The Importance of Trust

  • The Amygdala is our most primitive brain – our “lizard” brain. It is via our amygdala that our instinct for survival rests – the fight, flight, freeze, appease instincts are generated from this part of the brain

  • When we feel threatened in any way the amygdala activates the immediate impulses that ensure we survive

  • When we feel threatened or are fearful, when we are stressed, emotional or angry, our amygdala takes us over. We don’t always want this to happen – it was important when our home was a cave and Sabretooth tigers roamed, and it is still important in “survival” situations, but when we are managing people and trying to drive our businesses, it can be less than ideal

  • Our Prefrontal Cortex is our newest brain – it is what makes us human if you like. It is also called the Executive brain

  • It enables us to build societies, have good judgement, be strategic, handle difficult conversations, and build and sustain trust

  • But when the amygdala picks up a threat our conversations are subject to lockdown, our prefrontal cortex switches off and we get stuck in our point of view – the “Tell – Sell – Yell” syndrome. We lose our rationality, we stop thinking, we say things we could regret, I’m sure you have all been there

Trust and distrust have different “addresses” in the brain – trust is not just the absence of distrust. Distrust is signalled through the amygdala and trust through the prefrontal Cortex. The prefrontal cortex is where we compare our expectations of what will happen (or what does happen) against reality. This is where we match our “worldview” with that of other people – where there is alignment we feel the greatest trust. This doesn’t mean we cant disagree – in fact we feel the greatest trust with people where we do disagree, without negative consequences. Our orbitofrontal cortex is linked to uncertainty – activating this part of the brain (being uncertain) will increase distrust. At the moment of contact, when we engage with others and feel uncertainty about how to interpret the interaction, our orbitofrontal cortex is activated. Then our amygdala goes into overdrive and it activates the limbic area of the brain – which stores all of our old memories. Once triggered this part of the brain will bring up other similar hurts and threats and lumps them together into a nightmare. In this environment trust if almost impossible to sustain. We can learn to sideline the signals from the amygdala by:

  • Noticing how we react to threats – do we fight, fly, freeze or appease?

  • Labelling our reaction as normal – we can’t control it so lets just accept it

  • Noticing if we always choose the same reaction to threat and noting how much the threat impacts us

  • Choosing an alternative way to react (breathe in, breathe out, go into discovery conversations, share how you are feeling, stay calm and do nothing)

  • Become more aware of our responses and realising we can override our emotions and shift into other responses

  • Transforming fear into trust – the heart of Conversational Intelligence

In her book “Conversational Intelligence” Judith Glaser summarises a survey where more than 4000 leaders across all industries and at all levels, identified the two least-developed skills in the workplace: the ability to have uncomfortable conversations and the ability to ask “what if” questions. Both these skills are essential in building trust. Both these skills are essential for effective leadership. In a very brief summary like this I am in danger of causing more questions than answers. That’s OK! This area is becoming incredibly well researched as our knowledge of the brain becomes deeper. It is a fascinating area and one that will open all of our eyes to why we are who we are and how we can be better, or worse if that is the way we want it to be! Stay well, be focused and TRUST


Phil Pickford

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