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How to build deep trust in tough conversations

When we reframe what people are saying, we can build deep trust, especially in challenging conversations.

Why it matters: Relationships are broken at work and home because we don’t build deep trust when we hold different worldviews. 

The big picture: Trust has many components, and to name a few:

  • Credibility - Knowing what I’m doing

  • Reliability -  Following through my commitments

  • Integrity – Walking my talk in alignment with my values

  • Believability – Telling the truth

  • Accountability – Owning my mistakes

  • Confidentiality – Holding in confidence confidential issues I was trusted

These components of trust are the foundation. You won’t keep your job or relationships for long if you don't have them.

We build deep trust on top of this solid foundation.

Deep trust is the capacity to connect intimately with other people so that they want to develop relationships, do business, and collaborate with us.

Listening Spectrum

“It’s not what you hear by listening that’s important; it’s what you say by listening that’s important.”  Thomas Friedman

There are three levels of listening - promotinginquiring, and reframing. We need all of them in a conversation. However, reframing is the building block of deep trust. 

People know we hear them when we promote and inquire. They feel heard when we reframe


We forget to listen to others when we rush to get buy-in, solve problems, and provide solutions. 

We hear what people say through the lens of what we want them to do or be.

Promoting diminishes trust because it’s self-serving us even when we believe it’s for the common good. 

We build deep trust when we defer our agenda and give space to reframing. 


We all learned that asking questions is more effective than making statements. We also know that, in most cases, we can convert statements into questions.

Inquiring enables us to get more information.  If we neutrally ask questions without exposing our point of view, we at least don’t diminish trust.


Reframing is the secret sauce of building deep trust. 

It’s a reflective inquiry in which we hypothesize about three aspects of what our conversation partner is saying:

1. Emotion

The first aspect of reframing is to guess what the person feels and share it with them.

We use our senses and intuition to make our best bet.

It might be subtle, but emotions are always there.

If you struggle to identify emotions in others, you may struggle to identify emotions within yourself.

To expand your emotional capacity and vocabulary, Google the “feeling wheel” and select three emotions in each of the seven emotional domains.

When we share with people how we experience their emotions, it helps them regulate themselves. 

2. Importance 

The second aspect of reframing is to identify (guess) why what the other person said was important to them.

What’s at stake for them?

Why is it important to them?

What they may lose: outcomes, trust, integrity, reliability, credibility, goals, etc.

3. Meaning


The third aspect of reframing is how you make sense of what they say.

What’s going on?

How are they making sense of what’s happening?

What are they telling themselves?

What are they experiencing?

You step into their shoes to understand their world.

Put it all together

You have only a few seconds to make a hypothesis that ties together the emotionimportance, and meaning and then pack it as a reflective inquiry

Reframing is reflective inquiry because it's a statement that ends with a question mark: “Did I get it right?” 

Here is an example:

VP Sales:

“This is unacceptable. Marketing must be held accountable for this product launch disaster. We in sales already had a list of customers ready to upgrade to the more expensive version, but we had nothing to show them. Zero new promotional materials, not even online.”


“You are very angry at the VP of marketing. You needed to be fully coordinated with marketing about the product launch. It seems that you didn’t follow up with them but still hold them solely accountable. Did I get it right?”


The CEO identified the underlying emotions of the VP of Sales - anger, what was important for them - coordination, and how they made sense - blame. They packed it together as an inquiry.

Active listening vs. deep listening

Active listening is a communication skill to engage in a conversation. This skill involves:

  • Paraphrasing: Restating the message in your own words to confirm your understanding

  • Summarizing: Emphasizing key points, themes, feelings, and takeaways

  • Repeating: Demonstrating that you are attuned to what you're hearing

  • Asking questions: Deepening your understanding

  • Responding: Replying to what's being said 

Active listening doesn’t build deep trust because it is analytical rather than empathic listening.

Analytical listening analyzes people's strategic and technical challenges, seeks alignments or misalignments, and raises questions that deepen understanding of the ‘rational’ data. 

Empathic listening builds trust, develops intimacy, and shifts the focus from ‘me' to ‘them.’ The big question for the empathic ear is, “What’s it like to be you?”

If we focus only on what’s happening, we neither listen deeply nor empathically. 

When we focus on the question, “What’s it like to be you?”:

  • We are connecting very deeply with the person

  • We are helping the person clarify their own experience

  • We are entering their world

Deep listening is a combination of analytical and empathic listening as reflective feedback. 

For example:

  • So, does it feel unsafe to take that initiative?

  • Is it almost like you’re in a box?

  • Is it that it feels too risky to….?

  • But it’s kind of unsettling when people aren’t depending on you.

  • Does it feel like you lose control of what happens next when you push the ’Send' button? 

We don’t ask, ‘What do you think is going on?’

Instead, we make a reframing statement and ask, ‘Are you seeing it that way?’

We try to validate our hypothesis.

We don’t tell the person what’s going on. We don’t really know. We offer a possibility of what’s going on. They can accept, reject, or build on it.

We make a humble guess about the person's feelings, needs, and experience in the form of:

  • Are you (feeling)...?

  • Is it about…?

  • Is it that…?

  • Are you thinking…?

  • Are you worried that…?

  • Is it almost like…? 

Don’t say, “I understand”

"I understand" is an unproven generalization. It demonstrates your misunderstanding and may irritate your partner ("Really? How could you possibly understand?"). Show, don’t tell.

Don’t say “Yes, but…”

A "Yes, but” does not reflect any effort to experience the other person's world. "But" negates everything that preceded it.

Earn the Right to Be Right 

But what about my point of view?

You defer it. 

You haven’t earned the right to share it until you receive a big YES to your reflective inquiry: “Did I get it right?”

Multiple reframings rounds

How many reframing rounds should we have until we bring our point of view?

As many as needed! 

Every round deepens trust and widens openness to your ideas. Patience is key.

Empathic statements

Don't confuse questions with empathy. An expression of empathy is a statement that demonstrates that you have heard and understood what another person is experiencing.

Reframing vs. agreeing

Validating other people's perspectives and feelings doesn’t mean we agree with them. We are just trying to understand how things make sense from their perspective. 

Some people are afraid to reframe because they don’t want to acknowledge what they disagree with. 

Reframing is an acknowledgment but not an agreement. 

We shouldn’t say, “It makes sense” or “You’re right.” We reflect back on how we think they make sense of things. 

Deep listening and leadership potential

Deep listening is more accessible at a later potential, but practicing it repeatedly helps make the giant leap into that potential. 

Learn more about leadership potential in previous newsletter articles.

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