How can you let people know that they can trust you to be on their side—that you want nothing but the best for them? Well, I suppose you could just come right out and say it. “My name is Heidi, and I mean you no harm.” But there are very few circumstances in which that would not be profoundly weird. And weirdness isn’t a great facilitator of trust.
Instead, you need to signal your warmth more indirectly. When people try to appear warm, they often do things like give compliments, perform favors, and show interest in the perceiver’s thoughts and feelings. They try to display qualities like kindness, sincerity, empathy, and friendliness, each of which captures some aspect of valuing others at least as much as, if not more than, you value yourself.
Let’s look at several strategies to improve your warmth quotient:
When you are with another person, make eye contact and hold it—both when you are speaking and when you are listening. Nod from time to time to show that you are understanding what’s being said to you. Smile, especially when the other person does. And above all else, really focus on what is being said to you—people need to feel that they have been heard, even when you can’t give them what they are asking for or can’t be of particular help.
Research shows that eye contact, nodding, and smiling are the three key physical indicators of warmth. Research also shows that people generally have no idea when they are not doing these things, so you might want to ask your friends and family if this is something you need to work on.
When a friend of mine began his new position as the head of an editorial team, he deliberately sought to convey to his new employees the sense that he valued everyone’s point of view. So at team meetings, he made sure to put on what he calls his “active listening face” while others were speaking. After a few weeks of meetings, one team member finally summoned up the courage to ask him the question that had been on everyone’s mind.
“Tim,” the employee asked, “are you angry with us right now?”
“No, no,” he replied. “This is my active listening face.”
“Oh. Well, just so you know, your active listening face looks really angry.”
Keep this cautionary tale in mind and get some feedback on what exactly you are doing with your own face when you are with other people. The answers may surprise you.
When you are getting to know someone, take the time to mentally put yourself in your perceiver’s shoes, to really try to grasp his or her perspective. The more deliberately and vividly you do this, the better. (Don’t worry—perspective-taking is a skill that gets easier and more automatic with practice.) Try to relate to the perceiver by finding commonalities—shared likes, dislikes, and past experiences. Use phrases like “I imagine you must have felt . . .” to convey that empathy directly.
One particularly effective, but often overlooked, method is what psychologists call the superfluous apology —saying “I’m sorry,” not as a way of accepting blame, but as a way of expressing regret over another person’s hardship. (In other words, apologizing for something you clearly didn’t cause.) Many people do this intuitively, saying things like “I’m sorry about the rain,” or “I’m sorry your plane was delayed,” when it’s obvious they are in no way responsible for either circumstance. Superfluous apologies are a simple and powerful way to express that you have taken that person’s perspective, understand his or her experience, and wish that things had turned out better. And it produces tangible increases in trust—so much, in fact, that people who receive superfluous apologies become much more willing to part with one of their most precious possessions: their cell phones.
Researchers at Harvard Business School and Wharton had a male undergraduate approach 65 strangers in a large train station on rainy days and ask to borrow their cell phone. Half the time, he included the superfluous apology “I’m so sorry about the rain!” before asking, “Can I borrow your cell phone?” A remarkable 47% of those who received the superfluous apology gave him the cell phone, compared with only 9% who did not.
“Hang on,” you say. “Isn’t apologizing a sign of weakness? And couldn’t a superfluous apology, under the wrong conditions, be confused with actually taking blame?” Well, even if it is, that’s okay. Recent research shows that people who are willing to take responsibility for their own failures and for the failures of the teams in which they work are perceived to have greater character, more personal integrity, and more positive intentions toward others—all powerful facilitators of trust. So go ahead and say you’re sorry. Good things are sure to come from it.
Human beings have a deeply rooted tendency toward reciprocity. We are naturally inclined to want to do favors, give gifts, and work to promote those who have done these things for us in the past. This is why sales pitches often involve throwing in something “free”—as in buy-one-get-one-free, or act-now-and-receive-a-free-bottle-opener-with-every-Snuggie. People unconsciously encode this free item as a gift that should be returned in kind, say, by buying the product they are trying to sell you.
The same principle of reciprocity holds when it comes to trust. We are more likely to feel we can trust someone who has trusted us first—someone who has been openly cooperative rather than competitive and put others’ interests above their own. Obviously this strategy is not without some risk, but again, the payoff is generally well worth the chance you are taking.
You can also try sharing personal (but appropriate!) stories of your past experiences. Allowing yourself to be a bit vulnerable is a great way to project warmth. Talk about your struggles and challenges. Let the perceiver know your fallible, human side. Far from seeing you negatively, the perceiver is likely to feel that this invitation to intimacy indicates that you are on the same team.
From No One Understands You and What to Do About It (Harvard Business Review Press, April 2015). Heidi Grant Halvorson is a social psychologist who researches, writes, and speaks about the science of motivation. She is the associate director of the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia Business School and senior consultant for the Neuroleadership Institute.