Conflict: The Impact of Trust (Self and Other)

Have you ever been in a conflict, and you knew that it didn’t matter what the other person said, you weren’t going to believe them? There wasn’t a resolution to the conflict, because you couldn’t trust they were telling you the truth. Therefore, no matter what they promised, you couldn’t accept that you would really get it. It’s a frustrating experience that unfortunately too many of us must go through. This is the extreme example of how a lack of trust can make conflict inescapable.

Defining Trust

To understand the problem, we must first understand what trust is and discover why it’s critical to being able to resolve a conflict. Trust is, simply, our belief in our ability to predict someone’s behavior. Whether we trust that they’ll do whatever is in their best interest or whether they’re going to be the most virtuous person possible, we trust that we can predict how they’ll respond.

Ideally, of course, we hope we’ll predict that their behavior will be good to us and others but trust itself is simply that belief that we can predict what they’ll do. Sometimes, it will be a blind trust, which ignores evidence to the contrary. However, it’s always the belief that we can predict the other person’s behavior.

In the Conflict

The challenge when we believe we can’t predict someone’s future behavior is that we can’t believe they’re telling us the truth and therefore any promises or commitments they make will be upheld. They can commit to changing their ways, considering our needs, or paying better attention, but, ultimately, if we don’t trust them, there’s no belief that these things will come to pass.

A complete lack of trust therefore can’t provide any foundation on which a resolution to any conflict can be found. There’s nothing solid to build on or push against. That’s why successful negotiators often will seek small commitments that are easily met to encourage the parties to begin to trust one another.

Building Trust

Trust seems like it’s a magical thing that you either have or you don’t, but there’s a simple formula to building trust. Make a commitment, then meet it. That’s all it takes to develop trust. The problem with the simple formula, and the one thing that keeps so many people from doing it, is that it takes a long time. You may make and meet dozens or hundreds of commitments before the other person decides to start to trust.

The greater the integrity of your words to your actions, the easier it will be for others to choose to trust you. The more consistent you are over time, the greater their capacity is to predict your behavior and the greater their willingness is to take the leap of faith required to trust.

Trust and Trustworthy

We often confuse our being trustworthy with our decision to trust another person – and vice-versa. We believe that if we behave in a trustworthy way, someone else must trust us. However, nothing can be further from the truth. Our decision to be worthy of trust (trustworthy) is based on our integrity and who we want to be. The decision for someone else to trust us is based on their willingness to be vulnerable.

Trusting someone, even in small ways, exposes us to vulnerability. Our decision to trust is based on the calculus of the benefits we expect to receive from the trust minus the potential costs of betrayal and the worries and frustrations. If trusting seems to be positive for us, we’ll do it, and if not, we won’t. Of course, it’s not like people get out a paper and pencil to work out the equation, but it’s the rough math approach to trust. What’s challenging is that some people’s experience with the other person will reduce the degree of trust, and some people’s life experience will increase the costs of betrayal while minimizing the values of trusting.

The Cost of Betrayal

The costs of betrayal factor heavily into the decision of whom and how much to trust. The greater the risk taken in trusting someone, the greater the costs of betrayal. Our goal in navigating conflict is not just to ensure that parties are being trustworthy but also that we’re putting in appropriate safeguards to minimize the risk of betrayal – and increase the consequences should a betrayal happen.

Conflict negotiation isn’t easy, and it’s impossible if no trust can be granted. To properly confront the conflict, we need to make sure we’re addressing the factors of trust – including the cost of betrayal – so that it makes sense to everyone that trusting enough to reach a resolution is the right answer.

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