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We build and lose trust one conversation at a time – over time

Have you ever wondered why some conversations feel comfortable and engaging?  You find them easy and rewarding to be a part of, and, others feel like hard work or you’d rather walk away from them because it’s too hard.  How often have you consciously sought to start a conversation from a perspective that is open to influence and free of judgement?

Over the last few months, I’ve been focussing on insights that neuroscience offers to understanding the power of conversation. Particularly, language, trust and inclusion. Specifically how this assists people, teams and organisations facing change to approach leadership and team development as well as managing transitional change.

Some observations:

Every conversation we have elicits trust or mistrust.  Our brain processes these two responses separately, in two different areas.

Trust triggers the prefrontal cortex and activates a ‘reward’ response linked to integrity, empathy, and good judgement. When we access our pre-frontal cortex, via a feeling of trust, oxytocin is released. The prefrontal cortex enables us to collaborate with others, have good judgement, be strategic, handle difficult conversations, and build and sustain trust.

Mistrust triggers the more emotional brain networks – particularly the amygdala – and activates a ‘threat’ response. The amygdala is responsible for the 3 ‘F’ reactions of fight, flight, freeze and once activated (when we mistrust) cortisol is released.   In effect, when we want to think and behave at our best, our brain doesn’t help us!   We find it very difficult to access the higher order thinking capacities of our brain and therefore to engage in an open and curious way with others. This results in decreased productivity and innovative thinking and lower levels of achievement.

Organisational anthropologist, Judith E. Glaser, has developed a very useful list of skills for leaders to develop that help people have better, more productive conversations, build stronger relationships and improve performance in the face of complex change.  Here’s a Checklist, based on Judith Glaser’s ‘Conversational Intelligence’work, that you can use to evaluate your organisational or team culture or even to reflect on your own behaviour.


Behaviour that down regulates oxytocin leads ‘away from’ trust (to mistrust)

Behaviour that up regulates oxytocin and leads ‘towards’ trust





















Source: Healthy, Thriving Organisations (from Judith E. Glaser, Conversational Intelligence – How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results)

Some questions to consider:

  • To what extent do you believe your organisation is consistently operating from a place of trust?
  • How do you and your leaders actively seek to create an environment of trust in your workplace?
  • How do you, your team and your organisation perform against the behaviours identified in the above Checklist?
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