Original art by Theo Payne

The Secret to Building Trust Lies in the Unspoken

Great leaders empower those around them by creating a sense of trust that many of us find elusive. When people on your team feel safe and seen, they’re able to present an authentic picture of themselves and their situation, and consequently, take risks, grow and develop, and to do their best work. So how do great leaders build this sort of trust?

You might be surprised to learn that the secret to building trust lies in things unspoken. In fact, the key to creating an authentic and deep connection with your team is grounded in effective nonverbal communication — in your body language, the tone of your voice, and the manner in which you speak (far less than what you actually say). Studies have shown that the majority of communication is actually non-verbal. In fact, researchers have found that nonverbal communication can account for as much as 93% of communication, depending on the topic matter. As it turns out, gaining the trust of others comes from what you are communicating when you’re not saying anything at all.

The good news is that being a skillful non-verbal communicator is something you can learn through practice. Here are three strategies to help you improve this essential leadership practice.

Step 1: Explore your own non-verbal communication

The first step to becoming a great non-verbal communicator is to recognize that you already have a non-verbal communication style, even if you aren’t sure what it is. We all start life communicating through sound and movement before we acquire words; we cry when we need our diaper changed, or put our arms out when we want to be picked up and held. These and many other gestures are the early foundation blocks of how we still communicate at a nonverbal level when we become adults. Becoming aware of our current style of nonverbal communication is essential to making it more effective.

Here is a simple exercise to help you better understand your non-verbal communication style.

First, identify two different people in your life: someone you feel comfortable and at ease communicating with, and someone you struggle to connect with or feel less confident interacting with. The next time you are speaking with each of them, ask yourself these questions:

  • What was my tone of voice?
  • How was the pace and volume of my speech?
  • How was my posture?
  • Was there any tension in my body, and if so, where?
  • Did I use any specific mannerisms?
  • What physical gestures did I make?

In this first step, it’s important to not change anything about how you normally interact; your goal is to paint an accurate picture of yourself before you start making adjustments. Simply observe your behavior while you’re speaking, and note your reaction to the other person’s communication.

Once you’ve collected data from both of these situations (i.e., interacting with these two different people), compare the data. Notice the subtle differences in your own non-verbal communication style in each situation, and begin to make yourself aware of which of these elements are consistent patterns across multiple interactions.

By trying out this exercise, you are developing a crucial aspect of self-awareness which will be essential to gaining control over your own communication style, so that you can later be more effective in using non-verbal communication to deliberately build trust in your relationships with your teammates.

Step 2: Recognize the nonverbal communication of others

Being an excellent non-verbal communicator isn’t just about understanding your own style and being able to modulate and control it. It also requires developing an awareness of how others are communicating, so that you can see what they are trying to say “between the lines,” and adjust your own style to better connect with them.

The exercise in this step is a straightforward extension of the previous one. Repeat the exercise above, but this time, focus on the person you are interacting with, and their non-verbal communication style. Take note of their tone of voice, posture, and body language, just as you did above for yourself.

Now you are in a position to find some interesting insights. Compare your own non-verbal communication style with that of your interlocutors. Chances are, you’ll find similarities between your communication style and that of the person you feel a connection with; while you find discrepancies between your style and that of the person you struggle to connect with. Why is that?

The simple explanation is that familiarity creates trust. Recognizing elements of another person’s behavior helps us feel kinship with their character and a sense of empathy with their experience. Cross-cultural communication shows how challenging diverse styles can be for establishing a sense of connection; while a sensitivity to the nuances of communication within a culture help to deepen intra-group bonds and understanding. As a result, it’s natural that we will feel greater connection with those people whose communication style is similar to our own.

Now that we have observed this pattern in action, we can use these fundamental insights to improve our relationships with our teammates.

Step 3: Adjust your communication to unlock connections with others

Human beings are biologically equipped to be natural empathizers, so long as we don’t let our own habitual patterns of communication get in the way.

The key to establishing a sense of familiarity with someone is finding that connection between your nonverbal communication styles.

The biological mechanism behind this process is the operation of mirror neurons. Have you seen a loved one cry and suddenly felt your own tears welling up? This is the power of mirror neurons; they fire in our brains when observing other people, giving us an experience that mirrors their experience. While science has studied and explained these neurons in primates in more technical detail, the simple way we can think about their operation is as literally giving us a way to feel what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes. Human beings are biologically equipped to be natural empathizers, so long as we don’t let our own habitual patterns of communication get in the way.

So how can we take advantage of the operation of mirror neurons to develop a connection with someone? Here’s our last exercise:

The next time you’re having a difficult time connecting with someone, start by identifying what about your two styles of communicating is the same and different, as you did in the previous exercise. You’ll find that, sometimes, simply observing this is enough to create a deeper sense of connection.

Next, begin to play with mirroring your non-verbal communication style to match the other person. Notice their manner of speech and body language, and see how you can weave those into your own behavior. The key to doing this successfully is to also stay true to yourself. If you force yourself into a mode that’s too foreign, you run the risk of creating further disconnect. Look for the aspects of the other person that are somewhat familiar already and start there.

This exercise is similar to the practice of reflective listening, i.e., verbally repeating something back to someone right after hearing it. Mirroring someone’s body posture, movement, or pace opens up communication between your bodies in a way that words alone cannot, increasing the opportunity for you to develop familiarity and trust. When teammates feel they can trust you, they’ll be more likely to show you their strengths and weaknesses, so you can collaborate to find the ways to best develop and utilize them, and create a relationship of empowerment.

And that is a major step forward in becoming a great leader.

*This Article first appeared on BetterUp’s Blog

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