The Riddle of Trust: A Man’s Relationship with Trust & RiskOct 11, 2021
Here’s a riddle for you:
Q: What’s extremely valuable, risky to give, hard to receive and sometimes impossible to repair once it’s been broken?
The concept of trust is a two-way street. Every time we encounter another person, we assess how trustworthy we believe them to be. Are they friend or foe or someone you need to keep your eye on?
How can you tell if someone can be trusted? Is it a gut feeling or an assumption about their appearance? Can you learn everything you need to know by asking them questions or doing a quick Google search to see if they have any open warrants? Unlike a dog that can sniff out another dog’s backstory simply by sniffing its backside, humans must use their minds and emotions to determine when it’s safe to trust another person.
What you sometimes forget is that in the same moment you’re sizing someone up, they are doing the same to you!
In this article, we look at what it means to trust, what happens when you don’t, and the specific traits that make someone trustworthy - whether you’re looking for them in someone else or working to develop them in yourself.
What is Trust?
Sometimes difficult to define in specific terms, trust is a mental and emotional action where thoughts and feelings work in tandem.
Trust begins by believing someone’s intentions are inherently good and that they will do what they say. Being in relationship with someone who is trustworthy allows you to be vulnerable with your emotions and gives you a sense of safety and builds confidence in the relationship. When you trust someone, it’s easier to open up about your feelings and to feel an alliance with that person - like you’ve got someone in your corner.
Trust always involves a certain level of risk as you have to wager how likely you believe a person is to be honorable while considering what you could lose if they are not. Every time you confide in a friend, hire a babysitter, get your hair cut, or work your butt off for the promotion your boss has promised you at the end of the quarter, you evaluate the trustworthiness of another and consider the level of risk that trust imposes.
Once you’ve established you trust someone mentally and emotionally, trust also shows up in your behaviors as you take actions that rely upon your trust. Perhaps you trust your colleague to complete their part of a collaborative presentation by its due date. This type of trust allows you to do your part of the project (take action) that shows confidence in your colleague.
The more trustworthy people you have in the various areas of your life - from business relationships to intimate relationships - the more relaxed and calm and supported you’ll feel.
What Happens When We Distrust?
On the outside, distrust is expressed a number of ways, such as being overly private about your emotions or personal life, limiting the intimacy you'll allow in a relationship, being defensive and quick to assume that others are trying to take advantage of you.
The reasons we distrust are as varied as the way distrust is expressed. Some people simply have more risk-averse personalities and are therefore slower to trust. Others who have experienced trauma, especially where trust was frequently broken are also slow to trust.
Unfortunately, many men are taught to compete, to be suspicious of others and to have a “hunt or be hunted” attitude - ideas which are reinforced by their families, peers and culture. Traditional masculinity relies on independence and remaining on guard, giving men the impression that it isn’t safe or gender appropriate for them to form close, trusting relationships with others. Trust requires vulnerability and for many men, this is involves more risk than they are willing to wager, leaving them isolated or walled-off emotionally.
Sometimes trust behaviors seem almost inherent, where some people seem to be wary of others practically from birth. They only want to be held by a parent and hide behind their mother’s legs in public. Yet, others seem to trust just about everyone as children as they are passed from lap to lap.
The reaction to mistrust someone stems from a culmination of the mental and emotional assessment process that you use to decipher someone’s trustworthiness.
The Influence of Trust on our Wellbeing.
The ability to engage in relationships where trust is reciprocal is the foundation upon which positive relationships to thrive. Therefore, it's essential to accurately appraise the qualities in a person and in ourselves that generate trust.
Think of trust as a form of currency that fills an emotional bank account.
When someone behaves appropriately, the balance goes up like a deposit and if they behave inappropriately (or in this case, in a way that is untrustworthy), the balance decreases like a withdrawal.
I’m sure we can all think of someone in our lives that made one withdrawal after another until the relationship went bankrupt.
Of course, if you have acted in an untrustworthy way during a relationship, it is up to you to focus on pouring positive interactions back into the emotional bank account.
(The topic of rebuilding broken trust is a big one that we will address at length in a future article!)
How Do We Foster Trust?
In his book, The Speed of Trust, the late Dr. Stephen Covey proposes a four-pronged model for establishing trust that I subscribe to. The four critical elements Covey outlines comprise the mental and emotional actions necessary for building trust and for determining if someone else is trustworthy.
The four elements of trust are:
Integrity and intent are both character values. Capabilities and results are competence values. You need all four values to develop both personal and professional credibility and trust.
Let’s take a deeper look into each of the four elements of trust.
Having integrity is all about doing the right thing, even when no one is watching. This is a character value that includes the qualities of congruence, humility and courage.
Congruence simply means that what you think or intend, what you say and what you do are all in alignment.
Sometimes the thing that pulls us off a path of integrity is the ego - either because we want to do what it takes to stand out, or we want to make a certain impression, even if it’s based on illusion. Humility relates closely with integrity, as it is the humble man who will value doing the right thing regardless of how it makes him appear.
Doing the right thing, even when it’s hard, takes courage. It means standing up for what we know is right and following through in our actions.
Intent asks the question, “What is your agenda?”
Are your reasons for your actions pure, altruistic, reasonable and congruent with your best self? Or, do you have an ulterior motive or angle you’re playing that you’re not being completely transparent about?
We all have reasons for why we do what we do and if we are to build trust in our relationships we have to be honest with ourselves and with others about our intent. Covey believes the best way to ensure we have a positive motive is if we truly care for or have feelings for the actions we are taking.
Of course, regardless of how we feel about a particular thing, it’s best to be honest about it. Otherwise, we lose congruency and a crack forms in our foundation of trust.
The best case is when your agenda is altruistic and offers a benefit for everyone. It’s okay to act in a way that benefits you, but it’s best when it isn’t at the expense of another.
The word capability refers to how competent someone is at a particular thing, or even in general. Assessing the level of trust that can be given to someone requires an honest evaluation of their ability to do what you expect of them.
Capability is a competence core; having high integrity and the right intent doesn't matter if you don't have the technical abilities for the task at hand. You wouldn’t trust even a well-meaning child to do your taxes any more than you would trust a broken chair to hold your weight when you sit down.
To help think about the various dimensions of capabilities, Covey uses the acronym TASKS: Talents, Attitude, Skills, Knowledge, and Style.
Talents are the things that we are naturally good at and enjoy doing.
Attitude is how you perceive the world and your place in it. While attitude can fluctuate depending upon the situation, one typically has set-point for their disposition.
Skills are the abilities we have learned to be competent in.
Knowledge is the culmination of what you know or believe to know.
Style is your personal flavor or color, whether you’re funny, reserved, fashionable or great at giving toasts.
Looking at someone’s track record is perhaps one of the most accurate ways to determine trustworthiness. Not knowing someone’s track record, or past results when you first meet is what makes trusting them feel more risky.
Covey writes, "… if the results aren't there, neither is the credibility. Neither is the trust. It's just that simple; it's just that harsh."
It matters what you have accomplished in the past and also how you got there. Meaning, did you accomplish your results with integrity and display competence with an altruistic intent? Your credibility and the probability that you’ll continue to produce positive results is indicated by your track record.
In some relationships where the stakes are high, like when you’re hiring someone for a highly-paid executive position, you require letters of recommendation, a CV of their experience and to see the results of past projects.
Not all relationships come with papers, though, so we must rely upon our own astute observations of a person’s behavior as it applies to the four qualities of trust.
The Relationship Between Risk and Trust
“Trust: Choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions. Distrust: What is important to you is not safe with another person in a given situation.” – Charles Feltman. The Thin Book of Trust: An Essential Primer for Building Trust at Work.
Trust does not exist without a certain level of risk. Unless you can see the future or have the power to control it, every relationship, whether it’s personal or professional requires you to take a risk by putting your trust in another person.
Some relationships are low risk, meaning that if the person you’ve placed your trust in doesn’t follow through you can easily stomach the disappointment. For example, when you ask your server to add tomato to your sandwich order, the consequence is not dire if they don’t do it.
Conversely, if you trust your spouse to honor your wedding vows, but instead they cheat on you, the consequences are much higher.
The trust/risk discussion ascends beyond one-to-one relationships and includes entities or organizations. For example, if you have a heart attack and call 911, you likely trust help is on the way.
While risk can be assessed up to a point, the reward for trust is just as great as the occasional miscalculation. The security, confidence and intimacy trust offers makes it an important part of living a fulfilling life.
It’s clear how the four elements of trust provide a perceptive guide to help us better appraise the trustworthiness of others, but let’s turn the tables to apply those principles to ourselves. The following exercises will help you elevate your own trustworthiness. As we mentioned above, trust is a two way street and the only way to achieve truly trusting partnerships is if you are mentally and emotionally prepared to be trustworthy.
How to Become More Trustworthy:
1 – Maintain Your Personal Integrity
- Keep the commitments you make to yourself. Take time to evaluate what is truly important to you and take actions every day to achieve your goals.
- Know your own heart and beliefs and behave in ways that align with that - even when no one is watching.
- Remain open-minded and humble as you move through life and interact with others. Remember there is always more to learn if we stay curious.
2 – Understand Your Intentions
Covey explains the three ways to improve intent are to examine and refine your motives, declare your intention and choose abundance. Put simply, think about why you do what you do and be honest with yourself and others about your intentions.
3 – Assess Your Capabilities
Be honest about your abilities. Don’t oversell or undersell yourself and always strive to improve your competency.
4 – Assess Your Results (Track Record)
Setting and achieving goals is as important as accepting responsibility for the results you get. It’s not about being perfect 100% of the time. It’s okay to make a mistake if you learn from it and use that information to work toward more positive results.
5 - Applying the “trust filter” will help you build better relationships.
Everyone has a baseline for how quickly and easily they place trust in others. Being discerning is important and applying the four elements of trust as a filter will help us determine when the risk of trusting someone is commensurate with the reward of having a relationship with them.
If you discover that you have repeated difficulty trusting others, or find yourself behaving in untrustworthy ways, there may be underlying reasons that require professional help. Whether your distrust stems from childhood trauma, anxiety or any other cause or event, I’d be happy to help you discover the root cause, heal from it and learn how to develop trusting relationships within safe boundaries. Contact me to schedule a free 30-minute phone consultation.
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Simon G. Niblock, MA, LMFT, is a licensed psychotherapist, specializing in men’s mental health and wellness. He provides tailored psychotherapy services and online programs for men and is the author of the Anxiety Workbook for Men, Evidence-based Exercises to Manage Anxiety, Depression, and Worry.
Important Notice: The content in this article is for informational purposes only. It does not replace direct professional mental health, medical treatment, or professional care in any way. Seek the support of a physician or other qualified healthcare provider to diagnose and treat any mental health concern directly. Contact 911 or your local emergency services number if you are experiencing a mental health emergency.
APA (2021) APA Dictionary: Accessed: https://dictionary.apa.org/trust
Covey, S. (2006). The Speed of Trust. The One Thing that Changes Everything. Free Press.
Thagard, P. (2019). Treatise on Mind and Society. Oxford University Press.
Thagard, P. (2018). What is Trust? Accessed: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hot-thought/201810/what-is-trust
Nickel, P.J, & Vaesen, K. (2012). Handbook of Risk Theory, Roeser, S. (ed.), Springer Publishers.