How to Build Trust

There's more to building and maintaining trust than these familiar exercises from a team building retreat. adriaticfoto/Shutterstock

Trust is difficult thing to define. We have a definition, sure — "firm belief or confidence in the honesty, integrity, reliability, justice, etc. of another person or thing," according to Webster's New World Dictionary — but even that definition is filled with other things that are hard to quantify.

Like other concepts, including love, trust tends to be grounded in emotions backed up by actions. "Although trust often seems invisible ('transparent,' simply taken for granted), it is the result of continuous attentiveness and activity. Trust, once established, easily recedes into the background, into a familiar and then barely conscious set of habits and practices," Robert Solomon and Fernando Flores write in their book, "Building Trust: In Business, Politics Relationships, and Life."

So how do you get to that point of "familiar and then barely conscious set of habits"? How do you establish trust with someone and make it last?

A triangle of trust

Peruse a psychology section at a book store or do a web search about this, and you'll find all kinds of answers to this question. In a lot of instances, it's specific to business relationships, and those answers can feel like easy shortcuts. That a pratfall or some other minor blunder instills confidence and thus trust in people has been backed up for a while in research. This method of establishing trust also relies on establishing credibility and backing it up, too. So while it may be a bit of quick gambit to get someone to feel a bit more comfortable, it may not immediately translate into trust.

We need trust outside of a business context, however. Interpersonal relationships of all kinds are built on it, and ways of establishing trust can be applied to any of them. Take, for instance, the method outlined by Frances Frei. Frei, a professor at the Harvard Business School, gained a small amount of media attention in 2017 after the ride-sharing company Uber hired her to help completely revamp their corporate culture following a string of PR nightmares. In April 2018, she did a TED Talk about her experiences at Uber, specifically about building and rebuilding trust. While her talk is "about" Uber, it's applicable to how we all engage one another.

Frei's approach is a triangle of trust. In her talk, she sketches a triangle on a chalkboard and labels each point with a letter. E, for empathy; L, for logic; and A, for authenticity. If you're missing one of these, the triangle of trust "wobbles," according to Frei — and you don't want it to wobble.

Empathy. This, for Frei, "is the most common wobble." Empathy is about making the space for someone else to be heard, to be acknowledged, for their contribution. "Identify where, when and to whom you are likely to offer your distraction," Frei advises. "That should trace pretty perfectly to when, where and to whom you are likely to withhold your empathy. And if in those instances, we can come up with a trigger that gets us to look up, look at the people right in front of us, listen to them, deeply immerse ourselves in their perspectives, then we have a chance of having a sturdy leg of empathy."

One thing Frei recommends is putting away phones. "It is the largest distraction magnet yet to be made, and it is super difficult to create empathy and trust in its presence."

Logic. The second wobble is two-pronged. It can be wobbly logic in general and then wobbly communication of logic. Frei jokes that she can't help with the former, but communicating logic is a bit easier to fix. To Frei, there's two types of communicators. The first is one that tells a big story that builds to a conclusion, an ultimate point. However, if your logic is wobbly, it means this message is muddled. Instead, Frei recommends a second type of communication: "Start with your point in a crisp half-sentence, and then give your supporting evidence. This means that people will be able to get access to our awesome ideas."

If you strip out the business connotations Frei's example carries, the logic wobble boils down to clarity and reasoning. If you are able to explain your actions and your rationale for them, that can help create and maintain trust in just about any situation, and it allows people to have a dialog that can, in turn, increase empathy.

Two men talk on a set of stairs
Empathetic and clear communication can help create trust. loreanto/Shutterstock

Authenticity. While empathy may be the most common wobble, authenticity may be the most difficult. For Frei, it's "the most vexing" part of the triangle. "We as a human species can sniff out in a moment, literally in a moment, whether or not someone is being their authentic true self. So in many ways, the prescription is clear. You don't want to have an authenticity wobble? Be you." Frei acknowledges the challenge in this, however, especially if your authentic self "represent any sort of difference" from what is expected. Frei's advice in this situation is still about embracing the authentic self and for others to create that space.

"Wear whatever makes you feel fabulous," she says. "Pay less attention to what you think people want to hear from you and far more attention to what your authentic, awesome self needs to say. And to the leaders in the room, it is your obligation to set the conditions that not only make it safe for us to be authentic but make it welcome, make it celebrated, cherish it for exactly what it is, which is the key for us achieving greater excellence than we have ever known is possible."

Again, if you strip out the business speak of "leaders in the room," think about what is "different" in any space you occupy, personally or professionally. Do you make the space for differences, or are you shutting them out from those spaces? If you're shutting out difference, you're creating a very flat concept of trust, one that excludes instead of includes, and forces assimilation into your particular spaces. Not only does this limit your interactions, but it gets you a twofer wobble since it isn't very empathetic, either.

"When we figure out [authenticity], when we figure out how to celebrate difference and how to let people bring the best version of themselves forward," Fries concludes, "well holy cow, is that the world I want my sons to grow up in. And with the collection of people here, it would be a privilege to lock arms with you and go ahead and rebuild trust in every corner of the globe."