Some of the Applied Influence Group team recently spent a morning with Dr Claire El Mouden from the University of Oxford. Claire is an evolutionary biologist by background who now takes an inter-disciplinary approach to look at how risky decisions are made.
One of the key insights I took from the day is that trust isn't a uniquely human attribute. Many animals work together to successfully achieve their aims, whether it's meerkats standing sentry while the others hunt or cleaner shrimp trusting that the moray eel won't eat them while they remove parasites from inside their mouths.
I've also recently finished reading Getting To Yes, a classic in the field of negotiation which talks extensively about focusing on what interests the different parties to a situation have. Focusing on interests rather than positions can allow for innovative solutions to different problems.
In new situations we often want to build trust quickly and one of the best ways to do this is to understand the key interests of the other person. This isn't just restricted to negotiation but to any situation where we want to influence.
The dominant female meerkat will know intuitively that when some of the younger male meerkats are scanning the horizon they are really looking for a potential mate from another group rather than standing sentry. As long as the interests coincide and the male meerkat isn't solely focused on this, she won't mind too much.
Intuitively we will also sometimes understand other people's interests but often, particularly in complex situations, we will get it wrong. We may assume other people's interests and act according to that, breaking trust as the other person assumes we are acting in our own interests.
Asking the other person what their interests are in a particular situation can help bridge this gap regardless of whether the interests align. "Tell me what you want to get out of this situation?" followed by "Why?" can create the conditions for building a solid platform for discussion. At the same time, if the situation is appropriate, we should be sharing our own interests in the situation. Honesty is one of the key constitutents of trust and opening up this conversation at the outset of an influence situation can be the best way of building that trust rapidly.
This approach may not suit all situations and we may have interests that need to stay hidden. The cleaner fish isn't just interested in eating parasites from the mouths of other fish, at times it also wants to nip the other fish to get a more nutritious meal.
Working out how best to share interests without compromising agendas can help build trust quickly.