The choice to grant trust is not the same thing as having a default position of trusting people until they prove they can’t be trusted. Choosing to trust someone requires that you mindfully choose to build trust with them, not that you give them a chance to prove they are trustworthy.
Our natural inclination is to trust people we feel affinity towards. We may initially choose the level at which we are willing to trust someone based on a gut feeling, but experience is the real test. Our experiences over time with another will either serve to build a stronger level of trust or weaken it.
We also tend to make a blanket assessment about trust – we either trust someone or we don’t. Yet trust is far more complex than this simple assessment reveals. Trust has many dimensions including reliability, competence, and sincerity. If I hire a contractor I may find that they have great skills and believe they want to do a great job, but I may discover that they are not reliable when it comes to showing up when they say they will. We may also choose to trust someone completely in one domain, but not in another. For example, just because I trust someone to clean my house does not mean I should also automatically trust them to care for my child.
Regardless of whether we approach trust from the point of view that people have to earn our trust or that we trust first, real trust can only be established in a relationship based on experience.
At its most basic level we choose to trust someone when we make a specific request of them with the expectation that if they accept our request they will deliver as promised. What happens from there will either strengthen trust or weaken it.
However, it is important to note that when someone has not been trustworthy, you can still choose to trust them. The key is to be prudent with what you entrust to them and how you proceed so you set an appropriate level of expectation given your relationship.
For example, if you have a conversation with someone you request they keep confidential and they do not, it does not mean they can never be reliable. It is an indication that prudence is in order. If you choose to trust someone it is your responsibility to hold them accountable. When you step over a failure to keep a commitment you fuel the degradation of trust in your relationship. So first let them know they broke your trust and ensure they understand and own the implications. If you choose to trust them again with confidential information, share something less sensitive. Also, make the request for confidentiality, emphasize why it is important and the offense that will occur if they fail to keep the trust.
How do you choose to trust someone in practice? Negotiate clear agreements. Here are three ingredients to ensure your agreements support you as you build trust:
1. Be specific about what, why and when.
This is one of those things we all know, but don’t always do. When you make a request be rigorously specific about all three (what, why and when) or the result is likely to be less than satisfactory. When you are on the receiving end make sure you are clear about all three. Leaving any one of these things out puts trust at risk unnecessarily
2. Be specific about the conditions for success as well as your personal satisfaction with the outcome and the process.
This requires that you be personally responsible for being satisfied as well as your current level of trust. Establish terms in your agreements that ensure you are personally responsible for your level of trust in terms of competence, reliability and sincerity. For example if someone has failed to meet deadlines consistently, ask to meet at interim points in the project to help ensure things stay on track. In the process the person who has been previously unreliable might actually learn how to improve in that area.
3. Declare your expectations.
Nothing is more damaging to trust in relationships than expectations that are not made clear or that seem to be a moving target. We often talk about the need to manage expectations. Expectations are a lot easier to manage when we make them clear and specific as opposed to allowing them to lurk in the background undistinguished and unspoken. Also, be mindful of your assumptions because, left unexamined, assumptions are often the source of frustration and unmet expectations.
When one person isn’t satisfied chances are expectations were either not mutually clear and/or have not been met. Blame, judgment and justification can easily ensue when this happens. Be willing to be personally responsible for your contribution to the misinterpretation and/or lack of clarity in your agreements and you will find it is much easier to restore trust.
When you mindfully choose to trust others you are taking personal responsibility for surrounding yourself with people you can count on and who know they can count on you. Without trust in others and from others you can neither transcend your current circumstances nor achieve something remarkable.