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:


As we discussed earlier, there are two kinds of trust: trust in someone’s ability to do something, and trust in someone’s intentions.

  • We respect people who we trust—with either type of 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) puts it well when he says: “You need people to care about each other,” he said, 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.)

Whereas 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 decided 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:

Exercise Recap: The Jeffersonian Dinner

How do you get to know someone’s story, and vice versa, without things getting too awkward, or without delving into inappropriate territory for a work setting? Try a Jeffersonian Dinner:

  1. Gather a small group (I recommend no fewer than 4, no more than 6) for a dinner on you (so there’s no pressure on anyone on anything but the dinner), where the goal is to “bond and connect.” Tell them that it’s going to be a “Jeffersonian Dinner” and that you’ll explain more there.

  2. After everyone has ordered food, explain that you’d like to do a little dinner ritual that Thomas Jefferson used to do (according to legend) when he held dinner parties at his home. The idea is that Jefferson (or whoever is putting on the dinner) asks evocative questions, and then one by one the group goes around the table and answers from their point of view.

  3. The main rule is that only one person can speak at a time. The dinner leader must state this up front and enforce this with gentle reminders whenever anyone interrupts or speaks over someone else.

  4. The other rule is that anything personal that anyone decides to share stays at the table. If you’d like to share along something someone says during the during, you must get their permission first.

  5. Now the leader asks questions, and the group answers.

  6. It helps to start with the leader asking a question and then giving her or his answer first, so people can think and become comfortable, then go in clockwise order around the table.

  7. Alternate new questions between clockwise and counter-clockwise, so the order is mixed. Remember to encourage people to share, but also remind them that all participation is voluntary. You don’t want to force people to be vulnerable if they are not comfortable. Most shy people will start to come out of their shells as they see others participate; let them do that on their own!

  8. Fun questions will help help bond the group through the power of play: E.g.

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

    2. 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?

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

  9. The best questions are the ones that encourage people to share stories about themselves—and even to be vulnerable. E.g.

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

    2. What’s the time in your past when you remember feeling extremely [pick an emotion: angry, lonely, sad]? What happened and how did you get through it?

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

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

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

  10. As the leader of the dinner, you have full authority to intervene if anyone starts behaving inappropriately toward someone else. Be watchful that the discussion remains about sharing stories and doesn’t turn into a debate (that’s another exercise for a different setting). Make sure that you invite everyone to participate, and make them feel comfortable.

  11. When the dinner has run its course, go home!

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!