Lesson 3.3

The Science Of Earning Respect & Trust In Intentions

Dive into this topic by watching the video, followed by key explanations below.


Key Concepts:


There are two kinds of trust: trust in someone’s ability to do something, and trust in someone’s intentions.

  • We tend to respect people who we trust.

  • If we trust someone’s expertise, we’ll listen to them with respect.

  • If we trust someone’s intentions, we’ll wait to pass judgment until they’re done talking.

  • But if we don’t yet trust someone, they need to “earn” our respect—or we need to “earn” respect for them ourselves.

  • We can’t necessarily turn someone into an expert, or give them abilities that make us able to trust them, but we can learn to trust people’s intentions.

There are a few surefire ways to generate trust in intentions—and therefore earned respect—for specific people who make us flinch, or whose ideas make us scratch our heads:

1. Unearth Moral Foundations (Understand Where People Are Coming From)

  • This one is big enough that we’ll explore it in Lesson 3.6.

2. Build Empathy Through Storytelling

Neuroscience research over the last decade has shown how stories help our brains develop empathy.

The short version of the science is this: Our brains pay special attention to stories, engaging more areas of the mind than when we hear or see facts. And when we learn a good story, our brains synthesize the neurochemical oxytocin. This helps us feel others’ emotions and empathize with them. Scientists have shown that high oxytocin levels—whether we snort it or get it naturally, such as through a story—lead us to donate more to charity, be more interested in people’s well-being, and have more respect for “others” who aren’t like us.

As Dr. Paul Zak, one of the world’s leading oxytocin researchers put it: “Oxytocin melts the in-group, out-group divide.”

In other words, if we want to develop earned respect for someone, it’s a pretty good idea to sit down and hear their personal story.

In recent years, many companies have caught on to this. They’ve started using personal storytelling as a way to get people to get along better when they don’t see eye to eye at work. Importantly, in these “storytelling interventions,” people are encouraged to identify the emotions they felt in their stories. This helps generate even more of that oxy. (tocin, that is!)

I experienced this effect a few years ago at a company I was running. We had hired a VP to run sales, and after a few months it became clear that she and I did not see eye-to-eye on some things. I soon found myself trying to find fault with anything she proposed. I questioned her motivations. And I am ashamed to admit that I even started treating her rudely in meetings and emails.

Things changed dramatically after I somehow ended up at a dinner at this VP’s home. As I remember it, I mentioned at work to the team that I wasn’t going home to Idaho for Thanksgiving, and she extended an invite to me and whoever else didn’t have a place to go. I felt like I couldn’t say no, so I showed up. And at dinner, I met her sister. I saw her baby pictures. We cooked together. We sang karaoke in the living room. I learned her story of growing up in the south, how her father was a captain in the Air Force (just like a family member of mine), and how much she loved and missed her family.

After that, it was like a switch had flipped. I found myself saying hi to her at work and actually being happy about it. I started considering her ideas in meetings, backing her up in person and standing up for her when she wasn’t around. We still were very different, but she had turned into someone who I respected—and I ended up learning from her a great deal.

I even went to her wedding! All because I learned her story.

Blackrock director Jonathan McBride (formerly the head of staffing for the White House) put it well when he said: “You need people to care about each other if you want them to respect their different viewpoints. And how you get people to care is through emotional narrative.”

3. Bring People Into The “Magic Circle” Of Trust Through Play

I once made friends with a scary homeless man in Philadelphia. All it took was a game of chess. (You can read the story in this free bonus chapter of Dream Teams the book.)

While at first the man’s appearance made me not want to go near him—much less listen to anything he might have to say—after playing chess for an hour, I found that, inexplicably, I was no longer afraid of him. In fact, I realized I loved the guy. He had gone from my out-group to part of my in-group. I later learned from psychology research that this was precisely because we played together.

Researchers have found over and over that play builds bridges between people from different walks of life. It explains how anti-Semitism dropped in Argentina when Jewish kids started playing soccer with Christian kids. It explains how this 22-year-old rapper became real-life pals with an 80 year old lady because of Words With Friends. And it explains how we can hack the in-group/out-group psychology and earn respect for people like us.

In a nutshell, play and humor put us in a sort of “magic circle” where everyone who’s in on the game is psychologically “safe” for the moment. Subconsciously, play simulates a situation of anxiety, only our brains know there’s no actual danger. This is how we learn to handle stress, so when the danger is real we can handle our shit. Cats play with each other to learn how to hunt. Monkeys and lemurs play together in order to get less scared of other monkeys and lemurs.

When we step out of the magic circle, studies show that we’re more likely to respect the people we played with. This in turn helps us to listen to their viewpoints with more respect and less pre-judgment.


Practice Building Trust

The following exercise combines elements of both storytelling and play and has been consistently shown to help groups of people build more trust in each others’ intentions when done with an open mind. Click the image below to see what it’s about:

Question Ideas for Jeffersonian Discussions:

Fun questions can help help bond the group through the power of play. These are often good starter questions to break the ice:

  • What was your favorite movie or cartoon as a kid, and what did you love about it?

  • If you could have one super hero power, what would it be, and why?

  • If you could switch bodies for a day with one person, like in the movie Freaky Friday, who would you switch with and what would you do?

The best questions are the ones that encourage people to share stories about themselves—and even to be a little vulnerable:

  • What’s a time in your life when you changed your mind about something really dramatic or difficult?

  • What’s a time in your past when you got extremely angry? What happened and how did you get through it?

  • What’s the most enduring lesson you learned from your parents or parental figure growing up?

  • Who was the teacher or professor who made the biggest impact on you?

  • What cause today do you care about the most? And how did that become so important to you?

Jeffersonian dinners can also be used to discuss important issues, as Jefferson himself (supposedly) used them to discuss political and social issues of the day. But the biggest benefit of this format is to get a group of people to understand each others’ stories, build empathy, and therefore set them up to collaborate better with each other in the future!