Forward Thinking

The Chemistry of Conversations

Why you should develop conference experiences that nurture conversations.

Did you know that the quality of conversations—especially those that people have with others at conferences and meetings—has a direct chemical impact on them, those around them, and therefore on the organizations they belong to?

According to business executive and self-described “organizational anthropologist” Judith E. Glaser—author of Conversational Intelligence: How Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results—science has now proven that the chemical nature of relationships, conversations, and collaboration is more than an attraction metaphor; it’s a reality.

Your conference success depends on the quality of your conference culture, which depends on the quality of your participants’ relationships, which depends on the quality of their conversations. Those conversations release specific chemicals in your participants’ brains. Your conference success does not depend on the quality of the con-tent delivered to your participants, according to current neurological and cognitive research, as much as it depends on the quality of your participants’ interactions.

This is important, considering that the large majority of our conference schedule is dedicated to pushing content to our audiences. We want to exert control over their learning, so we focus on providing one-way didactic expert speakers who dispense information. We schedule limited opportunities for our participants to converse about that critical content.

We need to flip that, and develop conference experiences that nurture collaboration and conversations. Dedicating conference time and creating the space for open and non-judgmental conversations is a critical skill we must master. To best accomplish this:

› Adopt and model conversations with regular attendees at the highest level of your organization. A high-sharing culture needs to be part of your meeting purpose.

› Coach presenters on how to chunk session content into 10-minute segments, interspersed with thought-provoking audience-discussion prompts in pairs or groups of three.

› Design a human library or mentor zone where participants can “check out” an industry thought leader for 10 to 15 minutes.

Conversations are not what we think they are, according to Glaser. We’ve grown up thinking they’re about talking, sharing information, telling people what to do, or telling others what’s on our minds. But a true conversation goes deeper and is stronger than sharing information. A transformative level-three conversation actually releases chemicals that cause us to bond with one another.

To build trust and empower others, we need to understand the three levels of conversations. We have to develop conference experiences that move from power over others to power with others. It is only then that we can truly help make our participants’ experience at our events transformational.

Glaser’s research identifies three levels of conversations. 

Level 1 conversations are transactional in nature. They share information. These tell-and-ask experiences create closed spaces. 

Level 2 conversations are positional and defend a particular belief. The goal is to influence someone to do something specific. Level 2 conversations limit space and usually result in the release of negative brain chemicals. 

Level 3 conversations are transformational and collaborative. They involve sharing and discovering together. They create the space for trust, progress, and positive brain chemistry. 



Dave Lutz, CMP

Dave Lutz, CMP, is managing director of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting.

  • Dave –
    Terrific article! I plan to grab a copy of the book soon, and as a conference speaker and event facilitator I agree with the premise completely… the success of any event in not only in the transfer of information, but in the connections and collaboration that it inspires.

  • Dave – Thank you for relinking this in VCC’s newsletter. Tho’ I’d read it, I’d not commented .. and am sad to see others haven’t either!

    In the early ’90s, the MPI Foundation did research, separately, about why people attend association and corporate meetings. Not surprisingly, one of the main reasons for both was for peer to peer learning, often positioned as “networking.” As I reread the article above, I shook my head in wonder that we knew then – and certainly Harrison Owen knew in the ’80s when he coined the term “Open Space Technology” – that some of the best conversations happen when we who design and hold conferences, when facilities design and create spaces for comfortable conversation – create time and space for conversations to happen.

    That said, a recent conversation on ASAE’s Collaborate about how to avoid over-scheduling with the “must have” sessions, brings it all back.

    If we know all this – if we’ve known it for some time – if our industry continues to model spaces and places and events that are back to back to back; events (“networking”) with loud music, insufficient seating and lighting and accoustics, how are we ever to make it all change?

    Oh and of course add to this that at breaks or times when conversations might flourish, everyone’s noses are down and in their electronic devices, taking them away from conversation because we’ve not explained the value of conversation … what can possibly happen?

    You know – I know – others know. Will a revolution be what causes change?!