How to build trust, and know when it matters

“A relationship without trust is like a cell phone without service. And what do you do with a phone without service? You play games.”


A brief assessment of trust and the world today

As a kid, I grew up at my grandparent’s house in the countryside. I remember how I was allowed to go anywhere, explore all the hills and villages surrounding their home, and just trusted I’ll be back ok. But when I’ve started school, I’ve moved back with my parents to the city. All of a sudden, I had to be careful where I’m going, with whom, and always allow for a means for my parents to be able to check up on me.

And that’s because compared with my grandparents, my parents had access to daily news. And those news broadcasted terrible events, making them believe the world is a very unsafe place.

My grandparents lived in a trusting culture, occasionally punctuated by episodes of harm. My parents, and now myself, we live in an untrusting culture punctuated by episodes of trust and integrity.

Very few people will watch the news if they are not shocking, and our brains are wired to be shocked by the negative. That’s why if broadcasters will try and balance the bad news with the good ones, they will probably lose their audience. People will watch a report about a plane crash but will be bored to death to see daily news about how hundreds of commercial planes arrived safely to their destinations. And therefore, with so much bad news, even if the world we live in today is the safest ever, we still think it’s horrible and build a non-trusting culture.

We reflect then this mistrust in how we build relationships. We start by not trusting anyone and build up trust slowly. We install hidden cameras to check on the babysitter, burglar alarms, and further on, think that every salesperson wants to sell us something for its profits.

Inevitably, this culture leads to where we are today. It’s hard to build trust, and it’s so easy to lose it when our default is mistrust. And this is true whenever we start any new relationship, not just romantic ones. On the contrary, it’s the same for pretty much any kind of relationship we engage in.

How we trust, build trust and lose trust

Most of us are somewhere in between trusting no one and trusting everyone. Depending on the life experiences we had, we might have trusted someone and were betrayed. Or, we’ve stared with low trust, and someone believed in us to the point where we began to have faith again.

Based on our personal experiences, when we meet someone new, the first impressions are highly based on our past. Even if in the opening seconds, our trust is neutral, every point of interaction will matter in how trust is developed. If they physically look like someone we mistrust, we might be looking for signs to reinforce that feeling. Every word they say or actions they do will either build or weaken the trust we allow to have.

Trust is built layer by layer, in time, with consistently positive acts. And only once we consider that person to be trustworthy, we start to relax and enjoy the relationship. We stop analyzing everything and start being ourselves more and more. That’s how close relationships start and evolve, but they don’t stay like this all the time.

Trust can be lost completely all at once, or slowly over time. It happens all at once when something that the other person does is so wrong that it leaves no room to go back after such a betrayal. But in most cases, we lose trust slowly over time. When we stop communicating, when we notice words or looks that don’t feel right, and those start to build up. We end up one day wondering when did this all happen, and how come regardless of what the other person says, we don’t trust them anymore.

The importance of senses when we build trust

The most important senses we use to build trust are sight, sound, and touch. That is why virtual communication puts trust-building in a very challenging position, while physical presence is crucial.

When we are face to face with someone, we hear more than their words. We pick up their tone of voice, gestures, body language, all of it helping us either build trust or identify signals they’re lying. There might be misalignments between what they verbally say and what their body language shows. And even if we might not notice it all consciously, our brains will catch up on all these signals.

When we only speak over the phone, and it’s impossible to catch on body language, there are still verbal signs that can trigger mistrust. Repeated words, too much detailed information, relief when the subject is changed, or just a faster pace of communication can all be signs of lying.

When we only read something written by a certain someone, the danger is even higher to misjudge and misinterpret. When reading the given text, we add to it our interpretation of the tone of voice the other person might or might not have, and make assumptions of their intention and thinking. That’s why writing should be our last resort when aiming to build trust and have honest communication.

All in all, nothing is better than physical presence when we aim to build trust and a healthy relationship, especially for the relationships that matter the most to us.

Building trust

It takes many years to build trust and a reputation, and only one instance to ruin it. While we need to be careful how we treat people that matter to us, the solid foundations for building trust and keeping it lay in the following:

  • Keep your promises, and don’t forget about them. The one you’ve made your promise to will never forget it;
  • Admit your mistakes and come up first to say you’re wrong and that you’re sorry. Most people can forgive if they’ve been told upfront than if they’ve found out themselves;
  • Listen, genuinely, with the only purpose of seeing things from the other’s point of view. Sit in their shoes until you get where they’re coming from;
  • Be loyal even when the other is not around. Talking badly behind one’s back is not going to build any trust with anyone;
  • Open up and trust people with your feelings. It’ll build up a bridge for the other to open up as well and will strengthen your relationship;
  • Check-in with others, especially when we feel there’s a wall between us. Have the courage to be the first to ask if you’re ok;
  • Be on time. Time is the only resource we can never get back, so show respect by valuing what you have been given – the other’s person’s time;
  • Care. Explore the other’s life genuinely with the only intention to get to know them better;
  • Be predictable, in a way that your behavior is consistent. This doesn’t mean you can’t be creative;
  • Face tough times together, whenever they come your way. There are no stronger relationships than the ones build through facing adversity together.

In any relationship, things go well and better over time if there is trust. If trust is gone, everything gets complicated, and it ends up in a game no one will benefit.

How to know when it matters to build trust

As we know, we only have a limited time on this planet. That’s why we need to choose our battles all the time, even when it comes to building trust. The process is long, and it’s not easy; that’s why we probably will want to focus our best intentions and efforts in building the relationships that matter to us.

There are three main types of relationships we all have:

  • Relationships we choose. The spouse or partner, our friends, certain tribes or social organizations, or even a job if the boss or colleagues are the reason we took it. Because we are choosing them, they become the relationships that matter the most and will need most of our time to invest in them and build trust;
  • Relationships we encounter. People who serve us, help personnel, the strangers we meet on the streets or neighborhood, business encounters. As there’s not much of a relationship at stake, probably our focus should be very little on building trust here and instead aim to play fair and with respect;
  • Relationships we inherit. Or, the ones that come as a result of the relationships we choose. We choose our spouse; we inherit the in-laws. We choose a particular boss; we inherit our colleagues. We choose a school for our kids; we inherit the teacher. Also, our parents and family are relationships we inherit. These relationships might want to sneak into the first category, requesting the same level of involvement. What we need to do though is set boundaries, and remind them of these boundaries, to be able to choose where to spend our limited resources for trust-building.

Trust is the basis for everything we want to achieve in our life, both on a personal and professional level. That’s why knowing how to build trust where it matters, and how to keep trust growing are things to help us live a better and more meaningful life.

Inspiration for this article, and recommended further reading: “Dealing with the elephant in the room”, by Dr. Mike Bechtle