Recently, I offended a coworker in public with an offhand “joke” that cut deeply. At the time, I had no idea what I said bothered him because he, like most of us in that situation, masked his inner reaction to save face – both his and mine. I continued with my day, silently reliving the scene, enamored with my cleverness and lighthearted sense of humor.
Meanwhile, my coworker churned. He relived the scene, too, except when he thought of it I grew more mean-spirited and untrustworthy in the retelling.
So, what happened next?
At his first chance to see me in person, he stopped and asked if we could talk. He went on to share exactly how what I said bothered him, why, and how much trust I withdrew from our account that day. He did this assertively and respectively the whole time, yet I could see the intensity of his emotions beneath the surface. He wanted me to know that repeated incidents would not be okay.
His openness, vulnerability, and willingness to “go there” drew me in. I put myself in his shoes. And I could see myself being cavalier and heartless during that public moment a few days prior.
For my part, I felt genuinely embarrassed. His approach was so effective that I immediately joined him as a fellow human, not trying to defend myself, make light of the situation, or avoid responsibility. I apologized sincerely. He heard me but wasn’t quite ready to move on. Cue the brief but powerful silence.
The whole conversation wrapped up in five minutes. I was left with a very real need to restore trust and harmony, but he wisely said it would take time and that he “would see.” It was not what I wanted to hear, but it was fair, appropriate, and honest.
Why do I share this difficult story? After all, I teach this stuff, and here I go upsetting people. The answer is because it is a beautiful example of trust-building in the real world. My coworker, even though he was frustrated, felt safe and equipped enough to do this. He would rather get it out on the table than bury it, pretend it didn’t happen, or fake a smile for the rest of our working lives.
Would this discussion happen at your place of business? Do you feel safe and equipped to have the honest, meaningful conversations you need? With your peers? With your leader? There are many ways to tackle this challenge, and they all start with the decision that you deserve to work in an environment where you can trust others and they you.
Many weeks later, my coworker and I are on track for restoration. This incident will remain in the past (assuming I control my “wit,” that is). To quote myself on page 15 in my book, “Trust can’t be rushed. The pace of any relationship is set by the willingness of both persons to extend trust, not earn it.”
It’s important to remember that no one works trust-building skills perfectly, even me. Luckily, we humans are a forgiving lot. If people recognize a sincere effort to be genuine and true to our word, they are likely to overlook the occasional mistakes we are going to make.
“Today I will give another person the time and emotional space they need to trust me. Meanwhile, I will work on becoming more trustworthy, should that time arrive.” Bruce Hendrick, The Building Trust 60-Day Workout, Day 4.