build trust through better conversations

Two men talk at a bar.

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Have you ever had a conversation that didn’t go the way you wanted?

Bad conversations are all too common. In 90 percent of conversations, one person doesn’t receive the other’s intended message.

The effects of these failures are profound. All around us, we’re seeing what happens when people don’t communicate. They apportion blame. They demonize. And they lose trust in one another.

But the best way to rebuild trust within society might be to start at the person-to-person level, within our conversations. And the right way to enhance trust in conversation, organizational anthropologist Judith E. Glaser says, is to practice what she calls conversational intelligence.

Conversational intelligence — what is it?

Glaser coined the term “conversational intelligence” (CI) to describe one’s ability to gauge and conduct a conversation. In her framework, conversation happens on three levels.

Level I conversations are about exchanging information or transacting. Level II conversations involve people sharing their viewpoints and trying to build consensus. And in Level III conversations, people speak and listen in equal measure in order to “co-create” reality.

Glaser’s argument is that we are hardwired for Level III — deep, meaningful discussion with a mutually positive outcome. But because our egos or bad listening habits get in the way, we tend to get trapped in Level I (where we tell others what to do) or Level II (where we focus on being “right”). We need to take affirmative action to make Level III conversations a reality.

The brain science behind trust

At its core, the CI framework is about how our brains respond to conversation. When we feel like someone is being dismissive — a perception that takes just 0.07 seconds, according to Glaser — a brain structure called the amygdala is triggered to release cortisol.

Cortisol doesn’t just prime us for a “fight or flight” response: it halts our brain’s executive function. There’s an evolutionary explanation for this. Our ancient ancestors faced all sorts of threats to life and limb, and survival meant acting quickly instead of getting bogged down by overthinking.

Of course, the stakes aren’t as high in conversation. But the neurochemical response to an unwilling conversation partner is the same as if we are facing down an immediate threat.

Contrast this response with what follows a high-trust conversation. “When we do [increase trust], what happens is that this part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, is loaded with wisdom, integrity, strategy, insights, empathy, foresight. It’s beautiful,” Glaser said in a podcast.

In other words, instead of our primitive brain (the amygdala) or our sensory-processing brain (the neocortex) getting triggered, Level III conversations stimulate activity in our executive brain (the prefrontal cortex). This part of the brain is responsible for judgment, analysis, and strategy: i.e., the building blocks of civilization.

It’s because of the profound impact on our brains that Glaser is such a firm advocate for quality conversation. “The measure of a conversation is whether it builds trust or how much it builds trust,” she says.

Empathy as a trust builder

How to go about building trust through conversation? Glaser has many suggestions, but they all distill down to one simple prescription: be more empathic.

In order to do this, you must first come to grips with just how impactful your words, gestures, and body language can be. Glaser points to research from the Sixties showing that nonverbal behavior is particularly influential. Albert Mehrabian, a body language researcher, found that communication is 55 percent nonverbal, 38 percent dependent on tone, and only 7 percent reliant on words.

In this light, how you carry yourself through a conversation may determine how successful it is. A basic tenet of CI is to try perceiving your conversations (and seeing yourself) from the other person’s perspective.

“Rather than just going through the world in your perspective, pause long enough to say, ‘How am I being heard? How am I being seen? How is what I’m saying landing on other people?'” Glaser argues.

Putting conversational intelligence into practice

What’s useful about the CI framework is that it doesn’t challenge you to be more empathic all the time. In truth, it’s about being seen as empathic — as someone worthy of the other person’s trust.

So how can you increase your perceived empathy?

Show the other person that you’re really listening.

“Most people never listen,” Ernest Hemingway once said. But we all have a need to be heard. You can massively increase your conversational intelligence by truly dialing in to what the other person is saying.

To be a high-quality listener, it’s important to keep in mind that people typically want two things from a conversation: 1) autonomy, or the feeling that they’ve shaped the outcome of the conversation; and 2) relatedness, or being engaged with on a meaningful level.

There’s a lot you can do to demonstrate that you’re listening. You can practice so-called backchannel behaviors like “uh-huh,” “right” and “ok” to encourage the other person to keep speaking. You can paraphrase what they’re saying to show that you understand. And you should limit distractions and make eye contact to give the person your full attention.

Practice “serving” to your conversational partner.

Introverts take note: you won’t have many great conversations if you always wait to be spoken to. Leadership trainer Tim Elmore describes this in the context of guests vs. hosts.

As the host of a party, you’re expected to take the reins — setting the mood, introducing people, asking questions to get the conversation flowing. As a guest, you’re more passive.

In conversations, however tempting it may be to remain the “guest,” you’re better served by being the “host,” Elmore suggests.

“I assume responsibility to ‘serve’ the first question or remark, then keep the volley going until a natural closure,” he writes for Psychology Today.

Be mindful of where meaning resides.

A hallmark of CI is that it reframes the entire purpose of conversation. Most people, governed by fear and anxiety (the amygdala) or ego (the neocortex), see conversation as a means to get what they want. CI challenges us to see conversations from the opposite perspective: how can you help the other person feel more comfortable?

Glaser succinctly describes this as follows: “Meaning does not reside in the speaker; it resides in the listener.” In other words, you don’t get to decide whether a conversation is successful — the other person does. By simply presenting yourself as a human being who is an empathic listener, you come across as a great conversationalist.

Photo by Joel Danielson on Unsplash.

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