Trust: the #1 Aspect of Every Single Relationship


“Many people are blind to trust, not so much to its benefits as to its nature and the practices that make it possible.” – Robert C. Solomon

The #1 aspect of all relationships is trust.  Without trust, there is no foundation for the relationship to be built upon.  As trusted advisors, all attorneys and aspiring attorneys owe a solemn duty to inspire the trust of clients and of the public.

Unfortunately, trust can take years to build but only seconds to break.

Abraham Lincoln quote on trust

Why is forgiving so easy but re-building trust so difficult?  What is trust, anyways?

Trust involves a trusting party and a trusted party.  The result is trust, which has three essential elements:

  1. Vulnerability to the trusted;
  2. Confidence that the trusted will not exploit this vulnerability;
  3. Optimism that the trusted is competent in certain respects.

Thus, a trusted advisor makes a client feel confident that her best interests are in mind and provides valuable, relevant advice for her needs.

A. The Uncertainty of Lending Pens and Hiring Lawyers

Trust can be tangible or intangible.

When I let you borrow my pen, I trust you will return it.  When I hire you as my attorney, I trust you will competently perform legal services.  Trust means I don’t have to put a GPS device on my pen or a surveillance camera in your office.  In other words, the act of trusting occurs when the trusted party is not being watched.

I (the trusting party) am vulnerable in both of these scenarios.  I’m abandoning control.  With control abandoned and vulnerability opened, I’m uncertain.  

This is a problem because the need for certainty is the most fundamental of all human needs across all human beings — no one is exempt from the need for (at least some) certainty.

Trust fills in the gap between uncertainty and certainty.  Without trust, there is zero certainty.  With trust, there’s at least a degree of certainty.

B. Trust and Game Theory

Prisoner's Dilemma

The prisoner’s dilemma proves  trust may be “illogical”

In the prisoner’s dilemma, two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned.  Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of speaking to the other.  The police don’t have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge.  They plan to sentence both to a year in prison on a lesser charge.  Simultaneously, the police offer each prisoner a Faustian bargain — if he testifies against his partner, he will go free while the partner will get three years in prison on the main charge.  Oh, yes, there’s a catch…If both prisoners testify against each other, both will be sentenced to two years in jail.

The possible outcomes are:

Prisoner B stays silent (cooperates) Prisoner B betrays (defects)
Prisoner A stays silent (cooperates) Each serves 1 year Prisoner A: 3 years
Prisoner B: goes free
Prisoner A betrays (defects) Prisoner A: goes free
Prisoner B: 3 years
Each serves 2 years

Interestingly, game theorists conclude that the optimal strategy is betrayal. 

If the other prisoner chooses to stay silent, then betraying them gives a better reward (no sentence instead of one year) and if the other prisoner chooses to betray then betraying them also gives a better reward (two years instead of three).  Because betrayal always rewards more than cooperation, rational self-interested prisoners would betray their counterparts, and the only possible outcome for two rational self-interested prisoners is for them to betray each other.

The “logical” game plan is to betray.  If both prisoners follow this strategy, they will each serve two years.

But they would get a better reward if they cooperated!  If both prisoners follow this strategy, they will each serve one year.

To follow the cooperate/cooperate strategy, trust is required.  So how is trust created?

C. What’s the Key to Trust Creation? 

“Trust is the only truly sustainable competitive advantage in business.”  – David Maister (author, The Trusted Advisor)

According to Maister, the creation of trust between two parties depends on a reciprocating exchange.  Party A takes a small risk to trust Party B.  A is the trustor (doing the trusting), B is the trustee (the one who is trusted).  If B agrees to the new relationship, the result is a higher level of trust.

The key to trust creation is reciprocity.  The trustor takes a risk, and if the trustee reciprocates, trust is created.  If not, trust isn’t created.

Lao Tzu Trust Enough Quote Trusted

The absence of trust can be caused by:

  • too little trustworthiness on the part of the trustee, or 
  • too much risk aversion on the part of the trustor.

If you want to be trusted, you have two strategies you can pursue:

  • increase your level of perceived trustworthiness, or 
  • kick-start the reciprocity relationship by first playing the role of trustor.

The second strategy capitalizes on the idea that “the best way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.”  To make yourself more trusted, according to Maister, you might demonstrate vulnerability by offering to trust first.

The natural human reciprocal response is to return the gesture — tit for tat.

Reciprocity is deeply embedded in our psyches

Reciprocity is deeply embedded in our psyches

So, if you want your client to trust you, find some ways to trust them.

Trusting + Trusted = Trust.

Osho Quote on Trust Powerful

D. The Four Principles that Govern Trustworthy Behavior

According to the Trusted Advisor Associates, four principles govern trustworthy behavior:

  1. A focus on the other for the other’s sake (not just as a means to your own ends);    
  2. A collaborative approach to relationships;
  3. A medium to long-term relationship perspective (not a short-term focus);
  4. A habit of being transparent.

I think lying underneath all of these principles is the art of actively listening.  As Steven Covey puts it in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand then to be understood.”  In other words, take out your shovel and dig below the surface.  Why is the client asking you to do certain things or to work in a certain way?  What’s motivating them to do that?  What are their underlying interests?

Listening is the Way to Building Trust

Listen your way to their trust.

Also underneath all of these principles is the fact that trust is an emotion.  Emotions narrow our perception to certain “fields of evidence” that support the emotion.  When we’re in the grip of an emotion, we focus on facts that affirm its existence and are resistant to facts that negate it.  This explains the fact that trust is tough to build but easy to break.  Specifically:

  1. Humans are negatively biased (perception and memory are very limited; as a survival mechanism, we focus much more on the negative than the positive); 
  2. The most fundamental human need is certainty (feeling of security);
  3. The emotional brain is much older than the logical brain (words and promises are irrelevant; only actions mean anything)

In other words, history — for our purposes — is a select collection of predominately negative memories.  Add in the fact that most humans anticipate the worst case scenario and rely on the idea that “history repeats itself.”  We find: trust is tough to build but easy to break.

For survival purposes, our brain focuses on the negative at about a 5:1 ratio over the positive.  This helps explain why trust is so hard to build but so easy to break.

For survival purposes, our brain focuses on the negative at a 5:1 ratio over the positive.  This helps explain why trust is so hard to build but so easy to break.

So use the above principals wisely.  Build trust carefully.  And keep building.  Do not adhere to the mantra “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  Keep fixing.  Keep trusting.

Nietzsche Quote on Trust Lied to Me



  • Trust, which starts when no one is watching, is the #1 aspect of every relationship 
  • It’s difficult to gain and easy to lose (negativity bias)
  • Trust fills in the gap between certainty (basic human need) and uncertainty (caused by delegating task to trusted party)
  • Reciprocation, which is deeply embedded in our psyche, is a great way to build trust (kick-start the trust-building process by trusting first)
  • Other trust-building components are transparency and actively listening (“seek first to understand”)