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The Chemistry of Trust

(How to Use Physical Intelligence to Build Trust)


In our last post, we highlighted the importance of creating an environment where people trust each other in order to promote creativity and innovation. Today, we will address how to build that trust. Excerpt from Physical Intelligence: How to harness your body’s untapped intelligence to achieve more, stress less and live more happily (Simon & Schuster)


“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.”

Stephen R. Covey


Oxytocin, the trust and social-bonding chemical, is released into our bloodstream by independent neurons in our heart and neurons in our brain to create harmony and understanding. This chemical binds families, teams and cultures together, making people feel happy and trusting. It is designed to create lasting human relationships and collectively reduce cortisol levels by making people feel safer together.


Dopamine makes us want to move towards a situation and realise our goals because we anticipate reward. If we believe that someone else will help us realise our goals, then we are drawn to them because they appear to have our best interests at heart, or because they offer excitement, danger, security, intellectual stimulation, comfort – whatever gives us pleasure.

In the first moments of meeting someone, we subconsciously weigh up whether or not we trust them by assessing whether we ‘trust their body’. We look for stable eye contact, open body language, an authentic tone of voice and a responsive face. We also read their deeper emotional state through how they breathe and hold themselves. For example, if someone is breathing fast, shallow or holding their breath and has tension in their face, we will trust them less easily than if their breathing is regular, smooth and diaphragmatic and they vary their facial expressions appropriately.


In our brains, a network of mirror neurons (discovered in the 1980s by Italian neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma) interpret physical and emotional states. They detect threat from other people’s body language and facial expression. Hidden hands (in pockets or behind back), wide stance (like a nightclub bouncer), shifty eyes, and so on, set off a low- grade threat response in others – worth noting if you regularly give presentations. We are particularly sensitive to whether someone imposes themselves on a situation or appears to hold back – neither generates trust.


Mirror neurons are also our mechanism for understanding a wider range of intentions and emotions and are believed to play a part in how we empathise. When we see a person’s posture, facial expression, movement and situation, our mirror neuronsfire. By comparing what we are seeing with our own embodied memories, we recognise how the other person may be feeling. If we can’t identify with the other person, we feel threatened, but if we can, we are more likely to feel compassion. Oxytocin is released.


LIFE HACK: Play ‘Name their Mood’. Look at someone passing by and very quickly name the mood you see. An emotion forms in a minute, a mood over days or weeks, an attitude pervades over a lifetime. Which is it that you are seeing?


If we want to understand someone and align ourselves with them, we are likely to unconsciously, or sometimes consciously, mirror their body position, their breathing and speech patterns. Their mirror neurons perceive this and social harmony evolves in a dance of recognition and reciprocation. It is the same mechanism that enables one person with integrity to influence others to behave with integrity, or one cynic to influence others negatively. Behaviour is extremely contagious.


In addition to enhancing our personal life, as has been highlighted in books such as Good to Great and The Speed of Trust, trust has a clear, measurable positive impact on our working relationships and professional success. It builds over weeks, months and years, through consistency and commitment to one another, as we grow to understand and deeply like or even love each other. Contact makes us happy and we want to work together, live together, support each other and go the extra mile together. But when that same person behaves badly, we feel uncomfortable and trust is eroded. Oxytocin and dopamine levels drop suddenly, and we feel deeply let down.


We are social animals. We all need to live in a society and we all also need to have our needs met. When there is change and uncertainty, cortisol rises and puts oxytocin, dopamine and testosterone out of balance. Some people will become more independent of the group and less trusting (increased testosterone), some people will bond even more closely with the group (increased oxytocin) and may become over- reliant or compliant – smiling even when there is discomfort so as not to endanger relationships – or more protective and resistant towards forces outside the group.


When working or living remotely, especially in teams of people from different cultures with different styles, or with family members living far away, building trust is more challenging. Without physical presence it is difficult to know if we ‘trust the body’ of someone, or to feel that we really know someone. Shared, face- to- face experiences create better bonds and can sustain trust over months and years of remote communication. When people do come together, sharing personal stories releases oxytocin that helps teams know and care about each other more.


Rash judgments, jumping to conclusions or grabbing at solutions limit the evolution of trust and the quality of ideas that can be generated between people who want to develop trust. Whether in a personal or social setting, on a conference call or in a face- to- face meeting at work, approaching meetings thoughtfully and intentionally gives time for the chemistry of trust to build powerfully.

While in the process of writing our book, we spoke with Wayne Mc Gregor, CBE, multi- award- winning choreographer and director, currently resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet in London and internationally renowned for trailblazing innovations in performance that have radically redefined dance in the modern era. Collaborating with people across many different disciplines, from sculptors to Cambridge scientists, Wayne shared that, from his own experience as well as that of his neuroscience research, he has found that quick responses are not necessarily the best responses. In order to listen, he consciously gets ‘into his body’ by breathing lower, speaking more slowly and allowing more silence – more time to open up a ‘listening space’. He calls it ‘felt time’. Consciously creating an environment where you are prepared to listen and think deeply increases trust.


LIFE HACK: Put yourself in ‘felt time’ right now; breathe low in your body, raise your awareness, think about a friend and what they may be going through right now. Phone them, and see how the conversation feels.

As you work to build trust across a team or with an individual at work or home, consider the following behaviours that build trust:



For more information about how Physical Intelligence can help you, your team or your organization, visit us at www.companiesinmotion.com or order our book, on sale now.


About Companies in Motion

There are over 80 easy to use techniques and tips to build our Physical Intelligence. You can read about all of them in our new book, Physical Intelligence: Harness Your Body’s Untapped Intelligence to Achieve More, Stress Less and Live More Happily available from Simon and Schuster. (Order here.) (Multiple translations will be available later in 2019.)


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