The Birds and the Bees of Dialogue

We know conversations can influence hearts and minds. But did you know conversations change body chemistry, as well? Relationships grow or are limited by conversational triggers that effect our neurochemistry.

Dopamine is released in the brain when you talk to people you trust. This stimulates the prefrontal cortex, the brain region that generates new ideas, empathy, creative thinking and good judgment. Conversations like these create a self-sustaining cycle of trust.

In contrast, conversations between people with low trust levels release chemicals that shut down the prefrontal cortex: cortisol and catecholamine. These stimulate more primitive areas that are sensitive to conflict, prompt protective brain functions and generate negativity and fight-flight-freeze responses. Trust doesn't develop when primitive brain functions like these are in control.


Power dynamics in conversation are not discussed regularly, yet they can greatly impact the quality of work relationships. Judith Glaser, author and organizational anthropologist points out; “The next level of greatness depends on the quality of the culture, which depends on the quality of the relationships, which depends on the quality of the conversations.”

It’s easier to think about vulnerability from the ‘one-down’ position. Imagine a manager asks, “Could we try it like this?” or “Did you think about doing it this way?” Depending on the relationship, you might consider the manager helpful or micromanaging. Either way, energy is absorbed or exchanged, but not generated in a conversation like this. Your role is to deliver what's expected, not to help find a solution.

What if, in the same exchange, you were asked, “How could we approach this differently?” How would that influence your energy? Would you feel more comfortable expressing your thoughts and ideas?

There's an opportunity cost in choosing to solve instead of involve, even when it’s with the intent of being helpful. This applies to relationships with grant recipients, volunteers, colleagues – anyone you interact with regularly. Keeping these dynamics, and the biology behind them in mind can create new possibilities for your partnerships.