How to trust yourself, when to trust others


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I am sure I am not the only one thinking about matters of trust lately, and whether or not trust matters. In the current polarized environment of discourse, I struggle with what to say, how to say it, and with whom I should say what.  It has made me reconsider what it means to trust myself and to trust others.

You’ve probably had some of the same experiences I’ve had in terms of trusting others. In my case, both involved supervisors at a university.  One had a reputation for being too conservative to take action; actually, it was that consequences were considered before action was taken. This superior that always acted with integrity whether it was related to a public act or private conversation.

The second manager was someone that would literally say anything if it pleased the listener to hear it. I had misgivings during the hiring interview but failed to really pay attention to the “gut-sinking” feeling I had. It took a while to figure out that the actions rarely aligned with the words. Once initial trust was violated, I never believed anything that was said again. When I quit, I shared no information about how or why I had come to this decision because I feared it would be used against me in the future.

Maybe it’s not actually about trust so much as “trustworthiness.” Onora O’Neill, Emerita Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, encourages us to grant trust when we are provided evidence of competence, honesty, and reliability in “relevant matters.” And to be trustworthy in our own area of expertise. For instance, doctors should be trustworthy when discussing diseases and possible treatments, but you should not advise you on the best database product to meet particular research needs. The rub she says lies when dealing with issues of great complexity (financial services or insurance), where it is hard to know enough yourself to discern trustworthiness. When you lack the expertise yourself, you have to place your trust in someone you believe is both discerning and has your best interests at heart.

We should grant trust to others when we have evidence of reliability, credibility, competency, and genuine reciprocity.

When you feel your own judgment about trustworthiness has been bad, you start wondering how to trust yourself again.

All this has led me to revisit Steven M.R. Covey’s book, The Speed of Trust (2006). This writer is actually the son of Dr. Stephen R. Covey, author of the widely popular, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Steven M.R. Covey asserts that trust matters because it is “the one thing that changes everything.” You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to tell the truth about what you want, why you want it, and what you are willing to do to get what you want, as long as it aligns with your own values.

Being open is a key ingredient of trust. Judith Glaser, author of Conversational Intelligence (2014), in her discussion of the neurochemistry of conversation, shows that an “open” attitude creates more oxytocin (which makes you feel better) while “closed” conversation creates more cortisol (related to increased stress levels). We create trust by speaking the truth about what is going on inside of us. We lose trust when our actions fail to align with our words.

Speaking your truth does not mean unfiltered, unprofessional speech. Nor does it mean you uncategorically open yourself up in situations where discernment tells you it’s not safe to trust another, whether an individual or an organization. It means being clear about your own goals, why they are important to you, and how you can achieve them. It means leaving room for respectful disagreement. Exploring real differences can reveal unexpected solutions to difficult problems.

Back to Covey. He provides a four-quadrant model to help you decide if you inspire trust, beginning with character and competence. On the character side, he lists two dimensions, integrity and intent. Truthfully answering the questions posed in these four quadrants can help you trust yourself.

For discerning integrity, the question you ask yourself is, “Are you congruent?” that is, are you living in harmony with your values. Below are some of Covey’s steps for improving trustworthiness. (Parenthetical comments are mine.)

Here are some simple steps from Covey to increase integrity:

  1. Make and keep commitments to yourself (for example, your exercise schedule).
  2. Stand for something (your beliefs).
  3. Be open (to conversations, ideas, and people).

Addressing intent, the question is, “What is your agenda?” or, do you really want what is best for everyone involved? Here are Covey’s steps to increase good intent:

  1. Examine and redefine your motives (what is really driving you).
  2. Declare your intent (to others, not just yourself).
  3. Choose abundance (over fears of scarcity).

On the competence side, the issues are capability and results. The question is, “Are you capable?” or, what are the talents, attitude, skills, knowledge and style you need to act appropriately. Covey’s steps for increasing capabilities:

  1. Run with your strengths (know what they are).
  2. Keep yourself relevant (keep learning).
  3. Know where you’re going (have the end in mind).

Competence also includes results, and there the question is, “What is your track record?” or can people around you count on you to deliver based on past performance. Covey’s steps to improve results:

  1. Take responsibility for results (whether good or bad).
  2. Expect to win (eventually—there may be many failures along the way).
  3. Finish strong (be the best you can be, and learn from experience).

Image from Daalen and Geelhoed (2015).

When it comes to trusting yourself, you need to have confidence based on actual past experiences that you can handle a difficult situation well. It’s not so much being about smart as being credible.

Believe it or not, trust matters even if you are publishing a regular newsletter or a blog, according to Kissmetrics, a web marketing company. “Quality content” was the single largest factor in creating credibility. Factors contributing to the trustworthiness of a blog included detailed copy, consistent output, and acknowledgment of source material. I certainly try to do this myself with my monthly postings.

It’s pretty clear that trust does not happen instantaneously. It is consciously built over time. It can be lost or gained. And once it is lost, it takes a lot of effort to restore. Better, in this case, to “start strong” by being trustworthy first. This will also help you discern who to trust.

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