, still trigger emotions inside you? These conversations have changed your body's chemistry for life - unless you learn how to reverse them.

As we begin to communicate, the chemicals our brain produces either make us feel good and light or bad and heavy. Ultimately these chemicals determine the 'inner experience' of our daily lives.

Our ability to connect and converse with people is so closely linked to our confidence and feeling of wellness.

Good conversations are so closely linked to a good life or at least a good day. The days when I have had even one really good, meaningful, healthy, real conversation, I go to bed feeling quite satisfied.


Negative conversations leave a longer impact

When we feel trusted, appreciated, valued or receive genuine feedback, our brain releases higher levels of dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins and other biochemicals that give us a feeling of well being.

When we face criticism, rejection or fear, when we feel marginalised or minimised, our bodies produce higher levels of cortisol. Cortisol, also called the stress hormone, shuts down the thinking centre of our brain. We become reactive and sensitive.

The interesting part is this - once produced cortisol lasts for up to 26 hours in our bloodstream - much long than oxytocin lasts. The impact of a stress-inducing conversation stays with us longer than that of positive conversations!

One conversation gone wrong in a relationship can neutralise many hours and days of wonderful, positive, trusting conversations. That is sad but true. Maturity and intelligence lie in being able to reduce the length of the impact of the negative conversation - to let go and move on.

This is why it's so important to develop this skill - conversational intelligence.

This is also the name of a book authored by Judith Glaser.


Positive conversational behaviours that stimulate the production of Oxytocin

  1. Showing concern for others
  2. Being truthful about what is on one's mind
  3. Stimulating discussion / displaying genuine curiosity
  4. Painting a picture of mutual success
  5. Being open to difficult conversations

Negative conversational behaviours that increase cortisol

  1. Not trusting other's intentions
  2. Being focused on convincing others
  3. Feeling that others are not understanding you
  4. Pretending to be listening
  5. Emotions distracting you from listening genuinely

Source: Creating WE Institute / Qualtrics


"What do you mean?" he said. "Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?"

"All of them at once," said Bilbo. "And a very fine morning for a pipe of tobacco out of doors, into the bargain. If you have a pipe about you, sit down and have a fill of mine! There's no hurry, we have all the day before us!"

- The Hobbit

Ahhh, the joy of having a luxurious, spacious and playful conversation with someone you care about.

Thanks for reading this and allowing me to share my thoughts with you. Do think about your conversations. How do you begin, how do you prepare, how do you leave, the tone and energy your feel during and after - it is fascinating to observe oneself and learn.

Here's my parting question - What would you like to have more of in your conversations?