A friend called me while he was trying to close a stressful financial transaction. He was incensed by the behavior of his business partner who had sent mean and threatening text messages to key people involved in the transaction. My friend said, “I will never trust this guy again.” “As I’m reading his emails, I feel like punching him in the face. What do you suggest I do?”

I suggested separating his anger and hurt from his judgments about his partner’s emotional reactivity. “You don’t trust the man because you don’t want to feel hurt or scared again. Your partner’s behavior makes him emotionally unsafe to be around.” No one is going deep in this relationship unless trust is restored.

When a client of mine got wobbly on his commitments, I called him on what I thought was avoidance and resistance. He didn’t like that. He pushed back and said, “I don’t trust you.” I had taken a risk in confronting him and, eventually, he got honest with himself. He noticed his emotional reactivity and how he was avoiding making deep changes. He was feeling vulnerable. After a truthful conversation, we trusted each other more than we had before our conflict.

What is Trust?

Sometimes there’s good data supporting why we don’t trust someone. Some people choose not to keep their agreements or to withhold the truth. Armed with data, we make a judgment, “I don’t trust you.” We may or may not have a lot of emotion about the situation, we simply modify our future behavior.

Other times our “distrust” comes with an emotional charge. We believe something is being done to us. We see the other as being entirely responsible for how much we trust them and neglect looking at our own reactivity.

Consider some less obvious reasons you might not trust someone:

  • They are different from you (think politics, religion, race, sexual orientation, education).
  • You project onto someone an intention or motive to harm or take advantage of you.
  • You feel hurt, abandoned, ignored, judged, or shamed by someone…your defenses are up.
  • They are calling you on something about yourself that’s a blind spot or shadow (a part of you that you deny or don’t like about yourself).

Our minds move unreliably fast. It can take little more than personal appearance or a facial expression to build or erode trust.

Strengthening the Trust Muscle

Here are some ways you can help increase the chances you can be trusted:

  • Do what you say you’re going to do and call yourself on the times you don’t—no excuses.
  • Take ownership of the impact (intended and unintended) you have on others.
  • Understand and acknowledge your bias and your resistance to difference, especially if you are part of a historically advantaged group.
  • Practice deep listening by being hungrily curious about others.
  • Be vulnerable. Share your feelings and parts of your personal history with others so they can know you.

Building Relational Capital

We all can work on being safer to be around. We can pay closer paying attention to our emotions and the impact of our presence, actions and words. Note: The Enneagram is a useful tool to understand impact and increase empathy because it tunes us into how other Types experience us.

What to do to restore trust:

  • Share your emotional upset—“Ouch, that hurt.”
  • Share the story you’re telling yourself about the other person—“I think you were really scared and angry because you thought the deal was going to fall apart.”
  • Ask for what you want—“I want to know what’s really going on and if you are willing to clean things up with those you may have impacted.”

Trust is a symptom, not a cause. Distrust is caused by a judgment that comes with a feeling of hurt, anger, fear and shame. Our judgments cause us to blame others for our reaction to our own inner experience.

Start to notice your trust patterns (who you trust/don’t trust and who trusts/doesn’t trust you). Taking this inventory and exploring may open up the possibility to deeper connections and more relational capital across a wider range of people.