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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Conflict: Ownership in Communication

If you say something that makes someone else angry, are you responsible? That’s the question at the heart of taking ownership for your communication. At some level, you’re only responsible for your words and actions and the other person is responsible for their responses. On the other hand, there are things someone can say to intentionally provoke someone else. So how do you accept responsibility for your part in communications problems without becoming enmeshed in the other person’s responses?

Intent

Certainly, if someone intentionally tries to create a negative reaction in the other party, they own the reaction. We can ignore the reality that the other person can choose their response. The response that was received was the one that was intended. However, what happens when you communicate a message that you intend to be neutral or positive, and it’s interpreted negatively? Here, there is a challenge, because ownership for the problem may lie in the reasonableness of the response.

Consider a situation in which you thank the host for the meal they’ve provided with, “Thank you for the delicious feast that you’ve provided,” and the host is offended. Unbeknownst to you, they’ve struggled with overeating, and to them the word “feast” is associated with their overeating. They’re angry, and you have no idea why. Even if you knew that they struggled with overeating, you have no reason to believe the single word feast will trigger a response. In a case like this, there was no ill intent, so the communicator should feel no shame in accidentally triggering the other party.

Reasonable Prediction

Reasonableness is a fuzzy definition that’s prone to problems, as what seems reasonable to one person won’t be reasonable to the other – and vice versa. Despite the challenges, “reasonable” is the only criteria that is flexible enough to fit most situations. So, we’re stuck with the mucky world of what we should be able to predict – but sometimes can’t.

Eating everything on your plate in the Midwest of the United States is a sign that you appreciated the food provided by the host. In the Far East, it’s a sign that the host didn’t provide you with enough food – and they’ll be embarrassed. So, what is reasonable is context dependent. Where are you, and what is the experience of the person you’re communicating with?

Ultimately, it may not matter much whether the other person’s response is reasonable or not. It only changes whether you may feel guilt (or shame) about having not realized you might cause harm. The way you respond should be the same whether their response was reasonable or not.

Responsible vs. Responsive

Instead of worrying about who is responsible – or who is at fault – a better approach is to focus on the response. We’re not responsible for someone else – or their reactions – however, as concerned members of the human race, we should be responsive to them. When one of our brothers or sisters is hurting, we should seek to remedy their hurt. It doesn’t matter that they’re hurting because of something unintentional that we said or did or not. There’s no need to sift through whether we could or should have anticipated the harm or whether the other person is being overly sensitive.

Our response should be that we’re sorry they’re hurt and it was not our intent, and we should ask what we can do to make it better.

The Dangers of Feeling Responsible

So, while the response that we offer doesn’t change, there is a risk. The risk is that we’ll become focused on whether we are at fault and therefore guilty. It opens the door to self-condemnation and spiraling into an inner focus, which takes us away from being able to be responsive to the other person. A preoccupation with fault, guilt, shame, blame and the like doesn’t serve to heal the hurt feelings.

The goal should be to learn from the experience instead of getting caught up in the blame game. Instead of focusing on whether you should have known, focus on what you should now know – and what to do to remedy the situation. If you remain focused on addressing the hurt directly and improving for next time, the problems will get smaller and smaller until you almost never hurt the other person’s feelings, because you know what not to say or do. Without feeling like you can’t be yourself, you can learn to mediate your responses in a way that’s healthy for both.

 

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