In my Building Trust practice, I often speak on ways we can intentionally expand trust in relationships. Genuine mutual trust is so valuable it can be life- and career- changing. And once trust gets established, both people usually work extra hard to stay worthy of it. This is natural and healthy; it keeps us on the straight and narrow. Sure, but life is often messy.
We also know that trust, once damaged, can be very difficult to restore (and sometimes impossible). It can be hard for us to look past, and/or forgive someone else’s mistakes or decisions… especially when the people we most count on have let us down.
Ask my kids what I’m like when I’m hangry. This normally composed teacher of trust and communication morphs into the Dad-o-Raptor.
Attendees at my training sessions universally admit that we mess things up with our loved ones and co-workers. We let each other down by commission and omission. When we fail at keeping up our end, either to what we’ve said or what comes with our role, we withdraw trust. So while it would be easier to talk about forgiving others, today let’s instead deal with problems of our own making. Or, as my father used to call them, the beds we’ve made for ourselves.
Suspend the Excuses
So let’s say we just messed up and deep down we know it. This moment holds the key to our (possible) redemption. If we can suspend our automatic excuses and self-justification, even for a few seconds, we might see past the immediate issue and recognize the larger problem – the withdrawal of trust. We have caused this blow to the relationship. And we had best decide to set it right.
As examples, high-profile public blunders are all-too common. Public Relations and crisis-management firms help celebrities and organizations repair damaged reputations; their advice is that sincerity and speed of response often determines outcomes in the court of public opinion. Repeated denials can kill trust forever (think Lance Armstrong, 2013), whereas rapid acknowledgement and corrective action (Tylenol, 1982) can rebuild it quickly.
So we can’t start rebuilding trust until we own our part in eroding it! Whether on social media or in a private conversation, owning our shortcoming is the first step in restoring trust.
What Else Can We Do?
Remember: there are no guarantees when it comes to trust. We may feel that we deserve to be given another chance but there are many factors that impact a person’s willingness to grant us one. Our patience is key.
While we can’t control another’s ability to forgive our trespasses, I do recommend some very specific things that increase our chances.
- Own it, without excuse, as fast as possible.
- Authentically apologize. Forced or insincere apologies are spotted immediately.
- Ask for forgiveness. Don’t insist. Do ask.
- Negotiate new expectations. Clearly set the bar so that progress can be made.
- Change the offending behavior. Get help or create a new accountability process. If the behavior doesn’t change, trust will erode even further.
- Monitor your own progress, without expecting perfection.
- Show appreciation for the other person’s willingness to hang in there.
- Be patient with the untrusting party. Stay humble. You might think it was a small matter but they probably do not.
- Go on with life (or the job); don’t obsess.
Do we deserve to be forgiven for our mistake, behavior, decision or inaction? Well, as Will Munny (Clint Eastwood) says in Unforgiven, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”
We don’t live on planet Fair, just planet Earth. Since we all mess up, the best thing we can do is to have a strong, mutually-trusting relationship already in place. This provides the foundation and resilience to see things through the tougher times. Recovering from our mistakes is much less threatening if we work to make the relationship strong on a daily basis. That’s what Building Trust is all about.
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