The Reciprocity of TRUST and Communication
The common wisdom is that communication is one of the most important foundations of trust. But the relationship between trust and communication is reciprocal. On the one hand, we tend to trust people who communicate with us transparently. Who tell us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We trust people who tell us what we need to hear, not necessarily what they think we want to hear.
But on the other hand: would you be willing to share confidential information with someone you don’t trust? Would you be willing to be vulnerable with someone you don’t trust? Would you feel comfortable giving direct feedback to someone when you don’t know (or trust) how they will take it? And will you accept that kind of feedback from someone you don’t trust to have your best interests in mind?
This article will address that relationship in greater detail.
We trust people who are transparent with us and distrust those who hide things from us. We trust people who are willing to be vulnerable with us because they show us who they really are. But, at the same time, we don’t feel comfortable sharing everything and being vulnerable with someone we don’t trust. People are 240% more willing to be vulnerable with people they trust than with people they don’t.
Communication starts with a message in one person’s head and ends with a message in another person’s head. In perfect communication, those messages are identical. But in reality, the messages are different. What comes out of our mouths is not exactly what started in our brains. Due to noise and sound level, what the other person hears is not exactly what came out of our mouths, and due to their biases, perceptions, and cognitive skills, the message they interpret is not necessarily exactly what they heard. Whose fault is it? Blaming the other person (for not understanding a word I said or not knowing how to explain well) only puts them on defense, and a good defense is often a good offense. Trusted people own their side of miscommunication and take the blame for miscommunicating or misunderstanding, causing the other person to trust them more.
We communicate using the written word (letters, notes, email, text), our tone of voice, and our facial expressions and body language. Communicating using written words only leaves much to interpretation and assumptions by the recipient and slows the development of trust. On the other hand, adding tone of voice and body language (“upgrading” email communication to face-to-face communication) accelerates building trust as long as our words and non-verbal communication are consistent. When they are not—communication accelerates distrust.
Make information available, communicate what’s needed
Information compartmentalization is a leading cause for distrust. Why do people do it? When you block information, it allows you to micromanage and gain control and power. But this is not necessarily the only or even the real reason. It often happens when someone who has information doesn’t trust the person who should get it. Making information available and sharing the big picture and the (real) organizational boundaries with people increases trust but also requires trust. Information holders should make all relevant (err on the side of sharing irrelevant information) available and accessible. However, we must also avoid overcommunicating. Making information available and accessible is not the same as communicating it. Over-communicating sometimes happens because the person communicating doesn’t feel trusted by the recipient and errs on the side of over-communicating. Communicate what’s needed to the people who need it, when they need it, and be brief. They will trust you more for it. Don’t copy people who don’t need to be burdened by this information (this is a sign that you might be communicating “for show” rather than to increase value). Finally, never use BCC without a legitimate reason, and tell the recipients that someone is on BCC and why. Hiding that you blind-copied someone on communication is a sign that you don’t trust the intended recipient, and once they find out that someone else was BCC’ed on your communication to them—they will not trust you.
Say what you mean, mean what you say
Telling the truth, the whole truth (not half-truths), and nothing but the truth is one of the few absolute and universal trustworthiness traits (among many relative personality compatibility traits). When someone lies to you, you distrust them. You also distrust people who say things to you just so that others hear what they say. They say things “for show” instead of delivering value. Saying what you mean, and being direct, is not the same as being disrespectful and blunt. When you say what you mean and mean what you say, people will trust you because they will believe that you have their best interests in mind. The big difference in how people categorize what you say as blunt versus direct is the level of trust they had in you before you started speaking with them. If they trust you, they will take what you say to them as direct and with the intention of helping them. If they don’t trust you (or don’t trust you yet), they will consider you blunt and even rude. Things you can say to one person, you can’t say to another. People are 106% more willing to give direct feedback to someone they trust and 76% more receptive to getting feedback from someone they trust. And are more trusted for it.
As you see, there are many aspects to communication, and they all involve trust in a reciprocal way: you must first trust someone to communicate with them at the appropriate level, and they will trust you when you do.
To hear more, listen to The Trust Show podcast, season 7, episode 8 (link: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/s7e8-trust-and-mis-communications/id1569249060?i=1000586871215)
Dr. Yoram Solomon is a trust expert, author of The Book of Trust, host of The Trust Show podcast, a two-time TEDx speaker, and facilitator of the Trust Habits workshop and masterclass that help build trust in organizations. He is a frequent speaker at SHRM events.