Building trusting relationships through the art of conversation

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Here at the-Coaching Blog-run by Gerard O’Donovan, our aim is to constantly bring value to those seeking to improve their lives. Therefore we have a policy of publishing articles and materials by guest authors whom we value and appreciate. Today’s guest author is Nigel Purse (United Kingdom).
Nigel Purse, author of ‘5 Conversations: How to transform trust, engagement, and performance at work’ examines why and how conversations are the key to building trusting relationships at work.
It is not uncommon for Executive Coaches at The Oxford Group (or anywhere else for that matter) to be working with clients whose relationships at work are standing in the way of their and their organization’s success. As a leader, having trusting relationships with the people who work for and with them is at the heart of getting things done. When trust exists in a relationship we are open to ideas, possibilities, and collaboration. Where trust is absent, we are closed, defensive and suspicious. Where a trusting relationship exists, we are likely to be engaged – proud to belong to our organization, willing to go the extra mile and committed to building your career.
However, for coachee to be able to start building (or re-building as the case may be) trusting relationships, they first need to understand that trust comes from a combination of factors, such as credibility, reliability, and intimacy. But even when they understand those factors, how can they actually build them? With so many factors that can impact on trust, how can a leader know which factors are most important and where to place most effort?
There have been a number of academic investigations into the different factors which impact on trust. For example, in the Journal of Business Studies Quarterly, Shpëtim Çerri presented a statistical analysis of which factors have the greatest correlation with the quality of business relationships. Çerri took the five factors that are most commonly cited in academic research as having an impact on trust: social interactions, communication, competence and reputation, role legitimacy and personality traits, as well as testing out the hypothesis that trust is positively correlated with relationship quality. He found that social interactions have the greatest correlation with trust and personality traits the least.
Çerri’s results echo research from a wide number of industries. When it comes down to it, a leader’s ability to have meaningful social interactions and communications has the most impact on the trust within a relationship. At the heart of this are the ability and emotional commitment to hold authentic, open, two-way human conversations. As Groysberg & Slind observe:
“Today’s leaders achieve far more engagement and credibility when they take part in a genuine conversation with the people who work for and with them.”
Using the art of conversation
It’s clear that conversations are the key to building trusting relationships – but what conversation should a leader have with their employees to make this happen? The concept of 5 Conversations outlined in my book, captures the five conversations critical to transforming trust, engagement, and performance at work. This goes to the heart of what we as coaches do with individuals and businesses on a daily basis.
The first conversation ‘Establishing a Trusting Relationship’ is the most critical and is about taking conscious steps to establish a deeper and more trusting relationship. It involves creating a space to better understand and know each other in terms of who you are, what you do, how you do it and importantly – why you do it.  While it typically goes beyond high-level ‘get to know you’ questions, often it can start here – just asking someone about how they got to where they are. A simple way to open is:
“What would you most like to know about me that would help you understand me better?”
The conversation can then move on to deeper questions such as:
“What is really important to you at work?”
“What are you most passionate about?”
“What causes you the most anxiety at work?”
Trust is both an input and output of this conversation. The better quality conversation you have the more trust develops, and as more trust develops the better quality conversation you have. As the pyramid below illustrates, as levels of trust increase we are able to discuss deeper and more personal things.

It does not matter how this conversation is held, what matters is the intention and mindset behind it – to be genuinely curious and truly get to know an employee, far beyond their job description and what tasks they are working on.
Why this conversation matters
This conversation encourages a deeper sense of connectivity. A connection is why we’re here. We instinctively know this, and if that isn’t enough, there is a wealth of neuroscience research that overwhelmingly demonstrates that it’s this that brings meaning and purpose to our lives.
This conversation also enables leaders to tailor the way they work with each team member. It gives leaders the insights they need to fine-tune the way they delegate, coach, challenge and supports them – to create the exact conditions employees need to be engaged and deliver peak performance. Equally, it enables your team member to understand how you work best and therefore modify their style to one in which you will both be successful and productive. And if this conversation doesn’t happen early in a relationship with a new team member (either when they are new to the team, or when the coachee joins as a new leader), the leader risks losing a vital opportunity to lay the foundations for the trusting relationship that is so vital to creating a high performing team and getting things done.
Some leaders may dismiss this concept as wasting valuable time on ‘small talk’ or something ‘warm and fluffy’, however, the power of starting the relationship building process with conversation, even on a high level, can be seen in this story:
A colleague, Catalina, was coaching Luis, a senior client who managed a team of seven people in a venture capital company. One of Luis’s concerns was that he felt that his team didn’t particularly like him. As he worked in the same office as his team, Catalina asked him to draw a diagram of the office and show where everyone sat, including himself. Luis drew the desks and put each person’s name next to it. Then she asked him a series of questions:

  • “Who’s got, children?”
  • “Who has coffee in the morning and who has tea?”
  • “Who’s the next person in the office to have a birthday?”
  • “Where are they going on holiday?”

Luis was stunned. He didn’t know the answer to any of those questions. By contrast, he could tell her which clients each of his team managed, how much revenue they were bringing in and where they were in relation to their targets.
So why didn’t he know the answers to those questions? Catalina asked him to describe what happened every day at the office. He would come into the office first thing, go straight to his desk and get working, and wouldn’t really talk as he had so much to do (as did everyone else). He tended to do all his communications via email, including sending emails to people who were sitting only a few meters away from him, and his emails were all to do with work.
Having described this, Luis looked thoughtful. The next time Catalina saw him he proudly brandished a spreadsheet: “I’ve got the answers to all of your questions!” And there it was, a spreadsheet containing the names of each of his team members and their children, drink preferences, birthdays, holidays and more!
An extreme thing to do, but what was going on? Several months after the coaching ended, Luis contacted Catalina and said how much difference her questions had made. OK, so he’d noted the answers down on a spreadsheet which may appear mechanistic, but the process he’d gone through to get those answers meant that now he was actually talking to his team, showing an interest in them, and getting to know them as a whole person and not just as an employee. And they were responding positively to his interest and their performance was getting even better! He added that this had also helped him with his clients. He’d always found it difficult to have small talk, but now that he understands that small talk helps to build a relationship which will then make clients more likely to want to do business with him, he no longer avoid it.

  • Çerri, S. (2012). Exploring factors affecting trust and relationship quality in a supply chain context. Journal of Business Studies Quarterly 2012, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 74-90
  • Groysberg, B. & Slind, M. (2012). Leadership is a conversation. Harvard Business Review, June 2012

Nigel Purse graduated from Oxford University with a degree in Modern History. He founded the Oxford Group in 1986, following a career in HR at BP and working in Leadership Development at Mars Inc. Nigel has grown The Oxford Group from a one-man business to a global Learning & Development firm working for many of the world’s most respected organizations, with 250 employees worldwide. Nigel heads The Oxford Group’s work in designing and delivering global Leadership and Management Development programmes.
Twitter: @The_OxfordGroup
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