by Audrey Seymour
The Speaking Circle® approach to public speaking is famous for curing stage fright, as well as creating a feeling in the audience of speaker trustworthiness. Founder Lee Glickstein developed the method intuitively back in the 1980s as he worked to overcome the performance anxiety he experienced as a standup comedian.
Speaking Circles spread by word-of-mouth around the globe through many personal stories of radical breakthrough, and are based on a simple principle called Relational Presence. Relational Presence is the practice of experiencing connection with one’s audience through a neutral gaze of positive regard without agenda, or even a need for words in any given moment. It is the pre-condition for meaningful communication, where a speaker delivers information through the vehicle of this natural connection to their listeners rather than talking “at” an audience that feels separate.
In this article we summarize several scientific studies that indicate why the Relational Presence approach causes speakers to gain such confidence and why audiences increase their level of trust in a very short amount of time.
The answer is oxytocin, known as the “feel-good” neurohormone that promotes trust and bonding between people and also in other mammals.
Scientific research has shown that the eye gaze component of Relational Presence, otherwise known as eye contact, promotes the production of oxytocin, and that an increase in oxytocin leads to feelings of trust and connection between the speaker and their listeners in the audience.
Eye Contact Promotes Oxytocin
The first link in the chain between eye gazing and feelings of trust and connection is the discovery that prolonged eye contact stimulates the production of oxytocin.Oxytocin is a brain chemical that acts both as a neurotransmitter and as a hormone. As a neurotransmitter it communicates within the brain and as a hormone it signals systems throughout the entire body, all in order to reward certain behavior.
Kerstin Uväs-Moberg, M.D., Ph.D, a world authority on oxytocin, has concluded through her research that extended eye contact can bring about oxytocin release.1 Research has even shown that eye contact triggers an autonomic nervous system response before we consciously recognize what we’re looking at.1
It appears that our brains have evolved to reinforce bonding with others through eye connection, which promoted survival in our ancestors through our tribal affiliations. When we don’t get enough eye contact with others in our community, we feel disconnected and less secure.2
Nursing mothers and their infants, new lovers and puppies and their owners are examples of mutual eye gazing that increase oxytocin levels, which we now understand extends to the arena of public speaking. We now appreciate that as Speaking Circle participants learn how to look into the eyes of their audience, they are increasing the flow of oxytocin both for themselves and for their listeners.
Oxytocin Increases Trust and Reduces Fear
Studies have shown that the trust-inducing benefits and positive feelings from oxytocin operate in two distinct and important ways. First, oxytocin lowers blood pressure and other stress-related responses in the body, and second, it increases positive social behaviors such as friendliness and an interest in making contact.1
A very informative study using oxytocin nasal sprays and a risky investment game was performed by Dr. Michael Kosfeld and others.3 The researchers found that the participants who inhaled oxytocin spray were more likely to invest their money than the control group who did not receive any externally administered oxytocin. In fact, it was found that those receiving oxytocin demonstrated the “highest level of trust” twice as often as the control group.
Several conclusions were drawn from this particular study. The delivery of oxytocin caused a substantial increase in interpersonal trust. The researchers also demonstrated that the impact of oxytocin on trust was not due to a general willingness to take more risk, but rather it was due to a willingness in particular to accept interpersonal social risks. Their conclusions from this study were consistent with animal research indicating the role of oxytocin in prosocial approach behavior.3
Another sign of trust that has been studied is disclosure of emotional events. Dr. Anthony Lane and others performed a fascinating study investigating the relationship between oxytocin and emotional sharing between people of short acquaintance.4 Some participants received oxytocin while others received a placebo. Participants were then instructed to talk about a painful event from their past with another participant.
The investigators carefully measured the amount of fact-sharing versus emotion-sharing between the two groups. It turned out that while both the oxytocin group and the placebo group tended to share facts, the oxytocin group had significantly more willingness to talk about their emotions around the painful event.
The conclusion from this study was that oxytocin increases the comfort level for sharing emotions, which is a behavior that is known to have both calming and bonding effects.4
A third study of increased trust measured the relationship between oxytocin and social perception. Participants viewed photographs of human faces and were asked how trustworthy they felt the people in the photographs were. These photographs purposefully captured neutral facial expressions, so that there was not a bias induced by faces that displayed emotions. In this study conducted by Dr. Angeliki Theodoridou and others, subjects who received intranasal oxytocin found neutral faces more trustworthy than those in the control group who did not receive oxytocin.5 The researchers concluded that higher levels of oxytocin will “enhance affiliative behavior towards unfamiliar others.”5
A final intriguing study by Dr. Thomas Baumgartner and others indicates that oxytocin reduces the fear of social betrayal in humans, which would naturally improve speaker confidence.6 In particular, they studied the neural mechanisms underlying trust and adaptation to a breach of trust. The researchers in this study found that subjects who had received intranasal oxytocin spray did not lose trust in others even after their trust had been betrayed several times, whereas subjects who merely received a placebo spray did lose trust after having it betrayed.6
Therefore, as oxytocin levels increase for speakers and listeners through the practice of Relational Presence, a sense of community and trust increase in the room.
A Significant Positive Feedback Loop
Not only does eye contact increase oxytocin levels, but oxytocin has been found to increase eye contact as well. This causes a positive feedback loop that continues to build trust, connection and confidence. This fits the anecdotal evidence described by Speaking Circles® Facilitators and participants as the increased sense of “belonging” or feeling “instant intimacy” with others when practicing Relational Presence.
Based on the results of the studies cited above, it is expected that regular practice at Speaking Circles in the state of Relational Presence will result in the benefits delivered by oxytocin stimulation in the brain and body. In particular, Speaking Circles participants can expect to learn how to create an environment of social and emotional trust with an audience, as well as experiencing a decreased stress response. It is our experience through witnessing and collecting anecdotal evidence that these benefits can be felt very quickly in an initial class, and that confidence increases through repetition over time to serve any audience, professional or personal.
(1) Uvnas-Moberg ,Kerstin, M.D., Ph.D. (2003). The Oxytocin Factor: Tapping the Hormone of Calm, Love and Healing. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
(4) Lane A, Luminet O, Rimé B, Gross JJ, de Timary P, Mikolajczak M (2013). "Oxytocin increases willingness to socially share one's emotions". Int J Psychol 48 (4): 676–81. doi:10.1080/00207594.2012.677540. PMID 22554106.
(5) Theodoridou A, Rowe AC, Penton-Voak IS, Rogers PJ (June 2009). "Oxytocin and social perception: oxytocin increases perceived facial trustworthiness and attractiveness". Horm Behav 56 (1): 128–32. doi:10.1016/j.yhbeh.2009.03.019. PMID 19344725.
(6) Baumgartner T, Heinrichs M, Vonlanthen A, Fischbacher U, Fehr E (May 2008). "Oxytocin shapes the neural circuitry of trust and trust adaptation in humans". Neuron 58 (4): 639–50. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2008.04.009. PMID 18498743.