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Without communication, business cannot occur.  Steven Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People noted that:

trust is the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.”


Unfortunately, many a strong and productive relationship suddenly falters over an issue of trust.  A leader may distrust a team member to do a job the way she thinks it should be done based on nothing more than a fleeting look, a misplaced word or an intonation that triggers distrust and the beginnings of withdrawal. If not caught and corrected quickly, the situation can escalate into a major disconnect, with both parties feeling disappointed, uncertain and stressed.


Trust in the Brain

Trust is not, as you might suppose, just the absence of distrust. Together trust and distrust form a connected neural system but each fires in a different place in the brain. Once triggered, one will dominate the other. While it seems we can’t turn either of them off completely, we can influence which one will dominate our perceptions of reality.

Using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to explore inside the brain, distrust, with its elements of threat and fear, can be seen firing through the amygdala which activates the fight/flight, freeze/appease response. Trust, on the other hand, is signalled through the prefrontal cortex. This area is responsible for more complex functions such as assessing another’s credibility, intentions and predictability, and comparing our expectations against what we actually experience.

There is, however, one place in the brain where trust and distrust meet. Researchers have linked the orbitofrontal cortex to uncertainty[i], showing that activity in this region increases distrust. Whenever we feel uncertain about our contact and interaction with another person, our orbitofrontal cortex is activated.

 Any conflict arising from mis-matched interpretations of a situation will trigger fear and threaten trust. We need to feel at ease with others to build healthy and trusting relationships.  Research at the Institute of HeartMath shows that when we feel comfortable with another, our heart rhythm becomes more coherent, often synchronising with the other person and signalling the brain it’s safe to open up and share ideas and thoughts[ii].

When we become uncertain of our relationships fear begins to control our brain activity and dominate perception. In a split second we can move from being seen as a trusted friend and advisor to a frightening threat due to the fear chemistry released by the brain and cascaded through the body. Good judgement can be usurped by defensive, aggressive or passive-aggressive behaviours that greatly affect our ability to remain open to new ideas and effective in our work.

The amygdala also gets involved, activating the limbic area of the brain and triggering memories of past fearful situations and disappointments. Our mind begins to create a new ‘story’ mixing old hurts and feelings with the current situation, usually interpreting it very differently from the way our partner, boss or colleague may be viewing it.

We need to learn to pause and review exactly what happened to dislodge our trust before emotional reactions take control of our thoughts and actions.

“When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.”Stephen R Covey


Maintaining Trust

When we learn to identify the early signs of growing distrust we position ourselves better to engage the higher level brain functions of the prefrontal cortex where empathy, judgement and strategic social skills occur. Practicing self-regulation of fearful emotional patterns (see CPR for Stress for simple techniques) enables us to remain open to others instead of withdrawing from them, and we become far more effective at maintaining trust.

Conscious awareness of your inner perception and emotions is paramount to maintaining balance and self-control. Here are some ways to help prevent fear taking over:

  • Notice how you react to threats/stress – do you adopt ‘flight, fight, freeze, or appease’ mode?
  • Notice how much/how long the threat impacts you. Can you let it go easily or do you tend to ‘hold a grudge’?
  • Consider if your own attitude towards the other person has changed; can you pinpoint the time and reason? Was there an external influence impacting the situation?
  • Notice if you are someone who initiates resolution or do you wait for the other person to make the first move? What would it take for you to act as peace-maker?
  • Practice a disruptive technique at the moment you become aware of the threat (stress), such as taking 3 slow breaths and focusing on ‘letting go’ of that feeling as you exhale; asking for a moment to consider your answer if in a conversation; pause to name and acknowledge a more precise term for your feeling, such as disappointment, frustration, uncertainty rather than brushing over it and pressing on.
  • Mentally rehearse a calm and authentic sharing of your inner feelings before an anticipated or recurring stressful situation. For example, when working with someone who you feel is not putting in as much effort as you, you might say “I feel like we are not really working together on this. Could we spend a few moments looking at how we could do this better?”

The Power of ‘WE’

Intrinsic to human nature is a need to belong. We enjoy feeling part of something bigger than ourselves. Strong bonds of trust and belonging stimulate a cocktail of natural feel-good chemicals such as oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin, which boost our energy and sense of well-being.

Trust allows us to influence each other in positive ways and stimulates sharing and co-creation. According to Judith E. Glaser and the CreatingWE Institute, the most powerful word in engaging trust, collaboration and co-creation with others is the word ‘We’.

When partners, leaders or managers genuinely use the word ‘We’ when introducing or discussing goals and targets, others are more ready to embrace them and feel valued for their contribution and efforts. Trust is naturally stimulated and co-operation and productivity more assured.


[i] Ming Hsu et al, “Neural Systems Responding to Degrees of Uncertainty in Human Decision-Making,” Science Vol. 310, no. 5754, I680-I683, (December 9, 2005)
[ii] Rollin McCraty and Doc Childre, “Coherence: Bridging Personal, Social and Global Health”, Alternative Therapies 6, no. 4 (2010)




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