Truth or Consequences

From my experience, trust is not a word much used in the legal profession except, perhaps, to describe its absence. I recently had occasion to raise the issue of trust directly with a co-counsel and recognized, almost from the moment I uttered the word, that I was creating confusion and discomfort. And, it’s ironic. Trust is not naive or unsophisticated. Rather, it offers a highly complex and insightful path to a beneficial relationship, whether based on negotiation, collaborate, mediation or litigation. It creates a platform for innovation and creativity, which otherwise cannot be obtained in trust’s absence.

Because most of us in the profession are either co-owners or employees of institutions, we exist in a world of trust, whether we choose to recognize it or not. The same can be said for the relationships in our private lives, with family members or friends. We may not talk about it, nurture it or even really believe in it, but trust is there in one form or another.

What I suggest here is we take trust “out of the closet,” dust it off, and examine it closely to discover whether we’ve been ignoring something very useful, powerful and professionally and personally life enhancing.

“Building Trust,” written by Robert C. Solomon and Fernando Flores, was first published in 2001. It is a relatively short read (about 150 pages), so I would encourage you to pick it up from your library or acquire it, if the subject intrigues you. Solomon and Flores identify a number of “operating principles” for framing considerations of trust. First, trust is an emotional skill. It is something you learn. It is dynamic and involves personal responsibility and commitment. It is not a set of beliefs, but rather a social practice. It involves sincerity, authenticity, integrity, virtue and honor. It also goes hand-in-hand with truth. Truth establishes trust; lies destroy it. Trust is a precondition of civil society and never more relevant or important for the well-being of our global society and planet.

The problem with trust is practical – how do we create and maintain it? Thinking and talking about trust makes trust possible. It changes not only our beliefs, but also our behavior. Trust does not limit our freedom; rather it makes freedom possible. Trust is a matter of moods and emotional skills. And, our moods and emotional skills shape the way we engage the world. Moods and emotions can change with practice and be cultivated. Self-trust is the most fundamental and, ironically, most neglected form of trust.

Solomon and Flores distinguish four types of trust. Basic trust is established in early childhood. It is “basic” by virtue of its foundational nature, arising from our earliest childhood experiences. It may be inherited or innate. But whatever its origin, it is enhanced or undermined by subsequent experiences. Basic trust establishes the foundation for our personality and our world orientation, since it concerns not only our physical security, but security in our own being and our place in the world. Although it originates in the family setting, once we go beyond that setting, it is a trust that must be learned. Basic trust is relatively open-ended and indiscriminate. It is fundamentally a trust that “bad” things will not happen. Without basic trust life would be terrifying.

Simple trust is trust that remains unthinking and unreflective. It is naïve. The absence of suspicion is what makes it “simple.” It arises by default, not from analysis of deliberation. In some respects it is, in the words of Solomon and Flores, “focused optimism.” Simple trust is not sufficient for effective functioning in the world.

If simple trust is innocent, blind trust is not. Blind trust is denial, a form of self-deception. The contrary evidence is before you, but you refuse to see it. You could ask questions, but you don’t. It is willful self-deception and it is dangerous.

Authentic trust is about relationships and what it takes to create, maintain and restore them. It is fully self-aware, cognizant of individual and environmental conditions, open to new possibilities, yet constrained by possible changed conditions. Authentic trust requires wisdom. It is always qualified, focused, conditional and, consequently, limited. It is a mode of interpersonal engagement. It is open and flexible, based on a judgment of what is particular to each relationship. By its nature, authentic trust is articulated – it is spelled out. Both parties are aware of their obligations and responsibilities as well as a significance of the relationship for each of them. Fundamentally, authentic trust is negotiated. It arises from interaction and conversation. It includes an assessment of risks and liabilities, but maintains the self-confidence to trust, nonetheless.

The central thesis of Solomon and Flores in “Building Trust” is that trust is an action. It is not a medium or an atmosphere. It is something we create and sustain. It is a choice we make, involving skills and commitment. Trust is always housed in a relationship and entails the possibility of the betrayal. Trust always has limits and involves risk. Being aware of those limits and risks is essential to the trust calculus.

Often, trust is implicit. We put ourselves in trusting relationships all the time. But, familiarity with another is not a sufficient reason to trust. It offers no assurance of reciprocity or competency. Nor is trust about predictability. We are not attempting to predict another’s behavior when we trust. We are building a reciprocal relationship, based on mutual expectations, responses and commitments.

Trust tends to be reinforced by trusting. The psychological reward of trust is that it is gratifying to trust as well is to be trusted. Trust indicates respect and creates a bond. But, to be functional, it must be mutual.

Although institutions differ from individuals, institutions are human entities. Consequently, they can be appealed to, negotiated with, and depended upon to fill commitments. Trust, in a corporate setting, then is viewed in terms of its collective human relationships.

So what stands in our way of building trust? The first is our personal narrative – the story that we tell about ourselves and the world. If our early life experience denigrated our basic trust, we have a much longer climb. Another factor is our capacity for awareness. Are we so encumbered by our judgments and beliefs that we can no longer witness what is transpiring in our relationships and our environment? Another related factor is our emotional intelligence. How capable are we of assessing our own emotional states as well as the states of others? Then, there is our social intelligence – do we have the ability to listen and communicate profoundly? Can we see the world from different viewpoints? Can we compromise? Can we set aside our own desires for the sake of the relationship?

Trust is a path upon which you must decide. Once you begin to think about it and talk about it, you may find that it may be a path “less traveled,” but one that is extraordinarily rich. Give yourself a little test. Answer the following questions: What have I done to inspire another’s trust? What did I do or fail to do that weakened another’s trust? How did I know whether another was trusting me, more or less? What future actions will I take based upon the foregoing observations? What did another do to inspire my trust? What did it another do or fail to do that weakened my trust? How did I know whether I was trusting the other, more or less? What actions will I take based on the foregoing observations? What would it be like for me to intelligently engage the issue of trust, to build relationships, to engage in creativity and collaboration, to openly resolve disputes? What is missing from my life owing to my lack of trust? How might we support one another, through trust, to elevate the impact of our profession on ourselves, our societies, our families and our communities? How might we use trust to build working environments that support our personal development and that of our colleagues, our relationships with our colleagues, our families, our communities and our world?

Please start “trust conversations” with those around you. Let me know where they go and what transpires.

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