insight magazine

Are Your Client Conversations Working?

How you converse is key in building client trust and connections for life. By Mary Schmid | Digital Exclusive - 2018


Are your conversations standing in the way of building connections, credibility, and trust?

We have been taught our entire lives that conversations are about sharing what’s on our minds and telling people what to do. But, conversations go deeper than just sharing information. Conversations are dynamic and affect the way we connect, engage, interact, and influence each other.

The problem is there’s not much guidance as to what constitutes a good conversation. A Stanford University study found that 90 percent of conversations miss the mark. So, while you may think that you’re communicating well with your clients and your team, it may be that what you’re trying to communicate to another person is getting muddled in translation.

The Chemistry of Conversation

Neuroscience research provides insights to help us understand the innerworkings of our brains that influence everyday conversations.

Conversations are made up of both a biochemical and emotional reaction. During a conversation where you feel there’s a perceived threat, neurochemicals are released that activate the amygdala (which lives in the lower brain and is involved when you're experiencing emotions). This paralyzes your brain's ability to think critically, and moves instead into self-protection — fight, flight, freeze, or appease. There is little trust.

In a conversation where you feel safe, neurochemicals are released that activate the higher brain. The prefrontal cortex — the executive brain — opens to build relationships and partnerships, to use good judgment, to think strategically and innovate, and to handle difficult conversations. Trust is built and sustained.

But conversations are more complex than either trust or distrust. Trust and distrust live together in the brain and coexist in the same conversation. If we see eye-to-eye on things, trust develops. If we disagree and have different points of view, there’s a great degree of uncertainty in the brain. And, because the lower brain processes the perceived threat faster than the higher brain, distrust and protective behaviors occur more easily. In other words, trust is conditional.

Levels of Conversation

Not all conversations are equal. By understanding and mastering the impact of the three levels of conversation patterns, you can identify the context and purpose of the conversation and use all three levels where appropriate.

Level 1: Informational Conversations - Informational conversations are transactional. The focus is on getting facts and updates and telling people the strategy to use to solve the problem.

It’s beneficial to confirm what you know by giving and taking in information. However, there’s no emotional connection at this level, so therefore, there’s little trust. It sounds like this: “Given your circumstances of being a young family, if something happens to you, your family is destitute. There’s only one way out of this. This is what you need to do.”

You end up talking too much, and you know nothing more than a few facts. There’s a biological reason to explain this. When you express yourself, your body releases a high level of reward hormones and you feel great. The more you talk, the better you feel, which leads you to talking more.

The impact? The person sitting across from you cannot get a word in and feels unheard, unimportant, and marginalized. They feel as if they don't matter because you monopolized the conversational space.

Level 2: Positional Conversations - Positional conversations bring understanding and clarity. You inquire about the other's opinions and perspectives. If you both agree, it’s a win-win and trust is activated.

The slippery slope is when you're addicted to being right. When there’s disagreement, you get triggered, the brain releases cortisol and you go to great lengths to defend that your way is the best way. Your conversation turns into a one-person show about how great your firm is, how you are the top-rated expert. You’re exerting your power and influence to get the other person to see your way.

It sounds like telling your child to do their homework. At best, you may get compliance and conditional trust. They understand your point of view but feel like they’re backed into a corner and should comply; however, they’re uncertain if you really have their best interest at heart. Maybe they will follow through, or maybe they will not.

Level 3: Transformational Conversations - Transformational conversations build meaning and create connections. When you care about what others think and feel, the brain senses safety and the prefrontal cortex opens as a signal to trust. As a result, there’s an openness to share what you know with others and to discover what you don't know. The best solutions are then co-created.

You listen without judgment, emotions are articulated, and you just cannot get enough of the conversation that’s authentically focused on learning more about them. Trust is present. They feel heard and valued, and as a result, they want to work with you and implement strategies together with you.

Where Do Your Conversations Live?

We’ve studied the patterns of interactions and how people communicate for 35 years, and our research indicates that most conversations live in Level 1 or 2. We raise our children by telling them what they should do. We send people to school to learn how to engage in Level 2 conversations, lock into winning and success strategies, and reward them for being great at influencing others.

But when you understand how to open the space for Level 3 conversations, all parts of your brain are activated. You understand how your brain influences what you think, feel, imagine, and do. You have the skills to make distinctions between the levels of conversation. Most importantly, you can choose the right level of conversation in the right context, and at the right time. It’s this agility in talking with others that gives you the conversational edge and inspires others to work with you because you have now become the trusted adviser.

So, next time you sit down with your clients, take the lead in having a Level 3 conversation and build trust, loyalty, and relationships that will last a lifetime.

Mary Schmid is the creator of The Conversational Edge System, which teaches financial leaders the power of conversations that create partnership from the start and build lasting relationships with deeply loyal clients and staff. This article was first published as “The Power of Conversations” in Footnote, the official publication of the Minnesota Society of Certified Public Accountants. It is used with permission.

Leave a comment