The news is drenched in stories of declining trust. Trust in our institutions, trust in companies, trust in our leaders – all are down. We need not surrender to mass cynicism, but it’s worth exploring: just how do you know whom to trust?

A Trick Question?

“Whom can you trust?” sounds simple and straightforward enough – but it’s a trick question, for two reasons. First of all, you can’t know the answer with certainty. Secondly, the question is as much about the trustor as it is about the trustee.

No Guarantees. Ronald Reagan’s famous dictum “trust but verify,” was misleading; if you have to verify, you’re not trusting. There simply is no trust without risk. To trust, by definition, is to put oneself in harms way of the actions of another in the belief that the other will not choose harm.

Hockey great Wayne Gretzky put it well: the only way to never miss a shot is to never take one. The only way to never trust the wrong person is to never trust anyone.

It Takes Two to Trust. Asking “whom can I trust,” makes it sound like trust is all about the other person. But it also has to do with us. For one thing, it depends on what’s at stake. I might trust Amazon to guess my preferences in books ­– but not to line me up with a potential date. You might trust someone to recommend a stock but not share with them family health and insurance information. You can’t answer “whom can I trust,” without answering, “to do what?”

Finally there’s your own risk profile. You probably have a friend who takes more social risks than you do and another friend who’s less risky than you are when it comes to investments. Whom can you trust? Whomever you’re talking about, your friends may answer differently. The only answer that counts is your own.

Trustworthiness: The Four Virtues

Of course, there is such a thing as trustworthiness of the other party and it has a lot to do with whether you can trust them. Trustworthiness of organizations is one thing; trustworthiness in people is another. In people, we might thing of trustworthiness as a collection of four virtues.

Credibility. Do you think the person speaks truthfully? More importantly than not lying, do they speak the whole truth – are they transparent? Are their credentials readily present and do you understand them? Can they answer your questions in ways you can understand? While all this may sound objective, there’s an important subject component of credibility as well: do you believe the person?  If your gut instinct is to doubt, and you are not a completely risk-averse person, then listen to your gut.

Reliability. Can you depend on this person to do what they say they’ll do? Do they have a track record with you? If not with you, can they demonstrate a track record with others, as in references?

Intimacy. Does the person listen to you in a way that makes you feel heard? Do you feel they’re being open with you? Do you feel the interaction is two-way? It’s OK to answer this one with emotional responses – part of trust is emotional and this is that part.

Other-Orientation. Is the person focused on themself or on you? Whose interests do they seem to have at heart? Is the conversation largely one-sided? Do you feel your questions are being heard and answered, or being deftly handled and disposed of? This question is partly about process, e.g. sales methods, but also partly emotional; again, that’s a valid part of deciding whom to trust.

You may object that a talented con-artist could fake each one of these traits and you’d be right. There are cases of fake credentials (credibility), faux friendliness (intimacy), and false references (reliability). This shouldn’t be surprising – it just proves these are the right elements of trust to be focusing on.

Reciprocity: The Magic Ingredient of Trust

Despite all the preceding comments, there is one unique factor affecting trustworthiness: paradoxically, it’s your own willingness to trust. It may seem odd, but another person’s trustworthiness can be affected by your own propensity to trust.

It’s been said, “The fastest way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.” Conversely, if you approach someone with great suspicion, micro-manage them and expect the worst of them – your expectations will probably be met. As another saying puts it, “Whether you expect good or ill of someone – you won’t be disappointed.”

Despite what you read in the headlines, most human beings in most situations are wired to respond positively to people who place trust in them. You may not be able to change physical reality through your thoughts: but you can have an impact on others’ behavior by the way you choose to approach them.

Whom can you trust? In several ways, the answer involves you as well as the other person.