Articles & Publications

By Judith E. Glaser |
Published: July 1, 2014

trust-fearA decade ago, I had a coaching client, Jack, who had been hired as the new president of a global publishing company, poised to transform its offerings from print to digital. Some even saw Jack as the next CEO. However, when Jack interacted with me, he came across as a tough, arrogant executive who lived inside his head and didn’t share his feelings. In retrospect, I know we were caught in our biases about each other, trapped in a dance of distrust.

In conversation with others, perhaps even before we open our mouths, we size them up and determine whether we trust or distrust them; our brains are ready to either open up or close down. In good conversations, we know where we stand with others—we feel safe, connected, trusted.  Bad conversations trigger our fear and distrust.

What made my conversations with Jack so bad? When what we say, what we hear, and what we mean are not in agreement, we retreat into our heads and make up stories that help us reconcile the discrepancies.

My inability to have an open and trusting conversation with Jack led me to start making “movies” about him in my head, being critical of his ways, his style, and his intentions. I left empathy behind and put judgment first. He, too, was composing, directing, and starring in a “movie in his mind” about who he was, what he needed to do to be successful, and why I was wrong and he was right.

I realize now that my fear of failure made me push Jack harder. We were both caught up in being right, wanting to win, trying to persuade each other to our point of view, operating out of the part of the primitive brain called the amygdale—hardwired with the well-developed instincts of fight, flight, freeze, or appease. When our brains lock down, we are no longer open to influence.

I was caught in the Tell–Sell–Yell Syndrome—tell them once, try to sell them, and then yell to gain power over others. But the more I pushed, the less he listened. His mind was closed to new ways of seeing the situation.

Jack and I never built trust—the foundation for open, candid, caring conversations. When we experience gaps between what we feel in the moment, what we think, and what we mean, then what we “hear” is altered toward distrust.

Jack and I soon fired each other, and, within six months he was asked to leave the company. While he failed to connect in ways that would help him meet his challenges, I failed to help him open up his mind and see the world through others’ eyes.

Brain Drain: No Brain, No Gain

When we look through the eyes of Conversational intelligence™ (C-IQ), we can better understand what happens in our brains when we are fearful and distrustful. Fear resides in our lower brain. When we feel like we are excluded, minimized, disconnected or rejected, our brain produces more cortisol that closes down our ability to see reality in healthy ways; in fact, we move in to a state of distrust. 

When trust is absent, we see REALITY with threatened eyes, and we:

  •  Reveal less than what we know or what is helpful to move forward
  •  Expect more than what is possible
  •  Assume the worst in others
  •  Look at situations with caution
  •  Interpret communications with fear
  •  Tell secrets we promised not to tell
  •  Yes people to avoid confronting truth

When we are in a state of distrust, the world feels threatening. Threats make us retreat. They make us feel we need to protect. We are more sensitive to feeling wrong, or feeling embarrassed, and we behave differently.

Hijack: Hit the Road, Jack

Neuroscientists say that high levels of threat give us an “Amygdala Hijack,” which is when fear networks are activated in our brains and we “fight, flee, freeze, or appease others.”

Here are Seven Universal Threats that give us an Amygdala Hijack:

  • Tone threat—judgmental or angry tone is felt as a threat to our ego
  • Hurt threat—threat to our physical safety
  • Risk and punishment threat—taking risks, fear of failure or making mistakes
  • Exclusion threat—looking stupid in front of others and being ostracized
  • Anger threat—fear of someone’s anger toward us, and not knowing how to respond
  • Territory threat—having our territory limited or diminished, or encroached
  • Status threat—challenge to our status, or making us feel small.

Sadly, many people and organizations operate in a perpetual state of distrust and fear—feeling they can’t speak their truth to each other. For example, a Golin-Harris survey found that 69 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “I just don’t know who to trust anymore.” A fearful state of mind alters how we see and experience reality, how we interact with others, and how much we engage, innovate, and speak our mind.

When we feel we judged, criticized, rejected—when we feel we don’t fit in or are embarrassed in front of others—we often choose to go into “radio silence” rather than openly and honestly address those feelings with high C-IQ.

Neuroscience of Trust: Two Tips

Our level of trust is often changed by the way we share information in conversations. Conversations trigger physical and emotional changes in our brains and bodies by altering the amounts of two powerful hormones that affect social interaction: oxytocin, which enables bonding and collaboration, and testosterone, which triggers aggressive behaviors.

Jack and I were victims of an Amygdala hijack. However, you can experience a Limbic high and have rewarding conversations by practicing these two powerful C-IQ tips.  

C-IQ Tip 1: See all conversations as potentially rewarding.  

If the interaction feels good, we have more oxytocin and relax. Trust is enhanced by oxytocin, which gets us to be socially interactive and engage in mutually rewarding conversations. If we sense that the interaction will be punishing, we feel more aggressive and distrustful and move into protect behaviors.” Under stress, testosterone levels are increased. Testosterone works against oxytocin, as does cortisol, another powerful hormone increased by stress. The balance between these hormones and the neural systems they interact with give us the feelings of trust or distrust.

C-IQ Tip 2: Learn the Conversational Agility - Reframe, Refocus and Redirect

Since distrust takes place in the lower brain (Amygdala and Limbic areas) and trust takes place in the higher brain (Prefrontal Cortex), we need to learn how to move to higher ground when we sense an impending hijack. Remember you have the ability to ‘move the conversation’ forward into more productive and insightful directions. For example, Reframing a challenging and distrustful conversation as – an opportunity to build a more trusting relationship – signals our brains that ‘we are open to learn’ ‘open to connect’, and ‘open to discuss how to make the relationship better.’ This is called Conversational Agility and it is one of the most powerful skill sets in the universe. It actually redirects our brain to our higher brain centers – opening the door and opening new pathways for success.

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