This article was first published in the April 2018 International edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

When we meet someone for the first time, the first question we consciously or subconsciously ask ourselves is, can I trust them? John Bargh, an expert on the unconscious mind, writes in his book Before You Know It: The unconscious reasons we do what we do: ‘Trust is the basis of all our close relationships in life, and when you come right down to it, our close relationships are the most important things in each of our lives.’ 

He points out that evolution has given our stone-age brain cues about who to trust and cooperate with. These cues are about whether people are similar to us. According to Bargh, in our tribal hunter-gatherer days, we rarely met strangers, and when we did, more often than not they came as foes rather than friends. ‘As a result, we cannot help but divide our social world into US and THEM, no matter that the dividing factors are things we have no control over, like our skin colour or place of origin.’

So given our propensity to unconsciously divide relationships into ‘us and them’, how do we avoid ‘us and them’ standoffs occurring in the first place? And how can we turn an ‘us and them’ standoff into a friction-free ‘we’ relationship built on trust?

To begin with, we need to practise getting things into perspective – developing the ability to see the world through the eyes of another person. This perspective allows us to consider the needs of others, fosters cooperation, increases information-sharing and makes us more productive at problem-solving. We become more effective at doing this when we shift our focus from our own selfish goals to those we share with the other party. When we stop looking at others as ‘them’ and instead picture them as individuals, opportunities to productively collaborate multiply.

In the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War, the Confederate general Lewis Armistead was badly wounded while leading a charge. As he lay on the battlefield, he gave a secret Masonic sign in the hope it would be recognised by a fellow Mason. It was: a Union officer got him to a Union field hospital. In an instant, the ‘us and them’ of the Union and the Confederate sides were transformed into a Masonic ‘we’ that bonded two people.

The empathy bridge

For the last seven years my firm has been refining a tool called the empathy bridge, which shows influencers how to transform ‘us and them’ into ‘we’. It is modelled on how Nelson Mandela perfected a way to win over his most implacable opponents during his 18 years’ imprisonment on Robben Island. Within minutes of meeting an adversary, Mandela could build trust, disarm and ultimately convince them to voluntarily surrender their power.

An empathy bridge consists of six types of behaviour, forming the acronym ‘Soften’:

  • Smile. Greet people with a warm, smile. A genuine one, where the mouth tips upwards and the eyes wrinkle, conveys warmth and your intention to engage.
  • Open posture. Concentrate on an open posture (body facing towards the ‘adversary’, arms uncrossed, etc), as this communicates positivity and receptivity. A closed posture signals rejection.
  • Fused identity commonalities. Finding shared goals, interests and experiences reduces and eliminates mistrust and friction.
  • Touch. Be the first to hold out your hand in friendship. The humble handshake when delivered firmly and vigorously really helps a favourable first impression.
  • Eye contact. Look your ‘adversary’ in the eye. This creates a brain-to-brain link that pulls people together.
  • Nod. To prove you are paying attention, nod and subtly mimic the mannerisms of the person you are influencing.

To build close relationships, we all need to follow Mandela’s lead. 

Harry Mills is the author of Secret Sauce: How to Pack Your Messages with Persuasive Punch and the expert on persuasion for the Harvard ManageMentor programme