[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]
A question I’ve often been asked is “How do we rebuild damaged trust?” Usually this is being asked in connection with an intimate relationship, but sometimes it’s within friendships, professional relationships, or other familial relationships.
I don’t imagine there’s a recipe for rebuilding trust that works in all cases. In fact, I suspect there are some cases where the rebuilding of trust is simply not going to happen. However, I have seen it happen, including in situations where one or both people started out not believing it was possible.
CROSSING THE NOT-QUITE-FROZEN RIVER
I heard a powerful metaphor for rebuilding trust that has stayed with me from years ago. If my memory serves, I think I heard it from Miki Kashtan. It goes something like this…
Imagine that you and another person are in a relationship in which the trust between you has been severely damaged. In practical terms this might mean that when describing the other person you say things like, “I don’t believe they are looking out for my well-being” or “I think they’re lying to me about X, Y and Z” or “I feel very uneasy around them, and am fearful that they might, at any moment, say or do something that will be emotionally painful for me, whether intentionally or not.”
Let’s say you’re standing together in “Low-Trust-Land,” and you both want to get to “High-Trust-Land.” These two lands are separated by a river. The river is frozen, which sounds pretty good at first, right? It sounds like you could just walk across the frozen river from “Low-Trust-Land” to “High-Trust-Land” …
Unfortunately, this river is not solidly frozen. It’s in the state that some real frozen rivers reach in the spring. The ice has cracked into large pieces and these pieces are flowing along with the river. Some of the pieces will still take the weight of a person, or two people, but as you jump from one to the next it’s very easy to fall or upend the ice and slip into the cold river.
You have time to attempt the difficult process of moving from one moving ice platform to the next, until you get to the other side of the river. If one of you starts to over-balance, the support of the other will often be essential to keep you on the ice and out of the water. If you fall into the water, the other person’s support will be essential in pulling you back out.
Great attentiveness, courage, compassion, and teamwork will be required from both of you. You can expect trips and falls along the way and respond to them with mutual care and support when they happen, rather than expecting everything to go smoothly and getting shocked or annoyed when it doesn’t.
To get from “Low-Trust-Land to “High-Trust-Land” will require both of you to be focused on the goal of renewed trust in your relationship. Initially you’ll be trying to co-operate in rebuilding trust even though the diminished level of trust between you makes co-operation difficult!
Let’s leave behind the ice image now and look at what this co-operative effort at reaching “High-Trust-Land” looks like in practice.
1. Do what you say you’re doing to do
2. Don’t do what you say you’re not going to do
3. Show up with empathy for the other if you break any agreement unilaterally or if deviate from 1. and 2. Be transparent about breaking the agreement and then listen with focus and presence to what the other person has to say about that. Listen to deeply for what’s important to them. Aim to show equal care for their needs as you do for your own
4. When you need to change an agreement, do so in consultation with the other person and with care for their needs as well as your own
5. Express gratitude to the other person whenever there’s an opportunity to do so (if you start looking out for it you might find gratitude hidden even in the moments of deepest conflict, e.g. “Thanks for talking to me about this, even though it’s a tough thing to talk about.”)
6. Get support from others who would love to see you rebuild trust, if you can find others you both trust to provide this support
If only one of you follows this recipe it might not be enough to rebuild trust to where you’d like it to be.
If you both follow the recipe you might be amazed at what happens.
The picture is not changed all that much if the initial distrust is unequal. If you say “I trust you, but you don’t trust me, so you’re the one who needs to change!” it’s unlikely that the change will happen. It’s still going to require a co-operative effort on both of your parts.
IT MIGHT BE HARD TO TRUST THAT THE OTHER PERSON IS REALLY FOLLOWING THE RECIPE
Being in a relationship where there is distrust creates a strange “hall of mirrors” effect where it’s difficult to see what’s real and what is not. Things can start to look and sound very different for each person.
For example, if you don’t trust me, but I’m trying to follow the recipe above, I will start listening in a very focused and sincere way to understand why you don’t trust me. My attempt at shifting to empathic listening might be very sincere. I’m trying to change! I’m trying to understand your feeling and your needs.
However, if you do not trust me, it is quite likely you will not trust my attempts at empathy. It will seem to you that I’m not really sincere in my desire to be present with your pain and to understand deeply what’s going on for you. It might seem to you that I’m just pretending, just putting on a show in the hope of convincing you that I’m trying to change.
If this happens, then persistence and practice will be key. It took a while to diminish the trust, it’s going to take a while for it to build again – although I have sometimes seen it rebuild so quickly that both people are totally surprised by how quickly they’re progressing.
DISTRUST IS NOT THE ENEMY
It’s important that even though your goal is to increase trust you don’t make an enemy of “distrust.” It may be very tempting to think “to trust is right, to not trust is wrong – we’re trying to get from what is wrong to what is right. Distrust is the enemy and must be destroyed!”
You can perhaps see the pitfall in this thinking. If you have a sense that you’re trusting the other person, you might start to judge yourself subtly and perhaps unconsciously as “right.” You might judge their continued distrust as “wrong.” In this way you fall out of a place of care and empathy for *why* they’re still not trusting you and start taking up a position that they are doing something wrong and that they *should* trust you. I don’t include taking right/wrong positions and “shoulding” each other in my recipe for trust building, because I’ve never seen it build trust.
APOLOGY AND PROMISES
If you ask for apology, get clear on what that apology is for. What will it give you that’s valuable to you if the other person apologizes?
If you give an apology, get clear on what you mean by it. Ask the other person what your apology means to them. Listen with empathy to their response.
Be mindful about whether you’re asking for or giving impossible promises.
“I’m sorry for what I did and I’ll never do anything that’s painful for you ever again!” might be a welcome thing for the other person to hear, but not really doable. Who can predict the future so accurately? Who can guarantee perpetual perfection?
Here’s a longer statement that might be less immediately pleasing to hear, but is probably more doable: “I’m sorry for what I did because, through listening to you, I’ve come to understand why that was so painful to you. I hope and intend to avoid doing things in future that result in pain for you. If I do, I intend to be quick to talk about it with you and understand the impact on you, so that we can quickly restore connection and trust again.”
Newt Bailey is the founder of the Communication Dojo workshops. His passion is sharing nonviolent communication, through workshops, videos, and other materials, in a way that is quick to integrate and put to use.
In his private practice, Newt brings his services as a trainer, coach, and mediator in corporate settings, with a focus on executive and “office hours” coaching. Newt also works privately with individuals and couples as a coach and mediator.