“You have a nasty character flaw!” Or How Not to Address a Trust Issue

“It’s part of his character. I just can’t ever really trust him and that’s all there is to it.” Anne is a corporate VP and she was talking about another VP in her company. What Anne was expressing is what many people believe about trustworthiness: it is mostly or entirely as a matter of character. Either a person is trustworthy or he isn’t. No matter which it is, he is not likely to be any other way short of undergoing a character transplant operation.

“But, the problem is,” she added, “I still have to work with the man. I can’t just avoid him day after day.”

I asked if she thought it would be possible to have a conversation with him about repairing trust. Her response was, “How do you even talk to someone like that?”

Judging by the tone of her voice this was a rhetorical question. I treated it like a real question anyway and suggested she probably didn’t want to start by telling him he has a nasty character flaw he needs to fix. She conceded that would not go over well.

I asked Anne what she thought might happen if she had a conversation and kept it focused completely on his behavior. “How might it go if you started out talking only about facts, the specific things he has done that have damaged your trust in him?”

Anne was skeptical, but she also understood the cost of continuing to distrust her fellow VP. It was causing big problems for her, the people in her group (and his), and even the entire company to some degree. Doing nothing was no longer an option. She decided to try talking with him. This meant talking about just the VP’s behavior without including her assessment of the behavior, at least at the beginning of the conversation.

This isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Our minds glue an assessment (aka interpretation, opinion, belief, judgment) onto our every experience almost the instant it happens. When we observe someone’s behavior we can’t help but assess it. Pulling our experiences apart from those assessments takes awareness, and some practice. And the difficulty of doing it increases considerably when we perceive the person as a threat, which is definitely the case when distrust is involved.

But mastering the ability to separate someone’s actual behavior from your assessments of it is key to being able to talk to someone about a trust issue. It doesn’t guarantee a beneficial outcome, but it will significantly increase your chances. Otherwise what the other person will hear right away is some version of “You have a nasty character flaw you need to fix before I will trust you.” And you can imagine where the conversation will go from there.

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