#8 — How to Build Trust (The Role of Caring)

Coach’s Corner #7 made the point that 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. But how do you do that, especially if the people you’re up against are difficult?

Competence builds trust because it sets a standard. Both your allies and your opponents recognize your skills and experience; this makes miscalculations by any of them less likely and encourages straight talk. It also strengthens support for you from members of your own team. If they know how good you are at negotiating, for example, they’ll be much more likely to trust you to take the lead at the bargaining table.

Accountability and honesty build trust; people know not only that you can do your job, but also that you will do it—and that you will tell the truth and keep your word.

Respect builds trust. Valuing other people’s priorities, needs, backgrounds, outlooks, and styles helps them trust you, especially if they hold views that are very different from your own.

From my experience, however—the most powerful tool for building trust is caring for other people and for their situations. By “caring,” I don’t mean some abstraction. Real caring is active—it goes past good thoughts to good actions, even when you’re under stress. I apologize for talking to you about what caring is—as if you didn’t know that from your mother’s knee. But I’m more than willing to embarrass myself because of the countless times I’ve seen citizen activists ignore the value of these simple steps.

A Caring Toolbox

Caring is putting yourself in others’ shoes as best you can, so that you can more fully appreciate their feelings and needs. What must it be like to live this person’s life? The more different that people are from you, the harder it is to do this, but it’s very important that you make the effort. Try this:Think of a person who is opposing you on a problem—someone you find it really hard to care for. Ask yourself, what would it be like to be her/him? The next time you have to deal with that person, let those insights soften what you say and how you say it.

Caring is minding all the little interactions. Who you are with the convenience store clerk is who you are. Try this: The next time a telemarketer interrupts your dinner and you’re tempted to give a rude response, consider that the caller may be a minimum-wage single mom or an overworked volunteer who has just had 15 people hang up on her. You can still say no, and you can still say, “Take me off your list,” but spend another 10 seconds to add a few kind words that will make the person’s tough evening a little brighter. Who knows what effect it might have?

Caring is looking for the positive. Acknowledge others for their strengths and contributions. Look for common interests and positive qualities rather than getting stuck on differences, weaknesses, and faults. Try this: Think of people you really don’t want to be around. Now think of something good about each of them—some character trait or skill, for example. Now think of things you might have in common—perhaps it’s rooting for the same baseball team, perhaps something more. The next time you meet each person, find a way to acknowledge the good things and shared interests.

Caring is being personal. It’s getting to know people—sharing personal stories and experiences. This may mean being a little more open than you’re comfortable with, and inviting others to respond in kind.

Caring is active, nonjudgmental listening. Caring communications aren’t just about you talking.Think of a time, perhaps when you were feeling down, when someone really listened to you, not to tell you what was wrong with you but just to listen. What difference did that person’s listening make for you? Have you ever listened that way to somebody else? What effect did it have?

Caring is doing small favors. I live down a long, winding dirt road that has 15 other families on it; some of them have always been friendly, some not. Visitors to all our houses are constantly getting lost, so I decided to make a detailed map showing how to reach all 16 houses. I gave copies to everyone on the road and to the firehouse and the county EMTs so that they could find us all, too. The next time I was out patching potholes, people who had never helped before came out with their shovels. There was a new friendly spirit, and I have no doubt that that little map helped cause it.

Caring is taking the time.No matter how rushed you are, there’s always something caring you can do, even if it’s only in the tone of your voice.

Caring is reaching out to people beyond your regular circle of family and friends.

Caring cannot be a manipulation. That will backfire, and you will end up much worse off than before.

A case study. A few years back I was asked to help design and lead a conference on the future of the Everglades. Environmentalists wanted the Everglades’ natural flows restored. Sugar planters wanted to keep using fertilizers that leached into the groundwater. Developers in coastal cities wanted a cheap supply of drained land for new suburbs. Other people in the cities wanted to slow the flight to those suburbs to protect the tax base for urban schools. Dade County wanted to build a new airport in the swamp. The Army Corps of Engineers and local politicians all had their points of view. It was a swamp in more ways than one.

All the stakeholders came to Fort Lauderdale for this conference. I worked with the organizers to set up the agenda so that people from every group got to talk at length about who they were and why they wanted what they wanted. Nobody else had to agree—but they didhave to listen. Then I led the group in a visioning exercise—what did they see for the Everglades in 2015? The effects of listening and of visioning—instead of the usual posturing by interest groups—were dramatic. Tentatively at first, then with more energy, people began to make suggestions that were genuinely aimed at finding common ground. They did that not because of changes in their own views or personalities, or in response to the eloquence of others. They did that because by then they’d begun to see each other as human beings with legitimate points of view, to care about each other’s situations, and to build enough trust to permit the kind of openness (and open-mindedness) that could lead to real solutions.

Most of the caring actions I’m taking about in this essay are small. Do them, however, and you might see a difficult person defrost. Trust, backed by genuine caring, permits dialogues that aren’t possible any other way.

Remember the movie Groundhog Day? Bill Murray’s character gets stuck in one day that’s repeated over and over until he slowly, slooowly learns that caring produces meaning and happiness in his life and in the lives around him—instead of the discord and loneliness he had created by being cynical and manipulative. That movie made the case as well as it can be made.

Photo credit: