Posted: 01 Nov. 2021 13 min. read

Build trust with your ears

"What's water?" one young fish asked another. Thus began the iconic commencement address given by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College in 2005. To Wallace, the water a fish swims in represented the "obvious, ubiquitous, important realities" of life that we often fail to see, understand, or pay sufficient attention to. The fact that the fish doesn't know what water is doesn't make it any less critical for sustaining him and those around him. And maybe it doesn't matter for a fish whether or not he recognizes that reality. But for us humans, it can sometimes be helpful when someone points out what we're not seeing, don't understand, or are failing to pay sufficient attention to, even if we're not quite as clueless as that young fish. I'm going to do that for you now by reminding you just how critical it is to pay more attention to something you are likely doing every day.

In my last post, I wrote about how understanding what's most important to people can help us build trust. This post is a continuation of that theme, and like the last, it's based on Deloitte Greenhouse research. In this case, we asked more than 25,000 professionals, "What is the one thing someone can do to build trust with you?" And the most common answer was the same for all Business Chemistry types: "Listen." That's the single, most important thing. Hundreds of our survey respondents didn't say anything more; they just wrote the one word. What could be more simple? And I'd bet you are doing it already! But when it comes to trust-building, listening is like the water we're swimming in. Do we recognize just how sustaining it is? And what could happen if we paid more attention to it? Several thousand respondents added some nuance to their answers, which, if we listen to what they've shared, can help us build even more trust.

Perhaps the most important guidance our respondents offered is that to build trust, one must actually listen (as opposed to just appearing or pretending to listen). This seems obvious. And yet, if it's so obvious, why would anyone feel the need to mention it? It seems some of us aren't getting it quite right. Read on to get a better sense of whether people are likely to feel you are actually listening to them. And while you're at it, consider whether you likely live up to the other words commonly used to describe how one should listen. Are you listening actively, attentively, genuinely, respectfully, and openly? Far from passive, the kind of listening that can really build trust is dynamic.

Responses to our question also give shape to the behaviors that are important before, during, and after someone starts speaking. Here’s what people told us...

Before I speak...

Ask for my input, opinions, and ideas. What better way to encourage people to offer something for you to listen to? Of course, like listening, asking questions can be a bit more complicated than you might first think. In their 2018 HBR article, “The Surprising Power of Questions,” Harvard Business School Professors Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie John encourage us to work on our question-asking skills: "The good news is that by asking questions, we naturally improve our emotional intelligence, which in turn makes us better questioners—a virtuous cycle." They suggest keeping questions open-ended, leaning into follow-up questions (more on that in a moment), and gradually building rapport by starting with less sensitive questions and then slowly escalating to build a closer bond. They also quote Dale Carnegie's 1936 classic How to Win Friends and Influence People: “Ask questions the other person will enjoy answering.” Sounds about right to me.

While I'm speaking...

Focus on what I'm saying, without being distracted or doing anything else. If you tend to secretly multitask while on Zoom calls, guess what? It's probably not a secret. People can likely tell that you're multitasking. Or are you sleeping? (That’s what it looks like when you’re looking down at your phone.) Neither one is great for trust-building! And if you’re together in-person, they can tell for sure when you're multitasking. Whether online or in-person, failing to focus means you're missing an important opportunity to build trust by listening attentively. Focusing without distraction may be particularly important when listening to a Commander; they mention it more often than other types do.

Signal you're listening to me through your body language. Make eye contact, nod, smile. Not only do these behaviors demonstrate that you're listening, research backs our respondents up, showing that eye contact and smiling can promote trust. If you're talking with someone on video, smiling and nodding may be particularly important, as eye contact can be a bit tricky; it looks like you're making eye contact if you look at the camera versus the screen, but then you can't actually look at the other person's image. Smiling may be more important to Dreamers than others, while eye contact may be more important to Commanders. And see the previous section on Focus. You can't easily make eye contact while multitasking. Of course, if you're talking on the phone without video, none of these cues will be visible, so you'll have to indicate you're listening in other ways, like an occasional "uh-huh," "go on," or "I see".

Don't interrupt me (or anyone else). If you're talking, you obviously cannot really be listening. Right? Well...linguist Deborah Tannen has suggested that not all interruptions are the same, and some may actually be evidence of "high-engagement listening," like when someone jumps in to agree with you or "talks along" with you while listening. Sometimes when someone is really actively listening they may interject a clarifying question while you're speaking. Other interruptions may simply result from misunderstandings about how long to pause in between speaking turns. Tannen has also indicated that there may be regional differences in whether or not a person stops talking when someone else starts, implying some people may feel more interrupted than others. So you'll want to keep on your toes with this one, perhaps paying close attention to how someone seems to react if you interject. Dreamers and Guardians mentioned interrupting more than other types did, so you may benefit from paying particularly close attention there.

Listen to understand me (rather than to respond to me). If your mind is focused on how to respond, can you really process what your ears are hearing? Jumping in too fast with a response may make the other person feel you didn't really listen to everything they said. Unless your response reflects one of the actions that follow.

After I've finished speaking...

Acknowledge what I've said. Have you ever shared something important to you and heard only crickets in response? It doesn’t feel very good. At the least, consider a “thanks for sharing that” or maybe even "that perspective is helpful." Better yet, try one of the strategies below.

Reiterate what I've said. Not only is this one way to acknowledge that you've heard someone; it's also a great way to check your understanding and make sure everyone is on the same page about what’s been said. You might even finish with an "Is that right?"

Respond by asking me thoughtful follow-up questions. Alison, mentioned above, indicates that follow-up questions have a special power: "People interacting with a partner who asks lots of follow-up questions tend to feel respected and heard." And such questions are key to the earlier point about listening to understand rather than respond. If you find it difficult to think of great follow-up questions on the spot, start with these basics: "Would you say more about that?" "Would you give me an example of that?" "What did you think/feel about that?" "Would you tell me more about why you think that's important/interesting?" "What do you think should happen next?" Or try some Why? What if? How? questions.

Recognize my contributions and tell me you value them (even when you don't agree)! For some people, particularly Guardians and Integrators, sharing their perspective can feel like a real risk, especially if it diverges from others’ perspectives. But diversity of thought makes us more creative and effective. So recognize what someone has said for the gift that it is. And show your gratitude for it. This one is particularly easy to do in discussions occurring on virtual platforms. A quick emoji reaction or comment on someone's online offering can express your appreciation of what they've said.

Consider what I've said before making decisions. This is one of the key pillars of procedural justice, which can influence how fair people think your decisions are. Particularly when you make a decision that’s not in line with a perspective someone has shared, loop back to explain what perspectives were considered and why the decision went the way it did. Doing so can go a long way toward earning people's trust so that they'll continue to offer their valuable perspective in the future.

Follow up if appropriate. While you were doing all that listening, did you perhaps make a commitment to do something? To think a bit more about something? To talk the issue through with someone else? Or to get back to someone with an answer? Make sure you do whatever you said you would and that the person you made the commitment to knows it. This seems as obvious as people's entreaty to actually listen, and yet, can you say you always do it?

Chances are, you knew before you read this blog post that listening to people is highly important. You're not like some clueless fish who doesn't even know what water is. You probably also knew that the best kind of listening is active, not passive. But we can all use a little help from time to time switching off our default setting, where we are at the center, and really tuning in to what someone else has to share. I’m going to try it today. I hope you will, too.

Note: During the period of November 17, 2020, to June 29, 2021, all respondents completing the online Business Chemistry assessment were also presented with the open-ended question “What one thing can someone do to build trust with you?”

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Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Research Lead | Deloitte LLP

Dr. Suz is a social-personality psychologist and a leading practitioner of Deloitte’s Business Chemistry, which she uses to guide clients as they explore how their work is shaped by the mix of individuals who make up a team. Previously serving in Deloitte’s Talent organization, since 2014 she’s been coaching leaders and teams in creating cultures that enable each member to thrive and make their best contribution. Along with her Deloitte Greenhouse colleague Kim Christfort, Suzanne co-authored the book Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships as well as a Harvard Business Review cover feature on the same topic. She also leads the Deloitte Greenhouse research program focused on Business Chemistry and is the primary author of the Business Chemistry blog. An “unapologetic introvert” and Business Chemistry Guardian-Dreamer, you will never-the-less often find her in front of a room, a camera, or a podcast microphone speaking about Business Chemistry. Suzanne is a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate with an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business and a doctorate in Social-Personality Psychology from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. She has lectured at Rutgers Business School and several colleges in the CUNY system, and before joining Deloitte in 2009, she gained experience in the health care and consulting fields. A mom of two teenagers, she maintains her native Minnesota roots and currently resides in New Jersey, where she volunteers for several local organizations with a focus on hunger relief.