Trust Is A Must For Relationships

When you meet a man, you judge him by his clothes; when you leave, you judge him by his heart. Russian proverb

For an organization to have staying power, it must be built on trust.  For a business to be profitable, it must have the trust of its customers.  And for a relationship to have any degree of quality, it must be filled with trust.

As I often tell my audiences, “Trust is a must or the relationship will bust.”


1.  We are suffering from a trust deficit.

Indeed, we have a trust deficit in this country as big if not bigger than the federal deficit.  Almost everybody is wondering who they can trust.

You see it in RELATIONSHIPS … where cynicism has overtaken faith.  Many people feel like singer Rod Stewart quipped, “Instead of getting married again, I’m going to find a woman I don’t like and just give her a house.”

You see it in the MEDIA … where biased advocacy has replaced unbiased reporting.  As Alvin Toffler, the author of “Future Shock,” wrote, “We are increasing the sophistication of deception faster than the technology of verification.  The consequence of that is the end of truth.  The dark side of the information technology explosion is that it will breed a population that believes nothing, and perhaps even more dangerous, a population ready to believe only one ‘truth’ fanatically and willing to kill for it.”

And you see the trust deficit in POLITICS … where the occasional stupidity of some politicians has gotten more attention than the good things they have accomplished.  You simply expect the talk shows to be filled with jokes about politicians.  As Groucho Marx put it, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.”

More recently, Jay Leno noted, “Barack Obama said today that politics has become too gummed up by money and influence … and then he had to leave to attend a fundraiser.”

David Letterman asked, “How about Mitt Romney? Now there’s a guy who looks like you would see his picture on a package of men’s briefs.”

And humorist P. J. O’Rourke said, “The Democrats are the party of government activism, the party that says government can make you richer, smarter, taller, and get the chickweed out of your lawn. Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work, and then get elected and prove it.”

The point is simple.  If we’re going to have organizations and relationships that work, we’ve got to be in the business of trust building.  As Dr. Manny Steil, the author of “Listening Leaders,” says, “The challenge of establishing trusting relationships takes time, for trust does not sprout quickly or automatically last forever.  Rather it emerges over time and requires careful ongoing attention.”

He’s right.  Trust “requires careful ongoing attention.”  I’ve found the following elements to be critical in that process.

2.  Be open.

Tell it the way you see it.  Share the way you feel.  Refrain from being secretive or coy.  Let people know you … because it’s very difficult to trust an unknown commodity.

It’s a lesson that Rusty had to learn the hard way.  As his friend Mike Hanson from Rapid City, South Dakota described it, they were at a dance one night … during which Rusty struck up a conversation with an attractive young woman.  Soon afterwards, Rusty came over to Mike with a big smile on his face and a scrap of paper in his hand. 

“She works for the phone company, and I think she likes me because she gave me her number.” Rusty beamed.  Then he unfolded the paper.  It read “Dial 0.”

She wasn’t open … which was her choice, of course.  But a lack of openness will always destroy trust … if that is what you are trying to establish.

By contrast, Jack Benny demonstrated his willingness to be seriously open despite the fact he was a well-known comedian.  He did that when he was invited to perform at the White House. 

When he arrived at the White House gate with his violin case under his arm, a burly guard blocked his way and tersely asked what was in the case.  “A machine gun,” Benny replied.  The guard said, “Oh that’s fine, Mr. Benny.  Go right in.  For a moment there I was afraid it was your violin.”

Quick to respond, Benny said, “I’m not going to play the violin, I promise.  But I’m gong to talk about some things that may be equally unpleasant.”

If you’re going to build trust, you’ve got to be open.  That’s why my book on “Brave Questions:  Building Stronger Relationships By Asking All The Right Questions” continues to be so popular and why it’s going into it’s fifth printing. 

Author and certified personal trainer Jimi Varner says: “Dr. Zimmerman, around 4 months ago, I purchased your incredible, thought-provoking book on ‘BRAVE QUESTIONS,’ and have seen the miraculous effects it’s had ON my relationship with my fiance.  Although practical and simple, we have found it extremely beneficial to all of our relationships and highly recommend it to anybody in need of urgent or not-yet-so urgent relationship repair!”

Beyond openness, you must…

3.  Be honest.

The fact is … dishonesty and trust cannot co-exist.  You’ve got to be honest … even if it hurts you once in a while. 

One employee should have known better when she received an unusually large pay check one day.  But she decided not to say anything about it.  The following week her check was less than the normal amount; so she confronted her boss about it.

Her supervisor asked, “How come you didn’t say anything when you were overpaid?”  Unruffled the employee replied, “Well I can overlook one mistake — but two in a row?”

The employee’s lack of candor did nothing but hurt their working relationship.  After all, as author and columnist Peggy Noonan observed, “Candor is a compliment; it implies equality.  It’s how true friends talk.”

One caution:  Some people think that they’ve found a real friend or a true ally if another person will lie for them … occasionally … when needed.  I don’t buy it.  I say, “People who will lie for you will lie to you.”  They can’t be trusted.

4.  Be competent.

You probably know people who have the previous two qualities; they’re open and honest.  But you still can’t trust them because they’re incompetent.

I see it all too often when I’m speaking in organizations.  Many people are promoted to a position of leadership because of their technical competence, but they may not be interpersonally competent.  And then everyone suffers as a result.

To inspire trust and confidence in people, a leader must have a degree of competence in both areas. If the leader doesn’t have that, if the leader is incompetent, he takes the focus off the organization’s vision and values and places it on to his own behavior.  If the people working for an incompetent leader have a high degree of skill, they’re continually worrying about their leader messing things up.  And if the employees don’t have much experience, they won’t know what to do. 

Either way, productivity and morale suffer when people can’t be trusted.

5.  Be concerned about the other person’s welfare.

To have someone trust you, they need to know that you have a genuine interest in their interests.  Indeed, the best salespeople do it all the time.  They get to know their customers and prospects.  They learn about their customers’ and prospects’ likes and dislikes, goals, dreams, pet peeves, hobbies, and hot buttons. 

One of my friends demonstrated that when she called her father from the Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte.  In amazement, he asked her what she was doing at the race track.

She replied, “As you know, Dad, as a sales manager most of my customers are home builders.  Every time we’re together, all they seem to talk about is NASCAR racing.  If I’m going to have a chance of beating out my competitors in this market, I’m going to have to be able to participate in conversations that include NASCAR.   That’s why I’m here.”

Her interest in her customers’ interests made her a trusted vendor … much more so than any other salesperson who just walked in the door to get the sale.  She learned about their interests and was able to talk to them about those things.

But she also gave her customers the listening they needed.  One of the surest ways to build trust and make someone feel important is to listen … really listen to them.  And by contrast, the refusal to listen to someone is just about the surest way of making them feel unimportant and unwilling to trust you.

One little listening tip here.  When the other person asks you a question, in addition to listening carefully to what he/she has to say, pause before you answer them.  This gives them the impression you have thought about what they said and it was worthy of thinking over.

6.  Display good judgment.

You may know someone who does all of the above.  They are open, honest, competent, and concerned, but you still don’t trust them … because they display poor judgment.  It doesn’t mean that they are necessarily bad people, but you simply cannot trust the judgments they make.  They seem to lack the wisdom or common sense that makes it possible to trust them in certain areas or with certain tasks. 

So yes, you have to be discerning with whom you trust with what.

Such was the case with little Maggie.  When her mother became sick with the flu and had to stay in bed, Maggie wanted to be a good nurse.  She fluffed the pillows and brought a magazine to her mother to read.  And then she even showed up with a surprise cup of tea.

“Why, you’re such a sweetheart,” the mother said as she drank the tea.  “I didn’t know you even knew how to make tea.”

“Oh yes,” the little girl replied.  “I learned by watching you.  I put the tea leaves in the teapot, and then I put in the water.  I boiled it and then I strained it into a cup.  But I couldn’t find a strainer, so I used the fly swatter instead.”

“You what?” the mother screamed.  The little girl said, “Oh, don’t worry, Mom.  I didn’t use the new fly swatter.  I used the old one!”

Obviously she had good intentions but poor judgment. 

Follow points 2 through 6.  You will build trust and you will be trusted.  In fact, you will build relationships that have tremendous staying power. 

Edward Reede from U.S. Army told me about that when I was speaking at his military base.  He said, “I grew up near Amish farmers.  They were loyal to a fault to their seed and fertilizer suppliers.  I even knew one elderly man, who had retired from his seed trade twenty years earlier, but had to place orders for his Amish neighbors each Spring because of the special trust he developed with them.  The Amish wouldn’t go to anyone else.”

Action:  What are you doing to maintain and/or build the trust in your relationships?  What else do you need to do?