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How To Harness The Brain Chemical That Makes You Trust Someone

Brain scientists still don't understand why these simple behaviors release trust-inspiring oxytocin. But they know how.

[Source photo: Flickr user Daniel Pham; App Photo: "Creazione di Adamo" by Michelangelo]

Next time you’re having a fight with your partner try this: Reach out and touch them. Place your hand gently on their knee or their hand. Now, if the fight has escalated to shouting angrily or hurling objects, don't try this—otherwise, give it a go. You may find that you’ll both come down from your rising anger.

The reason is because touch releases the neuropeptide oxytocin, and oxytocin increases our ability to trust.

What We Know (And Don't) About The Chemistry Of Trust

Of course, there's a flip side. If your partner sees you touching someone else, oxytocin will be the bringer of jealousy. In this way, oxytocin acts as the neuro-mechanism for clubs and tribes. It bonds us together and, at the same time, creates boundaries between those we’re bonded to and those we're set against.

We know how it works. Your brain has receptors shaped like locks that can be opened by oxytocin "keys." When you touch your partner’s hand, it sends oxytocin racing through both your brains, unlocking receptors—hundreds of thousands of locks springing open in milliseconds. Now imagine a giant door swinging open. What’s behind that door is your ability to trust another person—or feel intense jealousy toward them, depending on the context.

What we don’t know is why touch releases oxytocin; we only know that it does.

Of course, in the workplace, touching your coworkers when they’re angry or resentful isn't exactly great advice. In our experience, when Judah would explain the neurochemistry of trust to a roomful of Army generals, he'd make this point about its practical limitations by opening his arms wide and saying, "Lieutenant General McMaster, come here!"

Creating Affiliation

Fortunately, there's another way to tap into the way our brains decide whom and how to trust others in order to resolve conflicts. Enter Daniel Shapiro, author of the new book Negotiating the Nonnegotiable.

Shapiro has worked around the world with people entrenched in deep conflict, from Israelis and Palestinians to Serbs and Bosnians. In his book, he discusses the power of what psychologists call "affiliation," which refers to the emotional connection an individual feels with another person. "Stable, constructive connections," Shapiro writes, "tend to produce positive emotions and a desire to cooperate."

Sounds intuitive enough, right? Again, we don’t know why, but feeling affiliation with someone releases oxytocin, much the same way that touch does. Likewise, creating affiliation unlocks your ability to trust.

Have you ever stayed late at work to finish a project and in the process gotten to know your coworker better? At the end of it, you don't just feel accomplished for pulling off that project—you feel a sense of affiliation with them; you trust them more. Sometimes just surviving the ordeal together creates this type of bond. (That's why university hazing, however reprehensible, actually works on a psychological level.)

When Shapiro is working with deeply divided groups, he knows that if he can create a sense of affiliation between them, oxytocin keys will be released in their brains and unlock each individual’s ability to start to trust one another.

The Brain-Based Way To Build Trust

As a leader dealing with conflict, you don’t have to touch and hug everyone (and probably shouldn't), but you do have to create a sense of affiliation. Here’s how.

1. Appreciate their value. Let someone know that you see what they bring to the team, the project, the office. It's important to note you can't make this up. You have to know that they make people laugh or drive projects toward deadlines on time or discover novel ways around obstacles. You can't just praise them for those things for the sake of offering a compliment—your disingenuousness will be self-evident if you do. When you appreciate the value someone genuinely brings to your team, they feel seen. And when they feel seen, they feel connected to you.

2. Share a story. Share something about yourself that does not have to do with the conflict at hand—maybe an anecdote from your childhood, your wedding, or something that happened with your kids or your parents. You don't have to be deeply vulnerable or divulge something embarrassingly intimate. Simply sharing something very human creates a sense of our common humanity and increases a sense of affiliation. The emotional tone of the conversation will shift.

3. Get into their narrative . . . Set aside how you feel and the points you want to make. Set aside what you believe is right and wrong. Only try and understand the other person’s point of view: Where are they coming from? What are the stories they remember that might inform their point of view? It starts with empathy, but it doesn't end there: This is almost impossible to do by yourself. You have to engage the other person.

Ask them questions: What happened? What did you see? What did you hear? What do you know to be true? You do not argue. You do not interrupt. You just listen. In listening, you'll come to understand where the other person's beliefs, expectations, and frustrations arise from. The oxytocin keys in your brain will release. In being listened to, the other person's oxytocin keys will release. In the end, you'll both be more open to trusting each other than you were initially.

4. . . . But be careful. Remember, oxytocin can create trust but also envy. Don't create affiliation by creating an outside other. By demonizing another department or another leader or even another company, you'll succeed in building affiliation with your coworkers but will set yourself up for greater problems down the road. Trust can be a tricky thing to manage—it should never be purchased at another's expense.

Judah Pollack is the co-author of The Chaos Imperative, and Olivia Fox Cabane is the author of The Charisma Myth.

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