How to Build Trust In Everyday Interactions: A Playbook for Leaders

By Melissa Karz
Partner, Next Step Partners

How well do you build trust in your one-on-one interactions and within your teams? This is a big deal because trust is one of the greatest performance amplifiers available for leaders.

When there is real trust within a team, people participate more fully, communicate better and deliver better results. Leaders who are able to create trust in their interactions are better able to influence key stakeholders and create higher levels of accountability.

The flip side is that when trust is lacking or missing entirely, interactions become a “have to,” rather than a “want to,” which negatively impacts both the process and results. Additionally, if trust isn’t genuinely built over time or gets damaged, it can be challenging to repair the wounds.  

Ultimately, you will hit serious roadblocks in your leadership and career if you do not learn to master the ability to build trust. This article covers the levers that you can use to build trust in your everyday interactions.

1. Safety First

As a leader, all eyes are on you. One of your most important jobs in any interaction is to create psychological safety so that the other person is comfortable communicating their thoughts, feelings and ideas. This is especially true in moments of conflict and challenge.

In every single one of your interactions, the content of your discussion actually takes a back seat to the quality of your interaction. Neuroscience research shows that the brains of the people who you engage with are making a constant stream of micro-decisions about whether they need to protect and defend themselves or whether it’s safe to be influenced or to take a risk. That’s right: trust is built—or damaged—in a matter of 33 milliseconds.  

In doing research for Invisible Bridges, the book I co-authored on professional relationship building, we uncovered exactly how the “best of the best” relationship-builders build trust and rapport.

The most important thing you can do is to listen with genuine interest and curiosity.   When people feel heard, trust builds. When they feel ignored or dismissed, trust diminishes.

It sounds so obvious, but one way you build trust is to get to know people on a human level. Take the time to learn about your colleagues’ interests outside of work: their family, their wine hobby, what they like to read, how they like to spend their time.

What else can you do to create psychological safety? Here’s a shortlist of some important things that many have a hard time doing:

    • Following through on your promises
    • Giving and sharing credit with others
    • Admitting mistakes, taking the blame and accepting responsibility (it shows others you are just as human as everyone else and that there is always room for improvement)
    • Transparently communicating both the good and the bad
    • Being vulnerable; requesting and accepting feedback

2. Shine a Spotlight On Others

I am continuously struck, after two decades of working with hundreds of organizations and leaders, how little listening actually occurs during any given interaction. It seems simple and yet is so scarce.

A Low-Trust Environment

When I started working with Joanna, a senior marketing executive who was uncomfortable with giving up control and empowering others, I noticed that she rarely used the word “we” in front of her team. When others shared ideas or comments that were counter to her agenda or goals, she often shut them down. This created a low-trust environment, which caused others to stop sharing.

Give Up the Need to Be Right

Lots of us are anchored in being right. We assume our answer is the best. We may not even be aware of how addicted we are to being right. Sometimes, and perhaps many times, we just may be right. However, there’s a cost when you fail to be open to the good ideas that other people have.  

If you want to build trust with your team, your idea can’t be the start and end of the story. When you are anchored in a need to be right, you don’t fully listen to other perspectives, which is an essential element to building trust.

As leaders, we’re better off being wrong and serving as an agent for others’ exploration than being right and ramming our ideas through. Winning the point may feel good in the moment, but it generally makes others feel alienated.

Set Aside Your Own Agenda

When we approach conversations focused on what we want to get across, what we want others to think and do and what we want to get out of the interaction, we’re not really listening. Rather, we are prejudging what we are hearing, and all we’re really doing is looking to confirm what we already think. The other person can feel it and of course it diminishes trust.

As a leader, you need to draw out other perspectives and actually be open to considering them. Your value isn’t in being right or having to have all the answers, but in facilitating others to contribute and perform at their best.

Listening means setting aside your own agenda for a moment and shining the spotlight on someone else to understand their point of view. It doesn’t mean that you give up your authority or expertise.

Good Listening Isn’t Silent

To listen in a way that makes the other person feel heard, supported and understood, takes some skill. You’ll need to listen for meaning as well as content and attend to the emotional cues and implications of what is being said.

Here are some simple guidelines for how to listen in a way that builds trust:

Simply repeating back what someone has said goes a long way to making someone feel heard and valued. Asking questions like “Tell me more about that idea” or “Help me better understand your thinking” are ways to make sure others feel included and considered, and to build trust with them for the future.

Ask for confirmation on what you think they mean (“So, what I hear you saying is x. Is that right?”). This will build both understanding and trust because you are listening in service of their thinking, not your own.

Notice the other person’s energy, tone of voice and body language. Reflect back both the facts and the feelings you hear to empathize with the other person (e.g. “I worked late to get that presentation done” “It sounds like you really put a lot of effort into it. You must have been glad when it was done.”).

Maintain a friendly, open posture, eye contact and positive facial expressions. Multi-tasking, checking your phone, twirling a pen and sitting back with folded arms all send a signal that you’re not really listening, and moreover that you’re not safe.

Recognize when you aren’t really listening. A key sign that you aren’t really listening is that you are formulating a response while someone else is talking. When you catch yourself doing this, it’s time to refocus your attention on the other person.

Questions that you can ask yourself to get back on track are:

  • “What is it that this person is trying/hoping to convey to me?
  • “What is it that they want me to understand?”
  • “What assumptions am I making?”
  • “How might I be wrong?”

3. Think “We”

One of the most powerful ways for any leader to build trust is by interacting and listening with a particular mindset—one of Shared Intent rather than self-focus.

Shared Intent means having positive shared goals for the conversation. It applies to both one-on-one and group conversations.    

Stating your Shared Intent at the beginning of a conversation creates a “we-oriented” rather than an “I-oriented” perspective. It’s about suspending your own agenda and committing to getting to the right result together. It requires you to search for a place of common ground to start the conversation. Shared Intent builds trust by establishing a positive motive and by signaling that you are coming from a good place.

To establish Shared Intent, think of a goal that is important to you and that you are reasonably confident the recipient shares. You cannot know for sure, but you probably have observational data.

Some examples of shared goals include:

  • “I know you are wanting to step into an expanded leadership role and find more opportunities to stretch yourself…”
  • “We both believe that this team has great potential to come up with something innovative and effective.”
  • “We all want the client to be pleased with the work product.”
  • “When our project goes well, it reflects well on all of us.”
  • “I want us to have a positive working relationship.”

Note that it’s not enough to put your own goal out there and call it “Shared Intent.” Openers like “You need to get on board” or “This behavior cannot continue” are not Shared Intent goals.

Articulating Shared Intent is a powerful way to disarm conflict and repair damaged trust. But even when you don’t directly speak to your shared goals, the simple act of identifying common ground will shift the quality of your interactions.

Two questions to ask yourself during interactions that will help you create Shared Intent are:

  • “What goals do I share with this person?”
  • “What are my positive motives for this interaction?”

In Summary

In the course of each interaction, leaders are given multiple opportunities to either build trust or damage trust. Create a sense of psychological safety in your interactions so that people feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, feelings and ideas. Shine a spotlight on others so they can contribute and perform at their best. Find the sense of “we” that puts you and others on the same team. When people feel heard and included, trust builds. When they feel ignored or dismissed, trust diminishes.




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