Whom Can You Trust? How Can You Know?

This blog mostly writes about how businesses and people can become more trustworthy, and more (intelligently) trusting. What we don’t write as often about is who not to trust.

How do you spot a con? Should you trust your instincts? What’s the role of credentials? Who do you trust? (This blogpost will deal mainly with personal trust).

I must lead with two caveats: there is no trust without risk, and there is no riskless world available to any of us. There is only so much you can do to avoid risk. That said, let’s talk about it.

The following 17 rules are mostly exclusionary: violation of one rule may be enough to blacklist, but the absence of violations isn’t enough to guarantee no risk. Just as there are codes, there are codebreakers. There are always Bernie Madoffs, con men who know how to use all the rules of trust against us.

The Trust Equation comes in very handy here. Since it is a formula for trustworthiness, let’s reverse-engineer it to define what the anti-trust equation looks like.

Let’s imagine you are looking for a pediatrician, a financial planner, a gardener, a lawyer, an events planner. How do you know you can trust them?

Trust Equation Component 1: Credibility

1. Credentials. If someone has no credentials, while others in their business do, they have a lot of explaining to do. You probably have better things to do. Move on.

2. Clarity. If the person can’t explain it to you clearly, and we’re not talking about nuclear physics, move on. That includes lawyers and financial planners.

3. Fine print. If there’s a lot of it, that’s not good. And if they say ‘you don’t need to worry about this, you can just sign it,’ that’s definitely not good.

4. Does it feel ‘almost too good to be true?’ Listen to that feeling; it’s probably right, it is too good to be true.

Trust Equation Component 2: Reliability

1. Track record. Do they have a track record at all? If not, not good.

2. Integrity. Do they say what they’ll do and then do it? Do you know? Does anyone know? Do they have a reputation at all? If no, keep walking.

3. Are they unprepared for meetings, and wing it, and you know it?

4. Do they show up on time? Call to let you know they’re running late?

Trust Equation Component 3: Intimacy

1. Do you feel personally at ease with them as a human being, not just an expert? Not star-struck, or blown away—just comfortably at ease. If not, you can do better.

2. Did they do most of the talking? That’s not good, you know. Move along.

3. Does your child or pet like them? Not like them? (Not limited to pediatricians and veterinarians).

4. Do they share others’ secrets with you to ingratiate you? That means you can’t trust their discretion.

Trust Equation Component 4: Self-Orientation

1. Did they engage you in conversation about your problem? Letting you talk about it? If not, that’s not a good sign.

2. Do they blame others for their shortcomings? A sign of not taking responsibility.

3. Do you feel pressured by them to act quickly? Be wary of “we can only keep this open for one more week,” or “we’re only taking a few more investors.”

4. Check your own motives. Are you looking for a quick fix, a special deal? Then you’re the ideal con target. You might as well wear a target.

5. Maybe most important of all: Did you feel guilty about asking questions? About not moving along at the seller’s speed? Did you feel pressured to give certain answers, or to offer certain information? Check your gut: your own feelings of guilt or pressure are serious warning signs. Ignore them at your peril.

Postscript: I was tempted to write this post as a 100-point quiz.  You know, deduct so many points for each “bad” answer, and end with “if your potential trustee scored between X and Y, you probably should…”  You know the type.  And it would probably be more popular.

But I don’t think that’s right in this case. The idea that you can precisely put a meter on trust is a dangerous idea. There’s  more than enough false precision out there already. Let’s just leave this at the personal, your-mileage-may-vary level: it’s meaningful if it’s meaningful to you.