How to build trust in honest communications

woman and man sitting on brown wooden bench

Today, in Tech4Humans, we talked a lot about communication, conversations, honesty, and truth. I believe these are central topics that enable humans to collaborate with each other, thus giving clarity in the directions that technology enables us to accelerate towards.

Today I talk about the highlights of my reflections from this evening’s discussion.

Conversational implicature

When I was taking my master’s degree in computer science (2016), I needed to learn a little bit about linguistics and conversations. I needed to understand this because I was learning how to model meaning computationally. In technical terms, these were concepts like meaning and semantic parsing. This is where I encountered the interesting concept of conversational implicature. Let me share a story.

In Filipino, many well-meaning aunties and uncles or parents would ask a simple question: “Kumain ka na ba? (Have you eaten already?)”. Curiously, we Filipinos, (after lunch or dinner) will often respond with “Ah, busog pa ako (No, I’m quite full)”.

The question was not about whether or not they were full, but if they have already eaten. But because of certain rules that we follow about conversations that enables meaning to be communicated between parties, we are able to imply the meaning based on the context of what was said. We do this because it is an evolution of communication that enabled us to speak rapidly and effectively. As I was studying linguistics, I learned that there were some requirements to allow a person to imply something in a conversation.

Cooperative principle: “Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.” (Grice 1989: 26).

This concept is further made more precise by certain maxims (maxims of quantity, quality, relevance, relation, manner). You can read about conversational implicature if you wish. The reason why I bring this up is this:

Takeaway: The fundamental requirement of conversation is that there must be a commitment to cooperate, and there must also be trust that the other party is cooperating.

Today, we explored related topics during our LinkedIn Audio event: Tech 4 Humans. I summarize these into 4 points.

1. Disagreement spectrum/hues

In communication, people sometimes encounter the problem of not recognizing that they are actually in agreement. We sometimes think in black and white, failing to realize that life is more complex.

Adam Zerner from talks about this more specifically in his post in Consider your appetite for disagreements. In summary, he shared that in some post-game Poker analysis, he would sometimes notice that people were arguing about the same thing (e.g. that the right call was to raise) but that people argued incessantly about the little details and not recognizing that they are actually in agreement. The argument that neither was willing to concede was due to a level of precision: maybe a difference in intensity, amount, rate, or progress.

person in white sweater holding poker chips on a wooden table
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Takeaway: Learning to recognize when we are in agreement with another person, and which aspects of the arguments we are willing to concede and not enables us to move conversations forward and continue to build trust and respect for our co-communicators.

2. Nuance on inclusion in communication

In the practice of being honest and pursuing truth, we understand the importance of being precise with our communication. As we grow older, we realize the unnecessary harm that can be done by misunderstandings (receiving) and miscommunication (sending) and that we ought to all do our part in the practice of being honest and effective communicators.

UncleBimBim, Founder of TribeOfOnes, highlighted that, as educators or content creators, we encounter the challenge of contextualizing our message to a specific target audience but there are often times people who find that message to be offensive, imprecise, or not invalid in other contexts.

One might say: “but what you’re saying is unfair for X, or it’s exclusionary for Y! You are not creating an exclusionary space!”

As aspiring master communicators, we need to recognize that there is a difference between aggression or attack on ourselves becoming “exclusionary” and a call-for-help to ask that the message be contextualized for a different audience. Sometimes, these people asking to be included do not realize their automatic-responses that rapidly develop into aggression and conflict, that further pushes them away from inclusion.

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When you observe masterful orators and communicators, you’ll see them bring conversations out of “arguing in the general terminologies” and “arguing in behalf of other people who are not present” and bring it down to the reality of two individuals talking to each other. Two individuals attempting a reset, to go back to the fundamentals of conversation and cooperate to attain alignment and progress. The masters turn the general into specific, and they make the abstract ideas into concrete things.

Takeaway: Let us be quick to recognize that not all audience redirections are an an attack on ourselves or an an attack highlighting our failure or inability to communicate well. In varying levels of expertise and skill, we craft a message that is meant to be interpreted in a specific context for a specific audience. When you or someone else changes one part of that equation, the rest is affected.

Prompt: How might we be gentle to those who ask to be included? How can we practice being private in our correction and rebuking of a person desiring to be understood?

I want to make sure that the message is understood carefully. I see you want to talk about it in for a different audience. It takes time to prepare and understand that context and craft that message well. How about we set aside time to talk about this so we can give it the due time that it requires?

Entitlement, self-centeredness, and pride can get in the way of communication. We must acknowledge that these are real barriers to communication that have to be appropriately responded to.

3. Communicating changes in stakes and commitment with trust and respect

It’s easy to mouth the words and say “can we set aside time to talk about this separately” but not everyone has the time, or sometimes, people want it to be done immediately. Sometimes, the person desperately needs it now, and sometimes situations are not as grave. Sometimes, asking for a different time is not something they can afford.

Problems can occur when people in their scarcity (of time, energy, clarity, attention, or security) feel that they are cornered, excluded, or oppressed. With those very real experience of those feelings that may or may not be grounded on actual threats or harm, how might a conversation still proceed?

Given that trust and respect are necessary for a conversation to be fruitful, I have the following question:

Prompt: What are good ways to realign with another person such that they feel comfortable or have enough space to ‘save face’ or communicate that they have adjusted position?

A commitment to be cooperative in a conversation is not always an easy thing to give. Feelings arise, stakes are changed, risks and dangers are encountered, and people hurt.

unsatisfied multiethnic couple having conversation on stairs
Photo by Keira Burton on

Takeaway: Some actionable things I’ve observed people do to realign with another person is that they repeat the commitment to respect the person and give the other person time to speak and to be understood. A great way to confirm that understanding is by repeating to the other person exactly what they’ve said.

4. Understanding and communicating truths

We spoke about truth and its relativity depending on the perspectives of people. I think truth is such a delicate topic that merits its own separate blog post. Here are some of my prompts and thoughts about the topic:

  • What is truth? What is science’s relationship to truth?
  • Who owns the truth? What does ownership of the truth mean?
  • Are there different kinds of truths?
  • What are subjective and objective truths?
  • Can we have access to absolute truth?
blue and white planet display
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I’ll tackle some of these topics another time but for now, I highly recommend you join us at Tech4Humans where we have conversations about these things.

Takeaway: AI and Tech, like all tools and innovations we’ve built, are great amplifiers for the nature of humanity as it currently is. Just like how we walked, ran, biked, drove, and flew- the technology accelerates us in the direction we desire- but that direction is the responsibility of humans. Understanding what good directions are have always been a challenge for society, but by practicing honesty with ourselves and pursuing truthful communication, we may be able to understand what good truly means, one individual at a time.

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