#7 — Trust Them? Are You Kidding?

You’ve got an issue, defined a project and created a vision for its success. You’re ready to act. No, not yet. Being a successful agent for change is about more than making the right moves. It’s also about making the moves right.

Public problem solving works best when people deliberate with respect, integrity, and concern for the common good. But that conduct is not what we usually see in the public arena—at any level—and it’s not the way most people think about any public process, especially where there’s conflict or the possibility of conflict. From the U.S. Congress to your local school board, too often we see the public process bringing out the worst in people, not the best. Getting involved in it often seems as attractive as having a root canal.

That’s a tragedy. My experience, from decades in the political trenches, is that what most often separates success from failure in solving public problems is a positive and compassionate spirit, and competence in the so-called soft skills that flow from such a spirit—such as building trust, communicating with sensitivity, and inspiring others. What’s in your heart is at least as important as what’s in your head.

The challenge is to develop and use the qualities of your own spirit that will help you solve tough problems in ways that build cooperation and community instead of pushing people further apart. This is easier said than done. I’ve seen too many brilliant analysts and otherwise competent managers fail because they couldn’t or wouldn’t do this. What’s your experience? In your community, when’s the last time you saw your school board, water district, town council, or county commission operate with respect, integrity, and concern for the common good? What difference did that make?

The most important—and the most difficult to develop—quality of spirit in the public process is the ability and willingness to build trust, especially with opponents.

Whenever I talk about the importance of trust in solving public problems, I see eyeballs rolling up in the audience. “Sure, I’d like to trust,” those eyes say, “but sometimes you just can’tact that way in the Real World or you’ll get run over. Where does this guy live, anyway? How smart is it to trust when the world is full of people who’ll see it as a weakness to be exploited, and who can’t wait to manipulate you and put you down?” Then I get the descriptions of crooked politicians, greedy CEOs, wacko neighbors, and beady-eyed bureaucrats. Everyone seems to have someone like that in mind.

Yes, it’s a tough world out there, with real villains in it. Dealing with wars and revolutions and arms sales in the Foreign Service, I tangled with some of the worst people on the planet. I’m not naive about nasty people and the harm they can do, and I definitely don’t underestimate the difficulty of dealing with them. Efforts at building trust are risky and don’t always work. There are times when the people you’re dealing with are too nasty or the situation is just too far gone to even try.

But in fifteen years of dealing with conflict in the Foreign Service, I became convinced that a strategy of attacking and defending usually just led to escalating confrontations. At best, there were temporary “victories” that lasted as long as it took the other guys to lick their wounds and come back at me.

The kind of cooperation essential to solving tough problems, on the globe or in your family, can happen when some trust has been established and is impossible without it. Successful citizen activism often depends on individual people and/or small groups sticking their necks out to trust when no one else seems ready to take that risk. And here’s my very practical bottom line: in a lifetime of negotiating—both as a diplomat and as an activist—when I’ve taken the risk to try to build trust, the benefits have far exceeded the risks. Sometimes the breakthroughs have been dramatic.

Next time you’re faced with the choice of trying to build trust or not, take the time to assess both the people and the situation you’re dealing with. Initially you may come up with all the reasons notto trust: the situation is too tough or the opponent too nasty; there isn’t enough time; you could be played for a chump. Now ask yourself whether you’re making a true appraisal of the odds--or conning yourself so that you won’t have to risk making the first trusting move.Remind yourself that building trust can bring important benefits despite the risks. Then make your decision.

It’s not all or nothing. You will rarely have enough information at the outset of a negotiation or confrontation to make a good appraisal of whether trust is possible. So it makes little sense to start with an attack-and-defend strategy. Navigate by positives unless and until it becomes clear that the other people will not do likewise. Give others the opportunity to respond in kind, and if they do, be prepared to build on that. Meanwhile, take Wild Bill Hickok’s advice: never sit with your back to the door. Make sure you’ve left yourself enough time, resources, and opportunity to defend yourself if and when it’s clear that the only goal of these people is to flatten you.

I’ve noticed that most of the people who tell me that trusting in tough situations is naive haven’t actually tried it. Well-considered efforts to build trust are not naive; as I’ve said, my experience is that they consistently raise the odds for success. What’s really naive is believing, despite so much evidence to the contrary, that the tired game of attacking and defending will somehow work next time around.

When you get right down to it, the biggest obstacle to a more trusting approach may not be a nasty opponent; it may be our own skepticism that such an approach can ever work. Take a chance—and you’ll see that it does. Then build a track record of success.

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