Having a history together or being in a meeting does not guarantee sufficient levels of trust for the current conversation. Our conversation partner can still be resistant to our point of view or choose to not share important information with us. So how can we earn permission to speak?
Now, it might sound a little strange to talk about ‘earning permission to speak’ in conversations.
If we think about trust as an important currency in our relationships, then the existence of trust between us will mean we can have a good conversation. However, just because we’ve known each other a long time does not mean there are always sufficient levels of trust for the conversation we are currently in.
And just because we are having a conversation does not mean I am open to listening to you. I may be present in front of you but emotionally and rationally/irrationally I have not granted you permission to speak or share your perspective or opinion.
Also, when we think of trust or breaking trust, we tend to think of the big and obvious ways it happens like lying, leaking confidential information, being unfair, or bullying. But trust can be broken during a conversation too — by not listening, being distracted, making assumptions before our conversation partner has spoken, discounting what they say or simply not being interested in their point of view. These make already difficult conversations even harder.
And so as your conversation partner experiencing this breaking down in trust, I can hear you but I am withholding my cooperation or full engagement or receptiveness to what you are saying. I do this because in this conversation — at this point in time — there is an insufficient level of trust from me towards you. And that’s because you haven’t made me feel good or validated me or what you saying is unclear, and I have not felt that you have listened to me. Maybe I even feel disrespected.
So instead, I feel you are talking at me instead of being in conversation with me.
When we talk at people, we touch a nerve
The vagus nerve to be exact, which is possibly the most important nerve in our body. It’s a long meandering bundle of motor and sensory fibres that links the brain stem to the heart, lungs, and gut. It’s responsible for the healthy functioning of almost every organ in our body including sex, breathing and heart rate.
When we’re stressed, feel tired or anxious, or even hold a bad posture, our vagus nerve becomes inflamed. When we manage and process our emotions, there’s an exchange of data between our vagus nerve and our heart, brain and gut, which is why we have a strong gut reaction to intense mental and emotional states.
It’s the vagus nerve that is responsible for regulating our fight-or-flight stress responses as well as our “rest-and-digest” or “tend-and-befriend” responses. What’s wonderful about the vagus nerve is that it’s like a full body antenna reading when situations are safe and when situations pose a threat to us, or situations that irritate us. Like being talked at.
When you talk at me and I don’t like what you are saying or I disagree or I don’t care and don’t want to listen, my vagus nerve is becoming inflamed. And my body becomes flooded with cortisol (the stress hormone), I tense up and I become less generous towards you. I become more judgemental towards you and trust you less. I start to shut down and become resistant to your ideas and definitely unwilling to share my most important thoughts, ideas and worries with you.
When you’re really in conversation with me, I get good readings from my vagus nerve. My system becomes flush with oxytocin (the connection hormone), I relax and even feel in sync with you. I might even let the conversation over-run. Emotional connection and creative thinking is easy because the trust I feel towards you is strong. It feels like we’re in sync, we’re generating energy. Exchanging ideas and building on them is invigorating. Now I think I can even trust you with my most important thought.
So, if we’re trying to influence someone or want them to take on board our counsel or advice, talking at someone is definitely not the way to go.
To influence or gain permission to speak, we need to first make the other person feel heard and understood to build up trust levels in the current conversation and earn their permission to speak or share our perspective or opinion.
After some grounding and emotional connection work, this feels like the most natural thing to do for leaders who coach. Here are some things you can do to be in conversation with someone and gain their permission to speak.