Want to build trust? Then practise on the small stuff…

Peter Osborn


November 2020

Lack of trust has been cited repeatedly as a major impediment to the Brexit negotiations, especially when the UK government announced legislation to overturn, if necessary, elements of the ratified EU Withdrawal Agreement.

As the French MEP Phillipe Lamberts trenchantly observed:

‘If you want to strike an agreement with anyone, I don’t think it’s a good idea to hint that you might not abide by past agreements with the same partner.’

Everyone knows trust can take years to build and seconds to destroy, and the push and pull of any major negotiation can stretch trust to its limits, but the UK/EU talks got me thinking about the negotiators themselves, as individuals. They do, after all, sit across the negotiating table one minute and across the dinner table with family and friends the next, and trust – or its absence – plays just as big a role in both settings. 

So do the same ‘rules’ for trust apply at these very different levels? For example, how and when do you start to build trust? Clearly it’s no good waiting for the crisis to happen. That’s way too late – at both the negotiating and the dinner table. Rather, you have to start right now, by practising on the small stuff – the countless routine, apparently unimportant interactions that make up the bulk of our daily lives; things like punctuality, keeping small promises and everyday acts of understanding and consideration. 

Four key elements

In fact, research has shown a remarkable consistency in what it takes to build trust, at all levels and in all cultures. They boil down to four key elements, which we discuss in our book, The Talking Revolution.

First is Predictability – you keep your promises and act reliably. If you arrange to meet someone outside the station at midday on Tuesday, you meet them outside the station at midday on Tuesday. Simple. 

Then there's Integrity – you demonstrate that you share particular values with the other person. They really value honesty and frank speaking, say. You do too. So they trust you to give your honest and frank opinion, even if they might not be thrilled at what they hear. 

Next comes Benevolence – you indicate that you care about the other person. Which means you consider their welfare, feelings and needs when you make decisions that might affect them. And they trust that you’ll look out for them and their interests.

And last but not least is Competence – you demonstrate that you can do something to a certain level. For example, if you consistently complete work on time and to the required standard – or higher – you’ll be trusted with more of it and/or more responsibility.

Crisis prevention

Taking the opportunity to practise one or more of these elements on the small, everyday stuff means that if and when the big stuff comes up, that foundation of trust will already be in place and could actually prevent a crisis from developing at all. But if a crisis does develop, they’ll certainly make the challenges it brings much easier to handle – whichever table you’re at. 

And remember – what might look like ‘small stuff’ to you could be very big stuff indeed to the other person or the other side. You might think that breaking a small promise is insignificant – ‘No one died’ – but they might take it as a sign of fundamental unreliability, or not caring, or disrespect. Maybe even all three.

So if you’re seeking to build trust, when in doubt go the extra mile. Advice that might be too late for the Brexit negotiation – but it needn’t be for you.

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