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What To Do When You Want to Say “I Don’t Trust You” (Hint: Don’t Say It)

Trust Is a Fundamental Human Value

I once worked for about eighteen months with a peer I couldn’t trust. It was awful. I wasted time, effort and attention on parsing his emails, protecting my team and laboriously documenting “agreements” that “clarified the situation” to my boss. Agreements which would be run over an hour after we had met to “ratify” them.

And I felt bad. All the time. There’s just something nasty about not knowing: not knowing what will happen in the next meeting; not knowing if an agreement will be kept; not knowing when another email will come in with another set of bruises and breakages and emotional upset.

And there’s something more than that: having to be around somebody who you don’t fundamentally trust is spooky, uncomfortable, unpleasant.

Trust is a foundation for everything we do as humans. We are necessarily social. We are successful as a species because of our ability to work in groups — to share ideas and then collectively work with them, refining, adding, making them real. And, it turns out, we have evolved specific mechanisms for recognizing and remembering people who “cheat” — that is, break a reciprocal exchange.

Deciding that we don’t trust somebody is wired very deep into our systems. It feels bad because it’s supposed to: if we can’t trust somebody, it threatens the group, and because the group is vital to our existence, a person we can’t trust is an existential threat. That bad, uncomfortable feeling is telling us we need to the fight or run.

Managing Trust is a Critical Skill

Learning to manage trust is absolutely critical in growing as a manager. In my work as a coach, the issue comes up frequently. Founders will find themselves suddenly running organizations through managers they’ve hired — people they don’t know that well, doing work that they previously would have done themselves. A great manager will become a Director, managing managers, and suddenly discover that they can’t get their hands on everything, they have to trust their direct reports.

And if a manager/CEO can’t trust a group of thirty, or fifty, the issue will only get much, much worse as the organization scales. It’s just possible for a group of thirty to get everything right. It’s not possible in a larger organization — things go wrong! If a manager treats every difficulty as a breach of trust, he or she will spend a lot of very uncomfortable time in fight/flight mode, and the organization will quickly become defensive and eventually toxic.

Managing Trust: A Model

“I want to say I can’t trust him”, a founder will say of a new VP of Engineering. “But then he’ll get upset! He might quit!”. “I can’t trust those folks in group X”, a Director will tell me, of a team they have inherited. “But can I really say that??”

The problem is one of nuance and language. We have deeply embedded, unconscious, “cheater detection” mechanisms. When we feel we can’t trust somebody, our unconscious systems have detected a “cheater” — somebody who doesn’t reciprocate in social transactions. “Cheaters” are a threat to the group, and therefore to us.

But our language only has one word for what we’re feeling: trust. So we feel stuck in a binary choice: either we say “I don’t trust you”, and greatly damage the relationship, or don’t say it, and remain deeply uncomfortable.

The way forward is to first recognize the situation: to notice that we are in a fight/flight mode brought about by an apparent threat. We’re reacting because we feel the other person threatens our existence. They don’t (!).

Having recognized our emotional, instinctive response, we can apply a model, using our rational brain to break down the issue and come up with a more skillful, considered approach.

There are several models of trust out there, some of them fairly elaborate. My preference is to keep it simple, breaking down what we mean by “trust” into two parts:

ability: does this person have the means — skills, resources, understanding — to do the work?motivation: what is causing this person to do what they are doing? Bear in mind, our intuition is not on our side here. Our intuition is telling us “this person is a cheat — they wish to damage the group”. This is almost certainly incorrect!

Our work then becomes figuring out what is true about both of these pieces.

(This model comes from the excellent Crucial Conversations. Ed Batista has written similarly about trust, using “judgement” for “ability” and “intentions” for “motivation”. Byron Katie uses the question “what is true?” as a core component of her work).

Ask: What Is True?

So we ask ourselves, “What is true?” about this interaction. “What is true?” is a great, powerful question. It starts to move us out of our fight/flight response and into a more rational, careful and nuanced point of view.

What Is True about their ability? Maybe a peer who doesn’t deliver on time is just swamped. Maybe a technical person who keeps saying they are going to fix a bug and doesn’t needs some technical coaching. Maybe you, as a boss, haven’t made it clear what your expectations actually are! (Coaches note: if you are a first-time CEO or Director, start here!).

What Is True about their motive? Yes, the tricky one. There’s only one way through here, and that’s to be Radically (maybe even Courageously) Curious. Ask: what’s causing the other person to do what they’re doing? Be genuinely curious. Look for the authentic response. Don’t argue: you are looking to get the situation clear. Are they going to say “my motive is to cause you difficulty”? No. But enough authentic (or inauthentic) descriptions of motive will give you insight into their true intentions, confusions and desires. Most of the time you’ll discover a motive that you had no idea was there.

Communicate Specifics. (”I Don’t Trust You “ is A Nuclear Weapon)

Be clear and upfront about what you’ve heard. The goal here is to have a workable, clear conversation about specifics . “I don’t believe you are able to make your deadlines” is a workable conversation. “I think you are unreliable in reporting serious client issues” is a workable conversation — not an easy one, but workable. Although it may be scary, “I don’t believe you are working in my best interest in this deal” is the start of a workable conversation. Radical Candor helps here.

The statement “I don’t trust you” is a nuclear device. It will almost certainly be heard as “I consider you a threat, and our relationship is irretrievably broken”. The resulting conversation will almost certainly now have a strong emotional undertow, which will make it very hard to make any progress on specifics.

Of course, if you genuinely don’t trust the other person, and feel that their intentions and actions are destructive, then that’s what you have to communicate. Use it if you mean it, but be clear about what you mean!

Looking Back

So would this have helped me with my peer back in the day? Yes, definitely. It would not have been easy — we would have had a whole series of specific conversations which would have been hard and direct, but there would have been a possibility of a productive working relationship.

More importantly, I (and my teams) would have had a year and a half of working life without near constant stress, tension and difficulty. And in the always memorable words of Annie Dillard:

“How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives”

Would I have had the emotional maturity to ask “What Is True?”. I don’t know. Maybe if somebody has suggested it :-) I wish you good luck with this if you are grappling with it right now.

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