Interpersonal tools developed in extreme situations and unfamiliar environments can be employed by business leaders seeking to resolve conflict, demonstrate respect and build trust.

An expert panel comprising a trio of leaders with experience of working and serving in unfamiliar territories revealed the techniques in a webinar convened this spring by leadership and behavioural consultant Sarwat Tasneem FInstLM.

Tasneem, the daughter and granddaughter of senior ranking military men serving in what was then unpartitioned India, was joined on the webinar by explorer and broadcaster Maj Levison Wood and the British Army’s Lt Col Tim Petransky.

The trio shared key practices developed during their work around the world. All three panellists have worked in the Middle East and South East Asia, sometimes in dangerous and threatening situations.

Some of these stories and lessons can be translated into the business environment. If you need to break down barriers, create open communication and foster a culture of trust, read on to see what you can do…


1.  Change perceptions

Sometimes it is necessary to take immediate steps to change a counterparty’s perception of you. The key is to humanise yourself in the eyes of the other, Maj Levison Wood told webinar guests.

On one rafting expedition on the Nile in South Sudan, Maj Wood found himself and his team dragged to a riverbank and a gun pointed at the back of his head by militia. “I thought we were for the chop,” he said. “I had to think fast – how does one build rapport with a man who’s got a gun in the back of your head? You’ve got to humanise yourself, you’ve got to look this person in the eye and find some common ground and have some empathy. I thought, ‘okay, I'm not a smoker myself, but I always carry a pack of cigarettes for exactly this reason’. So, I offered this guy cigarettes, and he looked at me and I could see him thinking, ‘okay, do I shoot you? Or do I accept your cigarette?’ Thankfully, he wanted a cigarette more than he wanted to shoot me. Once we established that rapport, and he started smoking, of course all the other soldiers wanted cigarettes. That just diffused the whole situation and enabled us to start the communication, start the dialogue and, ultimately, we were released.”


2.  Concede weaknesses

A major barrier to opening dialogue is that the person on the other side of the table believes you to be patronising or superior. Conceding the flaws in your own organization or team while recognising the strengths in those of your counterparty is an effective way of building trust.

Lt Col Tim Petransky recalled a situation where he took a job as an instructor, helping the African Union Mission to Somalia build staff skills.

“There was a real reluctance to explore how you can learn from where things go wrong,” Lt Col Petransky said. “It occurred to me that what they thought I was saying was, ‘I’m British, I’m better than you. And I'm going to tell you how it is’. So, I thought, ‘I've got to do something here’. And so I said to them, ‘I recognise the problems that we're talking about here. Where do you think I recognise them from? Some of the dysfunctions that you have in your own headquarters also exist in Nato’. And many of the people in that room thought of Nato as being a premier organisation. So, when they felt comfortable that I wasn't trying to tell them that they’d got it all wrong… that changed their perception very quickly.” 


3.  Seek the source

Third-party information and hearsay are often misleading and can undermine efforts to build trust and develop rapport with a counterparty.

Sarwat Tasneem FInstLM advises seeking your own evidence directly from the source. “Don't rely on a third party or what you might find on the internet,” she advised webinar guests.

“If you have an issue, or a challenge, or something to better yourself, your team, your organisation, you have got to go to the root. Because then your answers won't be filtered or conflated in any way. They will be exactly what you need to know.”


4.  Address team concerns

In business mergers and new partnerships, competitors and opponents can become proposed allies or colleagues overnight. Yet transforming your team’s attitudes to a longstanding opponent is unlikely to be a rapid process.

“We were fighting a war one day and the next day we weren’t” Lt Col Tim Petransky, who served in the Iraq War, told webinar guests. “When you are in a deescalating situation… you have got to listen to your team’s concerns, because many of those concerns might be very valid. You have to listen to what people are telling you and address those and be very careful not to dismiss them.”

By unpacking your team’s concerns, Lt Col Petransky added, you can slowly reduce resistance to building alliances with former opponents. “That way, you can overcome an initial sense of, ‘we're not going to do this because we don't think it's right’,” he told the webinar. “I think you’re able to overcome that, and then slowly build over time. But you have to be really firm in the behaviours you expect.”


5.  Applications to business

So, what can be learnt from these points on breaking down barriers? And how can this be applied to an everyday business environment? Here’s our top 5 take-aways for you to use in the office (or from home!):

  • Humanise yourself. Find some common ground between you and your peers. This will enable you to start building some trust. Carry out some icebreakers or team-building activities if you have to!
  • Shorten the gap between you and others. Quite often in a business environment, members of Executive teams can be perceived as thinking they’re superior to. You need to break down this barrier by making an effort to socialise with your colleagues. Show them that you’re comfortable in their presence.
  • Create an open dialogue. If you have a feeling that misinformation is being spread or that there are already some pre-conceived ideas about you, don’t be shy to ask. Find out what it is that’s being said and alleviate any concerns by tackling any issues head on. Express your desire to improve the situation and ask how you can fix problems.
  • Address any concerns. Ask your staff if there is anything you can do to make things better – and be willing to make those changes! Listen to your people and don’t be so quick to dismiss ideas, no matter how small!

What more could you do to break down barriers and get closer to your teams? For more information on Trust & Leadership, check out our expert resources on Building Trust. Don't have an account?  Register for a free account to access it now.

Voices from our community: British Army’s Lt Col Tim Petransky is joined by leadership and behavioural consultant, Sarwat Tasneem FInstLM and Maj Levison Wood,,explorer and broadcaster.

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