Difficult Colleagues 4 – Conversational ‘Un’Intelligence

I’ve never been a model employee – ask any of my managers. Part of my problem was something I wasn’t even aware of – how my brain chemistry worked to my detriment. Growing up in an emotionally abusive family, it wasn’t safe for me to discuss true feelings. My sense of safety came only when I pulled my inner self away from my abusive parent and disengaged. This left me with a highly triggered fight/flight/freeze/appease response inside my amygdala. My MO was to “freeze.” As soon as a discussion turned risky, my brain retreated into a mental “safe zone” while remaining physically in the same spot. I could withstand the barrage, while my mind was free from hurt.

However unintended the abuse was, it left me with future problems in relationships. Especially unfortunate were my relationships with my bosses. I did not see these instances as my own learned behavior. Many years later I understood these discussions were really the give-and-take of brain neurochemicals. We were complicit in “Conversational ‘Un’Intelligence” creating lose-lose outcomes: Difficult Colleagues.


Conversational Intelligence has to do with regulating the neurochemicals inside our bodies during conversations. When someone experiences good vibes with others, we give the connection, pleasure and calming neurochemicals oxytocin, dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, and GABA to them – which are then reciprocated back to us. But for a person who has been highly traumatized in relationships, our neural pathways stand at the ready to secrete more cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline – the bad neurochemicals, keeping us in a constant state of arousal and stress – and which, unfortunately, are then reciprocated by the other person in our discussion. We then think about each other as Difficult Colleagues.

What would happen if we could sense our inner emotions in real-time and quietly ask ourselves these questions, “What is going on here? What emotion am I feeling? Am I leaning into my old habits? How can I turn this conversation around? How can we collectively explore a better option?”

We can short-circuit and rewire our internal neuropathways with practice. When we feel a trigger coming inside a discussion, we have only a few micro-seconds to insert a metal rod into the spokes of our wheels by saying out loud, “This is a good discussion, let me think about it for a while (i.e., in a hour, etc.) and then let’s continue our talk to find some solutions.”

In this, you are giving:

  • A timeframe to continue
  • A cool-down and de-escalation period
  • Use of your Pre-Frontal Cortex (executive function)
  • Grace for yourself AND the other person
  • A Co-Creative chance to all


As Difficult Colleagues, we are humans and we come with our own lenses and experiences. Let’s give each other options instead of thinking there is only a win-lose outcome ahead. Listen to Judith Glaser, @Creating We Institute, as she defines Conversational Intelligence.