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Trust vs. Distrust: Counteracting the Decisions of the Primitive Brain


Have you ever had a direct report or team member you just didn’t get a good vibe from since the very first moment you met them? Maybe you couldn't pinpoint it, but something about them made you distrust them. Perhaps your initial reaction was correct, and they turned out to be unreliable. Or, perhaps you were wrong, it turned out they were dependable and well-liked by everyone - except you. Perhaps, in spite of their positive track record, you still didn’t grow to trust them. You were relieved the day you parted ways.

But what if the story had ended differently? What if something had changed the trajectory of the relationship? What if you had learned to trust and collaborate with them, and by working together produced even better results for your team, and/or you as the team leader.

Trust is a key factor in work relationships as it is the key to productive conversation. Communicating openly and respectfully is at the heart of any viable relationship. When we trust the people with whom we are engaged in conversation, space is created for new ideas to develop. We are able to move past what Judith Glaser, author of Conversational Intelligence, calls the Tell-Sell-Yell syndrome. This is when we justify and defend our ideas without genuinely considering the input of others. I like to describe this type of conversation as Command, Coerce, and Control. It’s about strengthening our own position. Many of us grew up in this type of organizational culture; and if we are not taught another leadership style, we perpetuate this method of communicating and leading.

In my last article, I discussed how recognizing our inherent value and creating, as well as honoring, healthy listening and speaking boundaries is key in any conversation. Healthy boundaries, which recognize that our value does not depend on the decisions made in conversations, are necessary for creating space for new ideas (which may not be our own) to develop and grow.

If we are to work with each other successfully, we must develop some level of trust for others. The more, the better. But we do face obstacles along our journey of trusting. The first obstacle is that life has rightfully taught us that some people cannot be trusted. We know we will continue to get hurt. It’s a fact of life. The second obstacle is just as unchangeable. The area of our brain which processes distrust reacts more quickly than the area of our brain which processes trust. So we are predisposed to distrust.

Distrust is processed in our amygdala, our primitive brain. Our amygdala responds in as little as 0.07 seconds.* Pretty quick. The amygdala is always on the alert for threats. This is extremely useful as our fear can keep us safe. For example, not walking into an elevator when you notice someone in the elevator who viscerally triggers you is a wise decision prompted by our fear. When our amygdala senses a threat, it releases cortisol in our body, which in turn floods our PFC with this stress hormone. These signals cause the PFC to lose the full capacity of its functioning. Many refer to this process as the amygdala "hyjacking" the brain and causing the PFC to "shut down". We are keenly focused on the threat and therefore, cannot think well or reason in this state. If you hear a fire alarm, you are likely to abandon whatever it is that you are doing until you have determined if there is a real threat. That's how the amygdala protects us. It focuses solely on the threat at hand leaving our executive center temporarily disabled.

Now, what’s interesting is that our prefrontal cortex is where trust lives (as well as learning, decision making and emotional regulation). This part of our brain responds in as little as 0.1 second. This is where we intellectually decide if we can trust someone. Unfortunately, even if we intellectually know we can trust someone, a single word or someone’s tone of voice can trigger the amygdala to flood our brain with cortisol making us unable to think without fear lurking, and therefore distrust precludes an open, safe space and productive conversation.

So what can we do about this?

We find ways to notice our emotional reaction and then, calm down the amygdala. One effective way to do this is by “noticing and naming”. Simply noticing when you feel threatened and then naming your emotion, even if just to yourself helps. For example, prior to your presentation say, “I feel nervous talking to such an esteemed group of experts.” Getting present to how we feel at that moment dampens down the cortisol response in the amygdala, therefore allowing our prefrontal cortex to work better.

In future articles, I will continue to discuss various ways we can build trust to open up a safe space conducive to engaging in productive conversations.

How has the process of noticing and naming your distrust or fear in a relationship changed the outcome?

*Information referring to the speed of brain processes is taken from Judith Glaser’s book Conversational Intelligence.

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