How to Have Trust-Building Conversations

It's been an animated political season, to put it mildly. As someone who lives in the D.C. area, I can attest that there are not many evenings during which we don't get a call from a zealous campaign volunteer asking to discuss the position of their candidate with my husband or me.

Do they practice talking for two straight minutes without coming up for air? Because rarely do I hang up the phone feeling like I was a part of a discussion.

You see, most of us believe a discussion involves a back and forth exchange. But often, just like with the recent campaign-related phone calls, back and forth is really not the objective.

If I'm being honest with myself, I have to recognize that in my 20+ year marriage I've asked my husband to sit down and have a rational discussion with me countless times, when what I really meant was "will you please sit down, listen, and agree with me?"

When we don't see eye to eye with someone we often suggest, "let's discuss." Too often, a discussion is actually just an attempt at trying to convince another of your position. When things get heated, discussions tend to end devolve into arguments.

As a business coach who deals primarily with trust issues, I find that when we believe someone doesn't understand our position, we feel we must convince them in a "discussion."

Now, I believe that debate can be healthy and conflict is not always a bad thing. But the most important consideration in a discussion is your motivation.

Here are a few soul-searching questions we should all ask ourselves before engaging in our next conversation:

  • What is the role you intend to play in this conversation?
  • What is your real motivation for wanting to engage in this conversation?
  • Are you expecting feedback or simply sharing information?
  • Is the topic of the conversation one in which you have emotional equity?

The best reason to have a conversation is that you're genuinely curious about the other person's reaction, input, and feedback on a particular topic. To get into this mindset, I have a suggestion:

I want you to turn your conversations into dialogues rather than discussions.

A dialogue is a conversation in which:

  • Your intention is to seek to understand.
  • Your role is that of a curious listener.
  • Your motivation is to learn.
  • You keep your emotions at bay, focusing on what you're hearing rather than what you're feeling or thinking.

That ought to be a piece of cake, right? While it certainly can be easier to dialogue when there isn't something important at stake, maintaining self awareness and control can be very difficult. Whether there is something major at stake or not, how do you keep your own emotions at bay and focus on what you are hearing, rather than what you are feeling or thinking?

Stephen Covey's 5th Habit of Highly Effective people states: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

Seeking to understand starts with being willing to engage in dialogue rather than to have a "discussion". Rather than convincing the other person of your position (which requires quite a bit of talking), you instead must be open to understanding their perspective (which inherently involves listening).

The fact that listening builds trust has been reinforced and validated for me over and over again during the programs I teach. When I ask participants what makes someone trustworthy, they ALWAYS respond with "being a good listener."

If you think a question needs to be asked, keep it short and ask it from a place of genuine curiosity. Questions should be phrased from a perspective of wanting to learn more as opposed to a way of leading the other person down the road you want to go.

Two of the most useful questions we recommend to our clients are:

Can you help me understand more about _________________?

Can you tell me more about ______________?

Do you see how limiting your questions can assist you in staying other-focused and curious, rather than trying to fit in your own opinion?

After you ask your question, go straight back to listening. Trust us when we say, we get it; Listening is hard and takes practice, but listening builds trust.

But how can you tell if you really are a good listener? Think about your most recent conversations and ask yourself:

  • Am I waiting for my turn to talk, thinking about what I'll say next?
  • Do I jump in with the solution to the other person's problem?
  • Am I thinking about my next meeting, rather than the one I'm in right now?
  • Do I interrupt the other person with ideas or my opinions?

If you answered yes to any of these, or to all of the above, I'm sorry to report that you are NOT a good listener. The good news is that you're not stuck and can improve your listening skills (and therefore conversation skills).

Use the following checklist to improve your listening skills as you work to make listening more natural:

  • Is the timing of this conversation right? (I am not distracted, pressed for time or emotional)
  • Is the space conducive to good listening? (check for privacy, noise, distractions, technology)
  • Have I settled my mind? (Try 5 minutes of meditating or quiet time prior to listening)
  • Am I demonstrating interested body language? (There's no need to touch, but leaning in slightly, a relaxed posture, etc. are ways of doing this)
  • Am I making good eye contact? (Make sure to blink and not stare)
  • Have I tried listening for 2 minutes without asking questions? (As you do this, nod your head or smile, but do not interrupt)
  • Am I being genuinely curious? (To stay in this space, don't try to solve the problem in your head while you're listening)
  • Am I asking clarifying questions? (If your questions are leading, remember that a question is not a question if you think you know the answer)

I encourage you to start using this checklist immediately. When practicing the listening skills above, keep your emotions and perspectives out of the conversation unless asked directly. Which means don't give your opinion or feedback unless the other person asks, "What do you think?"

Of course, the question is: How do you know if you're on track?

Give the tension and trust level in your practice conversations a mini litmus test. You can do this by reading the body language of the person I'm listening to: Do they appear more relaxed? Are they also making eye contact and leaning in?

This gives you immediate feedback.

After the conversation, see if the other person thanks you for listening. If they do or if they say they feel better, then you know you've done a good job.

The value of healthy conversation and intentional listening is massive. It builds a foundation of trust, and helps you both better understand each other's opinions. If there's any skill you can invest in, we recommend it be this: develop self awareness when speaking and focus on more on listening to the other person than on what you have to say.

About the Author

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Jennifer Stanford is a sought-after Trust Coach and the CEO of Emergent Performance Solutions, as well as an author and speaker. Her entrepreneurial spirit, combined with years of practical experience gives her specialized insight into business and psychology.

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