How do you rebuild trust?
I recall the very first time someone asked me this question. I was young and totally new in the conflict resolution field. I was stumped. I must have said something that made at least a little bit of sense because the person was somewhat satisfied and the question went away – until the next time. In case after case, the question of trust came up. And each time I was not satisfied with my answer. It was obviously time to look at the question of trust more closely.
Most of our relationships exist somewhere along a continuum between transactional trust and integrity-based trust, depending on the nature of the relationship. Functional relationships (with one’s auto mechanic, for example) involve transactional trust – the mechanic will do X for which you will pay Y. You trust that the mechanic will repair your car just as your mechanic trusts you to pay the bill. Personal relationships, whether with colleagues, family or friends, involve a deeper, integrity-based trust. In this case you trust your friend’s character to be the person you believe he or she is. In either case, conflict disrupts trusting relationships. The further along the continuum toward integrity-based trust the relationship is, the greater the experience of betrayal.
How is trust built? In my experience, trust “walks on two legs.” One leg is the leg of vulnerability. It is hard to trust someone from whom one does not experience a type of authentic vulnerability. This is the vulnerability that comes with phrases like, “I messed up” or “I don’t know the answer.” The second leg of trust is associated with three “C” words: Competence, consistency and care. We trust those who are competent at what they do, who hold true to their values with consistency and who show care and compassion for the people with whom they live or work.
In situations of conflict one of these trust factors has been disrupted. Perhaps someone has not displayed the competency or consistency we expected, perhaps we believe we have not adequately been cared for, perhaps this person has not shown the vulnerability needed to adequately repair a relationship following conflict. Whatever the case, we are now in a bit of a mess. Without trust, it is difficult for relationships to function well.
Rebuilding trust after conflict is a journey. It involves stepping out with the leg of vulnerability – acknowledging one’s own contribution to whatever has happened. It also involves following that first leg with the second – backing up one’s vulnerability with a commitment to displaying competency, consistency and care once more. That said, there is no rushing trust. Despite one’s own commitment to both vulnerability and the three Cs of trust, the other must be ready to make this same journey. Following conflict – when it comes to trust – it is common for the two parties not to be at the same place at the same time. As a result, rebuilding trust seems to need the extra ingredient of patience. While one may offer vulnerability, competency, consistency and care, one must also hold these four ingredients lightly and gently enough so the other may receive them, as they are ready. Those on the receiving end of these gifts are, after all, on their own journey as well. When a sense of betrayal has cut deeply into one’s spirit, to even considering trusting again involves yet other ingredients – tremendous courage and an inner commitment to live from the lens of hope rather than from the lens of betrayal. This may not be easy but if both parties are committed to the journey, it is not only possible, it is a tremendous relief, lifting a great burden from those in conflict.