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Building trust through dialogue

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Published: December 13, 2023
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Scott Rose is general manager of Impact UK

The trust landscape

Trust has always been a key ingredient to business success, but in a global landscape of increasing volatility, tension, and challenge, it is more important now than ever before.

The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer global report showed us that distrust is widespread and that this is manifesting itself in worrying polarisation, with increasing numbers of people around the world perceiving entrenched and insurmountable divisions in their societies. With trust in government and media at an all-time low, the report also indicates that business is now the only trusted institution, and that people expect business leaders to take the lead on our biggest issues, such as the climate crisis, technological change, and social inequality.

A leader’s ability to navigate their organisation through these challenges – before they can even think about impacting positively upon them – requires a solid culture of trust. Indeed, our recent research shows that the number one driver of people engagement and retention is trust. It comes in above salary, culture, workplace environment, and career prospects – and that’s regardless of age, gender, or global region.

Building trust through dialogue

Trust is generated in a number of different ways. However, a well-understood approach is that trust is built upon a foundation of quality dialogue. Many of us spend our time stuck in patterns of polite discussion or debate, in which opinions are rarely shifted, no one is properly listened to, and the really important, really difficult things are left unsaid.

Dialogue is not about advancing opinions or reaching conclusions. As Otto Scharmer describes in his work on the Four Fields of Conversation, dialogue is a process of discovery about emerging futures, in which we seek new understandings, respectfully explore others’ perspectives, and engage in deep reflection, whilst gaining awareness of our own biases.

Skilled dialogue is about engaging with other worldviews and the experiences that have informed them, enabling broader understanding and new lenses. Dialogue shifts the dial; it builds relationships and catalyses performance.

How to build your dialogue skills

Here are four key ways to develop your ability to engage in quality dialogue:

1. Establish a human-centred culture. Human-centred leadership functions on three intersecting qualities: empathy, support, and challenge. Together, they provide a useful framework for thinking about dialogue. 

  • Empathy, or seeking to understand others from their own point of view, is vital to authentic dialogue. What is important to them? What experiences, values, and beliefs inform their perspective? Get curious and you’ll create the conditions others need to speak openly, as well as deepening your understanding of what they say.
  • Support is important because, whereas debate can be defensive, dialogue only takes place in a supportive atmosphere. Commit to listening more than you speak, seeking out different points of view, and balancing enquiry with advocacy.
  • Challenge is part of quality dialogue because the key is to provoke reflection and new thinking, stimulating curiosity rather than inflaming tensions. It’s about asking questions that will empower people to consider different angles, evaluate their own beliefs, and spark new insights. It also means challenging yourself to do the same.

2. Be intentional. Dialogue requires discipline. It doesn’t happen unless we make it happen, so preparation is vital. Ask yourself: What exactly are you curious about? How will you create psychological safety for the other person so that they can speak openly? How can you minimise distractions? (This is particularly pertinent for remote working.) Further, sometimes dialogue is spontaneous, but it still requires intentional self-awareness. Pay attention to your biases, judgments, and assumptions. Notice your thought processes and patterns. How are they interfering and how should you manage them? Are there any topics you are avoiding? Are you being your most authentic self or are you withholding?

3. Work on your listening skills. What makes dialogue unique is that the most important part of it isn’t speaking – it’s listening. Many people assume listening to be an innate human ability, but it’s actually a skill that must be cultivated. At Impact, our listening model outlines different modes that sit on a sliding scale from self-absorbed, inattentive listening, through to deep, non-judgmental listening. The key differentiator is whether you focus on yourself or the other person. Deep, active listening means being completely engaged in what the other person is saying, putting yourself in their shoes, and suspending your own agenda.

4. Make yourself vulnerable. True dialogue can only occur between authentic, genuine selves – people who can share their feelings, uncertainties, and honest thoughts. But outdated workplace cultures of professionalism, rigidity and hierarchy have left many of us fearful of vulnerability. Exposing our authentic selves – warts and all – can be intensely uncomfortable, but this is where the true human magic happens. Because the strongest relationships and most productive dialogues are built on foundations of mutual vulnerability. And sometimes, the most powerful catalyst of discovery and trust is admitting that you don’t have the answer.

Looking ahead

Dialogue may well be the first step towards reversing the attrition of trust in society
and tackling the spread of polarisation. We believe it’s also the first step towards making our organisations future-fit.

Organisations with dialogue skills are best equipped to navigate the volatility of our global business landscape. They can collaborate and innovate across boundaries because they are practised in the human arts of support, empathy, and challenge. They can solve problems because they can listen to each other. And they can be agile because they already understand what their team-mates need to be at their best.

In these challenging times, people have higher expectations of business leaders than ever before. A leader’s ability to navigate and engage with society’s biggest issues demands trust, and it pivots on the quality of the dialogue that builds that trust. Whatever your purpose, it’s time to put human-to-human dialogue at the forefront of your business strategy.


This article is taken from our Global Leadership Insights eBook.

Read more about how to get your organisation future-fit through a human-centred approach