Leadership: Language that builds trust
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Leadership: Language that builds trust

What is trust? And how do you get it?

Seems like a simple question. But what makes employees willing to follow you? To come to you with problems? To take risks?

Numerous scientific studies have found that trust comes down to two questions:

  1. Is this person on my side – that is, are they willing to help me?
  2. Are they competent – are they able to help me?

Ultimately, employees will answer these questions based on your actions. But language matters a lot too.

A study from Southern Methodist University found that certain verbal cues – cues that you can incorporate into your conversations — will increase trust and people’s willingness to engage with you.

In the experiment, researchers videotaped college students who’d been asked to speak off the cuff about various mundane topics – their classes, their experiences at college, what was going on in their lives at that moment.

Then the researchers showed snippets of these videos – each snippet lasting about a minute and a half — to a second group of students and asked them to evaluate each speaker on a variety of measures, including trustworthiness.

The researchers analyzed the language used in the interviews and how it related to trustworthiness.

Four verbal cues

The researchers found four verbal cues that were associated with high perceived trust:

  1. Speaking simply and directly
  2. Using fewer “negative emotion” words – words such as “angry,” “sad” and “wrong”
  3. Speaking in the present tense – that is, statements focused on the here-and-now rather than what’s happened in the past, and
  4. Using fewer “I,” “me” and “our” statements

Speak simply

Of the four, the one with the greatest impact on trust is speaking simply and directly. Researchers measured it by counting the number of “unique words” in each video snippet. People who speak simply use a limited vocabulary of everyday words over and over. Those who fill their speech with jargon, fillers and qualifiers end up with a higher unique word count, and are perceived as anxious, uncertain or dishonest.

For example, how much would you trust someone who said this?

“We would all have to say that mistakes were made in terms of comments. I was overenthusiastic in my comments … particularly if you look at them in the context of developments that have taken place.”

That statement, which of course sounds evasive and dishonest, came from Nixon’s press secretary in 1973, during Watergate.

You’d probably trigger the same reaction if you told employees:

“We would all have to say that mistakes were made in terms of the business. I was overenthusiastic in my comments … particularly if you look at them in the context of developments that have taken place.”

Employees trust straight, simple talk: “We made a mistake. We gave you bad information. I’m sorry, and we’ll be more careful in the future.”

Negative emotions

The research found that words such as “angry,” “sad” and “wrong” undermine perceived trustworthiness, even when the speakers were talking about mundane topics.

It’s easy for negative language to creep into conversations with employees. For example, in the course of day-to-day operations, we’re often more focused on what’s not working than on successes.

Of course you need to find and fix problems. But you can use positive instead of negative language. Instead of asking “What’s wrong, what needs to be fixed?” you might ask “What do we want to achieve? What are we doing right, and how can we do more of it?”

Mindfulness and focus

The last two factors — present tense and fewer I statements – seem to be about mindfulness and focus. Employees want to know that they are your first concern. Talking about yourself or about the past – for example, citing your past successes or offering your opinion — takes the spotlight off the employee’s biggest concern – whether you can help him or her right now.

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