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.

Don’t get paranoid, get intentional in conversations

Don’t get paranoid about how you’re showing up in conversations. You’re probably getting many of the basics right and you can build on that by getting more intentional and practicing these 4 conversation skills and habits

#1 — Get clear about what you want to say, share or explore

The best negotiators prepare for every stage of the deal. You should prepare for every conversation, even if it’s just 2 minutes beforehand to get in the zone and even if you don’t know what exactly is going to be discussed.

You can prepare by reminding yourself of the last conversation, any useful plans, names or interests the other person has. This gives a place to reconnect and quickly establish a foothold of trust — who doesn’t love it when other people remember something important to us.

If you do know what the conversation is going to be about take more time to prepare — you might need 10 minutes or more. Get clear about what you know, the gaps in your knowledge or understanding (what you don’t know), the key points of your position, the logic of your position, and what may be of interest/concern from their perspective.

#2 — Learn to be present and listen deeply

Distractions, people passing by and waving or ducking their head in to say hello, apps pinging, phones buzzing, and eating during a conversation all nip at your ability to be present. Even if you reckon you’re still listening, you’ve missed a lot and your conversation partner will feel it instantly (that vagus nerve never goes to sleep) and start shutting down on sharing the really important things.

Start by turning off things that will ping, close doors, talk somewhere quiet and try to have both of you sitting without the rest of the office in your view, or better still with your back to anyone who may pass by and think you’re accessible. It goes without saying that for sensitive conversations, you need a private space (room with door closed) and privacy screens or blinds.

And like meditating, if your mind starts to wander to other thoughts, judgements, meetings or people, keep bringing it back to the person in front of you. Learn to notice when you have stopped listening to the person in front of you and when you’ve started your own internal monologue.

It takes practice to build up listening stamina but your conversation partner will notice and appreciate your investment.

#3 — Ask good questions

Alongside deep or active listening, asking good questions is a top skill of leaders who coach. Asking good questions is not about asking a smart question or catching someone out on something they haven’t considered.

Asking good questions is about helping your people grow and about helping people think more deeply about their situation and questions can take many forms. Here are 4 to try out:

You can ask a really simple yet powerful question like “Why is that important?”

You can ask a question about something they have repeated but not dared dive into, “You’ve mentioned X a few times. What’s significant about that?”

You can ask a question that challenges them, “How true is that?”

Or you can ask a question that get them to consider an alternative, “What could option C look like?”

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#4 — Ask permission to share your thoughts and perspectives

So you’ve prepared for the conversation, you’ve been present and listened deeply, and you’ve been asking good questions that have taken your conversation partner to places that couldn’t go on their own. Their vagus nerve is calm and they feel a strong emotional connection with you, they trust you in this conversation.

Now is the optimal time to share your side of the story, your perspective. And you do it with a fuller understanding of the other person and how they arrived at the position they find themselves in. So you can adjust your approach if you need to.

You can then ask, “Would you like to hear my position/thoughts on this?”

You’ve improved the odds of them granting you a “Yes” and being fully engaged and receptive to what you say because there’s trust. You’ve validated them by listening to them and by helping them think to deeper levels that have opened them up to new possibilities.

We’ve not assumed to know their position. We’ve not assumed that our relationship grants us the right to speak into this conversation. We’ve not assumed that they would be interested in our point of view.

We’ve not talked at them. We’ve been in conversation with them.

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