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Reaching Out To Build Trust

Here are a few beginning observations about building trust one-on-one, particularly when trust seems to have been broken. As teams develop their communication and trust-building skills an increasing number of difficult topics and conflicts where trust is involved can be addressed in the team itself. But often this trust-building work starts gradually, with people in pairs learning to resolve differences.

Repair of trust, whether in a whole team setting or one-one, often involves sorting out beliefs and perceptions that may or may not turn out to be true. This can be hard work because beliefs about oneself and others are often a stable part of a person's world. They don't change automatically. While it is generally easy to see this truth about others, it is often hard to see it about ourselves.

What is clear is that trust doesn't improve without direct communication about the issues and problems that have actually arisen — especially the incidents that are driving our personal beliefs about one another. For example, if I think another team member "isn't accountable," simply telling another person that is not likely to have a positive impact. This is primarily because I as the receiver can't see what is causing the belief about lack of accountability. If I don't know what the observed behavior is, all I can do is get defensive.

This leads to uncomfortable feelings and the possibility of ongoing defensive behavior that feeds the conflict. The mistrust will build until the people sit down to have direct and sincere conversations with one another about what's going on. "What's going on" involves both 1) the behavior and specific incidents that have occurred, and 2) the conclusions that are being drawn. Only by discussing both can people discover together a better way, one they create together. Talking both of these points through, people often find that they've drawn mistaken conclusions from the behavior they's observed or heard about. They may also learn, if they are listening non-defensively, how some of their own behaviors may be contributing to the mistrust. As they work together to understand the conflict, clearing up misunderstandings, they may move toward taking each other at "face-value." This means they stop reading into situations negative assumptions or conclusions that inhibit their communication and efforts to rebuild the relationship.


Individual 1 (What Individual 2 sees about Individual 1)

Conclusion: Not a team player


  • Doesn't come to regular staff meetings

  • Waves people away with a dismissive hand gesture when too busy to talk

  • Uses sarcastic tone of voice and put-down in meetings


  • Missed regular Tuesday staff meetings for two of last three weeks

  • Used negative hand motions with Person A on Monday, with Person B on Tuesday regarding ABC project

  • Sarcastic "Whateeever!" comments in two conversations in the last week.

Individual 2 (What individual 1 sees about Individual 2)

Conclusion: Thinks he's better than everybody else


  • Talks over other people at staff meetings

  • Interrupts ongoing conferences and meetings with minor requests

  • Uses patronizing tone of voice with others


  • Took up about 50% of total airtime at last staff meeting attended

  • Interrupted a conversation between Individual 1 and a staff member with an "urgent" request for assistance that could have easily been provided later

  • Rumor mill buzzing about two staff members feeling uncomfortable in their exchanges with Individual 2

Can you see how in these examples there is a reciprocal quality, meaning they create a kind of cycle of mistrust? If Individual 1 and Individual 2 can talk these observations and conclusions out, noticing how that cycle works, they can find a way to build trust. Sometimes this is best done with a facilitated conversation, using a leader or another team member to facilitate. Sometimes an outsider, such as a third-party consultant, is needed.

After many years of facilitating improvements to workplace relationships I have repeatedly found:

  • Differences in temperament and personality among people contribute a lot to misperceptions and bad conclusions.

  • Reluctance to talk about incidents and specific behaviors must be cast aside in order to build a more trust-based relationship.

  • People often try to go too fast in resolving differences. It often works better to meet several times over the period of time than to try to resolve all difficulties in a single meeting.

  • During problem solving, people often try to jump in to try to quickly explain their own behavior. Listening and paraphrasing — slowing down the conversation — are extremely important tools to build new or more effective understandings.

Courage meets Preparation

While it can take some courage and preparation to begin the conversation, the payoffs in productivity, lowered stress and better morale at work can be enormous. To begin a conversation with a colleague, be prepared to talk about the following:


  1. What you genuinely appreciate about the other person.

  2. What you are doing that you believe gets in the way of the relationship.

  3.  What you would like the other person to do differently or not do.

  4.  What commitments to new or different behavior you are willing to make.

If the person is willing to work with you, you might ask that he or she respond to the same questions from his or her side.

  1. What the other person genuinely appreciates about you.

  2. What the other person is doing that he or she believes gets in the way of the relationship.

  3. What the other person would like you to do differently or not do.

  4. What commitments to new or different behavior the other person is willing to make.

It is in the course of these conversations that the conclusions, behaviors and incidents get discussed in sufficient detail to embrace the truth of what's happening in the relationship. A tone of sincerity, curiosity and genuineness and one that avoids judgment is critical to surfacing and working through the exchange.

Be sure to set up some follow-up time to see how those commitments are working out.

For a thorough resource on how to speak up, please see, The Courageous Messenger.

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