How to trust and be trusted – a healthy behavioural vaccine

How to trust and be trusted. What behaviours do you need to deploy consistently and constantly to strengthen trust?


Back in October last year, I wrote a blog about trust, see As we embark into a new year, I thought it would be helpful to provide a few observations on how trust can be earned, given and sustained.  

What behaviours do you need to deploy consistently and constantly to strengthen trust and act as a vaccine against its mutated forms of distrust (usually based on experience) and mistrust (a general sense of unease)? 


Communication be it written or verbal is absolutely crucial. 

Trust is cultivated and sustained through effective, open, candid and, most of all, honest conversation.  American physician Spencer Johnson differentiates integrity and honesty, “Integrity is telling myself the truth. Honesty is telling the truth to other people.”

There are three strings on the fretboard of high-quality conversation, namely the “three Vs”.

  • Verbal – the words and content – the “what” is said.
  • Vocal – the tone, pitch, and pace – the “how” the verbal is expressed.
  • Visual – the non-verbal and vocal signals emanating from the body language.

Estimates suggest the second and third components combined convey up to 93% of meaning , see

Being a walking, talking thesaurus may not mean your intended meaning will be appreciated. To quote Billy Connolly, “There is no bad language, although there is good language used badly. 

Furthermore, your verbal contribution to any conversation is only one aspect of three that are required to make your communication effective.  The three skills are listening (the most important – US President Calvin Coolidge said, “No one ever listened themselves out of a job.”), probing, and explaining. 

Trust and respect go hand-in-hand.  Trust adds warmth to a relationship.  Respect reflects a person’s competence.  However, generate the heat first; push competence or strength too soon and too forcibly, can be intimidating and coercive. 


The Greek philosopher, Epictetus, said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak. More recently, it is worth remembering that Steven Covey said, “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.” 

  • Let the other person finish,
  • Manage your body language,
  • Make eye contact (but don’t indulge in a staring contest to see who blinks first),

  • Use summary statements,
  • Take notes (“Over the length of my diplomatic career, I’d never seen that: it was a given that someone, and usually several of the officials present, would take notes of the meeting…”, from “Collateral Damage: Britain, America and Europe in the Age of Trump by Kim Darroch, ex-UK ambassador to USA during Trump’s presidency).


Great leaders are astute and adept in probing to get beneath the surface of an issue, to sort out the wheat from the chaff, to strengthen candour and propel the discourse through to a mutually agreeable outcome. 

There is no one, single probing approach, it has many different forms:

  • Open questions: these demand discourse rather than monosyllabic responses or nods and shakes of the head. 
    • Prompts: these encourage the other person to continue speaking and elaborate their point.
    • Pause: these invite the other person to talk, perhaps when they are reluctant to do so.  It exerts an intentional positive pressure to contribute and open-up. 

At its most rudimentary, a pause encompasses posing a question and waiting for the reply. 

  • Reflection: acknowledge the other person’s emotion, “reflect it back” on them. 
  • Summarise: recap in your own words what you have been told, often this re-assures the other person that they have been listened to. 
  • Leading question: pose a question in such a way that they will provide the answer you are seeking.  The intention may be to clarify, the emotional response may be one of feeling manipulated.

An apocryphal tale from Apple sees Tim Cook, CEO, being told about a procurement problem in China.  Debate ensued.  Looking up at the person responsible, Cook asks, “Why are you still in the room?”  The person upped and headed off to the airport!

  • Closed questions: these simply seek a yes or no answer, or some brief, factual reply. 

Making an interjection without it being a harsh interruption is not as easy as it may appear.  The way each person is speaks is different, e.g. the way they pause to breathe or to allow their tongues to catch up with their brains.  Jumping in at the equivalent of a comma or semi-colon in written text will always come across as discourteous and clumsy… yet we are all guilty of doing so.  

Danish-American comedian, conductor, and pianist Victor Borge did a renowned routine about converting punctuation into noises, see  If we did speak like that, conversations would take far longer, but it would be clear as to when one could interject rather than rudely interrupt!


Winston Churchill said, “If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack.”  There is substance in this, although as in golf you can’t go round the course only using the driver.  You need to learn the finesse of using other clubs. 

A simple acronym to adopt is PREP, or if you are from Liverpool, “engage your brain before you open your gob”.   PREP stands for:

  • Point – make the point you wish to make.  However, do not overwhelm; as with Jim Collins’s priorities, do not have more than three points to make at once. 
  • Reason – state your reason for making the point, which can include you outlining your emotions or prevailing sentiments, e.g. “I’m frustrated…”, “I’m annoyed about this…”. 
  • Explain – expand and explain where facts and evidence should be provided rather than emotions. 
  • Point – restate your point without, perhaps, getting out Winston’s pile driver!

One of my friend Gary Winter’s favourite phrases is to be “concise and precise”. In his column in the Christmas 2020 edition of The Economist, Bartleby presented this draft memo from the CEO, If only these were commonplace.

Failing to be concise and precise greatly increases the chance of your communication causing confusion rather than clarity. Ambiguity acts like an acid etching away any prevailing trust. 

These articles about Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos, joint CEOs of Netflix, relaxing corporate policies for travel and time off, indicate what happens when leaders trust their people to do the right thing. and

As is often the case, this is not particularly new.  I recall a major IT firm in the 1990s in the infancy of the internet allowing its staff to book their own travel.  Expenditure fell by many millions of dollars.  The exhortation of many bosses to treat the firm’s money as their own gains meaning when you are trusted with a corporate credit card. 

Taking notes permits a brief email to be composed to express thanks – let’s encourage civility – for giving the time to hold the conversation as well as setting out a probing summary of what was said and, crucially, agreed.  This investment of time is a high-value insurance policy premium that mitigates the risk of misunderstanding and further dilution of trust. 

Feedback is a dance – here’s the choreography

Effective feedback provides a massive fillip to creating mutual, sustainable trust. 

One long-standing, still relevant and valid model of feedback is the Johari window, see below.

Open, candid, timely two-way exchange of feedback expands the top-left, healthy quadrant of mutual appreciation and awareness, and means the unknown quadrant is squeezed smaller.  The least olfactory offence caused by being blind the better.  

Another way of depicting this is shown below:

Behaving in an unconsciously competent style is not necessarily the ideal position.  It carries real risk that can materialise suddenly.  Conceit, arrogance, and bluster act like fuel propelling the corporate train ever faster until the curve of an issue or problem is encountered.  Disaster ensues.  In his excellent book, How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins highlights “hubris” as the first step of five in any downfall.  Usually, the first sign of imminent collapse occurs when the creative accounting malfeasance explodes, and the coffers are found to be empty. 

Feedback must focus on behaviour not the person i.e., play the ball, not the individual.  Telling someone they’re pathetic is, well, pathetic. 

There is an artful, five-step choreography to giving and receiving effective feedback. 

  • Test for receptivity – are you both “tuned in” to converse about the matter in question?
  • Explain what you wish to talk about and seek the other person’s thoughts and observations.
  • Provide your thoughts and observations about the matter – be specific not vague.
  • Discuss the points of agreement and disagreement, seek consensus not merely compromise.
  • Agree what needs to be done… and go do it.

There is a variation to the dance when providing feedback upwards, you express your evidence-based views first then seek the other person’s views.

And repeat, starting with reviewing whether what was agreed to be done has been done.

Don’t let the sun go down on you

Trust is not something that can be plucked out of thin air.  It does not materialise overnight; a sense of affability can mask mistrust or distrust.  The American entrepreneur, Dhar Mann says, “Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, forever to repair.”  Be attuned to what is happening, have you experienced something similar before – avoid being once bitten, twice shy. 

Each interaction you have as a leader demands preparation, be they old-style spontaneous “water-cooler” chats or the contemporary myriad of endless Zoom, Skype or Teams conversations.  As you manoeuvre through the sometimes banal, opening small talk, there is opportunity to position yourself behaviourally to foment trust, even if the other person opens the engagement by firing both barrels at you. 

Firing back your own bullets, shrinking back tortoise-like into one’s shell of timidity or trying to laugh things off with a “wise crack” will not work.  Thank the person for their candour and ask how you can help resolve their dilemma without signing the adoption papers to take the monkey off their backs. 

To plagiarise Aesop’s fable about the old man in the coat, it is the gentle warmth of the sun that builds the trust to convince him to remove it not the hurly burly huffs and puffs of the wind.  Trust is sunshine, allow yours to shine. 

This illustration from Harvard Business Review encapsulates all I’ve said. 

One final point about trust, if you want to see absolute trust exhibited in spades or, rather, bayonets, watch this,

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