Trust is actually built through conflict — as long as you know how to do it right. Here are the skills you need for creating an emotionally safe workplace.

Trust. Everyone will tell you how important it is to any relationship, but what is it exactly?

In short, you can always tell if you have trust in any relationship by asking the following question:

Is it safe?

That is it, simple. And trust is the most critical aspect of being a leader. Without trust, it is not safe to speak up, so employees will let Boeing 737 Max airliners crash and NASA will let space shuttles blow up.

We have all seen the lack of trust in action. Picture yourself sitting at your desk and your boss, Mr. Dithers, calls out to you, “Ah…Scott. Will you please come in here? We need to talk about some things.”

Automatically, we get a cold chill running down our spine. We instantly imagine all the worst kinds of reasons why our boss wants to see us. “What did I do? Am I in trouble? Am I getting fired?” Our minds race through the worst possibilities.

Of course, it does not occur to us that maybe, just maybe, we are getting a raise or maybe we were just named “Employee of the Year.” (Yeah, right.)

So, why do we humans go right to the most negative scenarios in such situations? Because 5,000 years ago, if Fred Flintstone, a human, saw a new animal he did not recognize, it was not a good idea to just run up and start petting it. That was a good way to get eaten. Instead, it was much safer for Fred to stay away from the animal until he knew it was “safe” to go near it.

That is why we are we instantly afraid to go into Mr. Dithers’ office. There is no trust in the relationship. It is not safe.

So, how do you build trust? Although it sounds contradictory, trust is actually built through conflict — when we use our “EPR” skills, which stands for Empathic listening, Parroting, and Rewards.

Using your EPR skills means you start your conflict with empathic listening. In order to build trust with us, let’s say Mr. Dithers spent time discussing various topics with you. He would start by using his empathic listening skills and saying something like, “You know, HR wants to adopt this new policy. But I don’t know about this. What do you think?”

That is when you would get nervous. Is it safe to give him your opinion? So, you sheepishly offer him your thoughts.

When you are done explaining, Mr. Dithers would then parrot everything back to you to not only show that he understood what you said to him, but also to prove to me that he really was listening and focusing on what you were saying. That ensures a common understanding between you.

If you disagree with what he parroted back to you, he needs to try again. You do not move on until you agree that he’s got it.

But let’s say he repeats everything back to you to your satisfaction, but he disagrees with you. It is then time to give you a “reward.”

Giving someone a reward does not mean that you agree with that person’s opinion — quite to the contrary. When we agree with each other, everything is great.

However, when we disagree with another human, that is when conflict becomes dangerous. Telling another human that you disagree with them is the same thing as telling them they are stupid. We humans do not like that at all, so we believe it is then not safe to speak up and voice our opinions. That kills the trust in the relationship.

But when you give someone a reward, that means you are validating that person’s point of view. You are telling them they have a right to disagree with you, which builds trust.

Mr. Dithers would then say something like, “I see where you are coming from” or “Yes, I have heard that before, but what about this …”  Mr. Dithers would then go on to brainstorm and problem-solve with you.

The vital lesson here is that Mr. Dithers has proven to me that it is safe to speak up — that is trust, and we only build trust when there is a conflict.

Then suppose that after five or six months of having these types of conversations, Mr. Dithers calls me on the phone and tells me, “Scott, I need you to come in here. I found some papers and we need to talk about a few things.”

Am I as nervous now? No, I’m not. Why?

Because Mr. Dithers has proven to me that it is safe to speak up and discuss things with him.

Scott Warrick

Author and speaker Scott Warrick has been an employment and labor attorney and HR professional for almost four decades. His clients range from small and large organizations to governmental institutions. He travels the country presenting seminars on such topics as Employment Law, Resolving Conflict, Diversity, and Leadership. You can learn more about his new book, “Solve Employee Problems Before They Start: Resolving Conflict in the Real World” by visiting www.scottwarrick.com.

Warrick uses his unique background of law and human resources to train managers and employees on-site in over 50 different training programs. Warrick graduated from the Capital University College of Law (Class Valedictorian, first out of 233). He also holds his Master of Labor & Human Resources and B.A. in Organizational Communication from The Ohio State University.

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