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.

7 replies
  1. James A. Boyd
    James A. Boyd says:

    Hi Charlie,

    This post causes me a lot of personal angst.  I think I am pretty well hard-wired into your 17 rules, but I still get burned more often than I would like to admit.  In spite of being a savy person, I think I get "taken" becasue my instinct is to trust everybody, even without any evidence of being trustworthy.  This is a real, life-long issue for me.  I am not gubile, but I want to trust the other guy.  This feeling so pervasive that I wonder if it is a hidden gene in a lot of us folks.  Is it a part of human nature to want to trust first and ask question later?  I would be interested in what others have to say.

    Make it a great day.

    Jim   .

  2. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    I’ll be interested too.  And thanks for the honest posing of a very important question.

    But to start it off, here’s a thought.  The right solution to getting burned is not to trust less, but to more consciously assess the trustworthiness of others.

    It may be your over-trusting is rooted in a desire to help people and to make things better for all.   You don’t have to give up that very laudable objective; just separate it from the tactic you’ve been using, which can be harmful to yourself, and doesn’t necessarily help achieve your objective.

    All but one of those 17 comments were about the trustworthiness of the other party. Another’s trustworthiness doesn’t have anything to do with you, it has to do with them.  You don’t have to fix you in order to fix them.

    You can accomplish much the same by saying ‘no thanks’ to someone, and finding a polite way to explain to them what was lacking in their presentationthat kept you from trusting them. 

    It is true that sometimes the best way to make someone trustworthy is to trust them; but you still have to pick your battles, and position them well.  Focusing on the other’s trustworthiness first may help.

    It’s a thought.  Others?

  3. sandy styer
    sandy styer says:


    May I offer another experience?  I’ve one of those people who are called "Minnesota nice" (and it’s not always meant as a compliment!) My starting place is to believe the best of others and to trust them.

    What I’ve found over time is that I get into truouble not for trusting the wrong person, but for failing to trust …my intuition, what Charlie’s calling my gut in his final point. Then I end up with a mess of some kind, and feeling bad about not listening to myself.  I let how I "should" act take precendence over my intuitive feeling that someting isn’t right.  As I get older I find myself more and more willing to go wtih the gut.



  4. Carl Ingalls
    Carl Ingalls says:


    The title of your blog post, "Whom Can You Trust? How Can You Know?" raises a trust issue for me.   The title implies that you can know whom to trust with some degree of real certainty.  You made it clear in the article that this is not actually possible, but I  saw the title first.  If it wasn’t for the fact that I already trust you from previous encounters, I would have dismissed the article as being untrustworthy, and I would not have read it. 

    Carl Ingalls

  5. Stewart Hirsch
    Stewart Hirsch says:

    Carl – I love your commment to Charlie.  It shows that when there is trust, one gives the benefit of the doubt!

  6. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Carl, to Stewart’s point, good thing you already knew me a bit!

    Your comment is, I think, well taken. Ideally, I should have used a title that conveyed the imperfection of such approaches.  Or, immediately in the post, acknowledged the limited nature of that title.

    In any case, as Stewart notes, you have helped to point out a subtle but powerful distinction: the indepence of language and relationship.  There is no magic bullet secret phrase or set of words we can use in being trustworthy; the meaning of the secret phrase will vary completely by the relationship that already exists between the parties.  I could say the exact same words to you, who has some experience of me, and to someone who lacks any experience, and generate a completely different reaction.

    I am increasingly discovering how situational trust is:  one of the few things you can say for sure about trust is, "it depends." 

    The converse is true a well.  Not only does someone who doesn’t know me not trust my title, but someone who does know me is much more likely to trust it.  Translate that to selling, for example: someone who doesn’t know me will be far more sceptical of my claims than someone who does. 

    Thanks for raising both a very practical issue–words and titles–as well as a deep one–the connection between relationships and language.

  7. Nils Montan
    Nils Montan says:

    This post is responding to today’s $64,000 question – who do you trust.  I have seen some LinkedIn posts asking a similar question and they often draw many, many responses from people.  We are asked to trust every day – and like Jim Boyd – many of us are keen to offer and give – only to find out subsequently that the trust in others that we gave was in one way or another used against us.

    I am a trusting person and I give people a lot of rope.  Frankly, in a business setting this has not always been to my advantage.  Every time my trust is broken, a small piece of me dies a little.  That’s too bad. 

    There’s an old saying that goes something like – "We can’t contol the world, we can only control our reactions to it."  I think this has some applicability here.  For the rest of this month I am going to dedicate myself to checking my own motives.  What is it that I feel I need to get from people that makes me an easy target and what should the appropirate response be when I "feel" that I have been burned.

    Thanks Charlie for a great post.


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