By Judith E. Glaser
We are all familiar with the ‘chemistry’ factor in relationships and the chemical attraction metaphor. However, we are now learning that our insights about the chemical nature of relationships and conversations are more than a metaphor—they are a reality!
For many decades, I’ve been intrigued by the chemical impacts—both positive and negative—that conversations have on us. I married a biochemist and for decades we’ve shared lots of conversations about our work. When we first wrote about the “Neurochemistry of Positive Conversations” for Harvard Business Review and Psychology Today, we received confirmation that we were on to something important.
Positive comments and positive conversations provide a chemical “high,” and yet negative ones stick with us much 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, making it not very easy to forget, and discounting all the times people say you’re talented.
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 levels of 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. We often perceive greater negativity than exists. These effects can last for days, imprinting the interaction on our memories and magnifying its impact on our future behavior.
Cortisol functions like a sustained release tablet—the more we ruminate about fear, the longer the impact.
Positive comments and positive 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.
Judith E. Glaser is CEO of Benchmark Communications, Inc. and Chairman of The Creating WE Institute. She is an Organizational Anthropologist, and consults to Fortune 500 Companies. Judith is the author of Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results (Bibliomotion) Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 212-307-4386.