…about how story-telling can generate trust.

When someone tells you about something that happened to them, do you get that feeling that you want to tell them about something similar that happened to you? Whilst waiting for a bus recently, I struck up a conversation with a gentleman waiting at the same stop. We started in that very British way talking about the weather, but by the time my bus arrived we had exchanged tales of our recent holidays. I had learned about the reliability and good-value of the buses in Spain, his favourite town, restaurant, and Spanish food. He had heard about my family connection to Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands and my recent sailing trip to Lanzarote with my sons. We parted with a warm feeling, as if we were good friends.

Storytelling generates trust

Paul Zak has demonstrated that watching a film that generated an emotional and empathic response in the viewers, triggered the release of the hormone oxytocin which is responsible for creating that feeling of trust. Zak also found that the benefits of this trust response extended beyond the target of the empathy, to create greater prosocial behaviour to others. Given that Martin Seligman, the godfather of Positive Psychology, nominates trust is a major predictor of wellbeing, and that the Edelman Trust barometer, which measures trust at national, societal, and organisational levels has reported a global phenomenon which presents a catastrophic decline trust over recent years, capitalising on the value of building trust through stories could be highly beneficial to the wellbeing of global communities.

Stories shape who we are

Storytelling is a natural human behaviour that enables families, groups, communities, and organisations to build connections, based on trust. Dan McAdams proposes that the stories we tell become enshrined into our life story which grows and evolves throughout our lifespan, so that they form a core part of our sense of identity. We derive meaning in our lives from the stories we tell and by sharing these stories with others, we form connections based on trust.

Cultivating trust

Trust is associated with the oxytocin-based attachment mechanism that drives infants and parents to bond, families to stay together and communities to flourish. It makes us feel safe and secure from threat and anxiety. Trust is precious and can easily be broken though, so we must be honest and authentic with our stories. Trust requires maintenance effort too, so we need to keep telling our stories over and over to maintain our connections. I walked past a lady I recognised last week and we both stopped, but neither could immediately recall how we had met before. After a few tentative words we remembered that we attended a community mindfulness course together and a couple of sentences recalling the joy and benefit of our shared experience was enough to reaffirm our trust in each other and put a smile on our faces.

Building communities and businesses with trust

Businesses that have employees who trust them and that their customers trust, are more likely to be successful and organisational stories based on transcendent purpose are more motivating than those based on transactional purpose. Zak identifies a business case for building organisational culture based on high levels of interpersonal trust and suggests that employees who work in high-trust organisations are more motivated; productive; energized; innovative, collaborative; healthier, happier, and less stressed or likely to leave. More convincingly high-trust organisations pay employees more, which is only feasible if such organisations are more profitable than their lower trust competitors. However, building trust at a communal level can be hard work as trusting connections are built on a one-to-one basis, one conversation at a time.

Of course, we can also be betrayed through this mechanism too, so con-artists are skilled in manipulating people to place trust in them, advertisers use emotion-laden stories to sell us products and the stories we hear in the political arena are often skilfully crafted to elicit our trust. Businesses that present narratives that are not true or credible may find they backfire and undermine the relationships with employees and customers.
Using the allegorical story of the Velveteen Rabbit, Simms recognises that if individuals can see their own story intertwined with that of an organisation, then they feel passion and love for the organisation. We have a choice then, to leave our stories untold and surrender to fear and distrust or to take a risk and reach out with our own stories, to build trust, connection by connection, to intertwine our stories, and to change our world.

Edelman (2017). 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer – Global Results. Retrieved 8th November 2017 from https://www.edelman.com/global-results/
McAdams, D. P., & McLean, K. C. (2013). Narrative Identity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(3), 233–238.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A New a Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing – and How to Achieve Them. London: Nicholas Brearley.
Sims, D. (2004). The Velveteen Rabbit and passionate feelings for organizations. In Y. Gabriel (Ed.). Myths, stories and organizations: pre-modern narratives for our times (pp. 209–222). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Zak, P. J. (2014). Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling. Harvard Business Review, (October), 2014.
Zak, P. J. (2015). Why Inspiring Stories Make Us React : The Neuroscience of Narrative. Cerebrum, (February), 1–13.
Zak, P. J. (2017). Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High Performance Companies. New York: AMACOM.

About the author: Ali Birch is a Positive Psychology Practitioner working as an associate and through her own business Flourishing Foundations which offers Coaching, Training and Consultancy to Individuals and Businesses. Ali has a 30+ year career history in technology and business change, IAPD certificate in coaching, an MBA and is currently finalising her MAPP.


The Positive Psychology People is co-founded and sponsored
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