September 28, 2022

Trust, Listening and Asking Questions

People do business with People.

Trust is the foundation on which this “business” happens. I use the term “business” in a broad sense: any mutually beneficial transaction can be considered as “business”. Consideration for the transaction may not pass on to the other immediately. In fact, the exchange may even be for something intangible, or even one sided.

For example, a person may ask another for advice on how to comport self in a specific context. The other person may provide the advice, but there is no “consideration” that is passed on to this other person (unless of course we are discussing a Coach-Coachee relationship, for example, in which case there is a mutually beneficial relationship). Or, for that matter, one person may lend another person a book to read to understand a specific nuance related to managing that person’s life, where again, the “consideration” for this is not immediate. In return for this “service” the person who lend the book may get invited for a party or a coffee at some future date.

Such transactions lead to bigger transactions.

Business happens because people trust each other to keep up their side of the “bargain”, in full, and collect the agreed upon “consideration” embodied in such transactions.

On the other hand, a lack of trust is a hindrance to any transaction.

With Physical Distancing, such transactions will, over a period of time, die down. In a post COVID 19 world, the question that comes up for me is: “How will people build relationships?” At the root of every relationship is Trust, or the lack of it.

How do people build relationships?

When we are mere infants, our parents encourage social interaction. Uncles, Aunts, neighbors’ relatives’, friends’ and strangers’, all interact with us. As we grow, we go to school, places of worship, weddings, parties, social events, were we learn to interact with others. Along the way, we learn to trust some, mistrust some and are indifferent to some. As we grow, we learn “short cuts” to trust others, and therefore permit only a select few to our innermost circle. All our lives, people who we feel can be trusted are included in this inner circle.

Somewhere during our lives Trust too takes a “transactional” shade.

“I can trust this person with work related things, but I will not trust this person with something personal, so I will keep my relationship at a professional level only.” Or, “He is a personal friend, so I will not involve him in anything professional.

Hence we start developing various shades of trust.

David Maister in “The Trusted Advisor” talks about the Trustworthiness Equation:

 T = (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) / Self Orientation.

He explains that Credibility is about our Skills. We understand it from the words of the speaker. Reliability is about our actions. It lies in our activities. Intimacy is about feelings and it is the emotional content of our communication that brings this forth, and, Self-Orientation is about our Loci: Is the interaction for my purpose, your purpose or a larger purpose? It lies in our motives.

 In the virtual world, Credibility and to an extent Reliability is easier to establish. But without face to face interaction how does one establish Intimacy or address Self Orientation?

Add to this list items such as personal values and beliefs, and, we can see how difficult the task of building trust is going to be!

 In this “new normal”, the skills required are simple, but are we willing to explore?

Let’s take Listening for example. If Leaders hone up on listening skills (yes, I know, easier said than done), sensitivity to others will automatically go up, and as a result leaders can at least tune their communication to address those “unstated” items which are normally “off the agenda”. 90% of all listening in the pre COVID 19 world is in the realm of Confirmation (Have you done XYZ? Did you send the mail? Is the Excel Sheet updated?) or Information (Will you forward me that document? Where can I find data on XYZ? What is the status on ABC Project?)

What about the rest of it? Ok. Fine. What is the rest of it, anyway?

Carl Rogers (On Being Human): “I hear the words, the thoughts, the feeling tones, the personal meaning, even the meaning that’s below the conscious intent of the speaker.” This level of listening, this level of involvement with people, this is what builds the elusive “intimacy” (that David Maister speaks of), and it is in “intimacy” that trustworthiness lies. Meaning, understanding the meaning as the other person would understand it: this will lead to a dialogue to sustain that meaning, to change the meaning, to enhance the meaning.

In a virtual world, how will this be done?

Another part of this is about asking Questions: if the way leaders ask questions changes (no, not interrogation, but genuine questions that bring forth meaning, than just information and data), the impact ought to be much more. But how does one ask these questions? (Ok, what are these questions anyway? Is not Why, Why Not and What else enough as questions?)

 Apparently there are 7 different types of questions:

  1. Closed ended, Leading and Open ended are just 3 types of questions.
  2. Then there are reflective questions: Questions that prompt people to reflect, and, therefore build understanding and learning. An argument that “are these not Open ended” is a good argument and a relevant one. The nature of reflective questions encourage meaning making and learning. Therefore, a question such as: “What is your opinion?” is an open ended question, but “What does your opinion tell you about yourself?” changes that question to a reflective one. The focus changes from mere cognition to one that builds awareness. The “….yourself?” can be “…situation?”, “… person?” or any such thing.
  3. Silence and Pause is also a question. It invites the other person to speak more. But be careful. The pause or silence accompanied by a reflective demeanour will lead to silence.
  4. Body language (a simple head nod, that is enough to encourage a question). In the virtual world, verbal “non-fluencies” (such as umm, aha, etc.) do form a good part of this body language. (No, not the “non-fluencies” that accompany speech. That is totally different.)
  5. Feedback and Clarification are questions couched in statements. “I want to give you some feedback. In the call the other day, you made that point, however, when my boss provided an alternate view you had no response. I think you were not well prepared.” So far, it’s just feedback.  If we take out “… I think you were not prepared” and instead use: “What happened that day for you not to counter?”, we have a different conversation going: one of mutual learning, providing coaching and support, than one that eats away trust.

Two simple skills: Listening and Asking Questions, and how this is important to build trust in the present times. It takes about 9 months or so of constant practice to move our listening needle. Asking questions takes a little longer.

The benefits are many. At the core, the benefit is all about “mutual learning”.

What would it take for us to build our awareness on these simple, yet profound skills, and, bring forth an inclusive culture in a virtual world?

About the Author:

Manoj Prabhu helps Leaders Reconnect with their Purpose and Reinvent themselves. You can find him at:

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