Since trust is fundamental to relationships, trying to restore the feeling once it’s lost might seem impossible. But if you’re the offender in a breakdown of trust, know that all hope might not be lost.
Trust is “often defined, sort of abstractly, as a willingness to be vulnerable to another or to an institution, or we treat it more as a characteristic of a relationship,” Karen Cook, Ray Lyman Wilbur professor of sociology at Stanford University in California, told CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta in the “Chasing Life” podcast episode “Trust Me.”
The highest level of trust means people can rely on you to act on their behalf or in their best interest, even when you have the opportunity to take advantage of them or cause them harm, said Michele Williams, a professor in the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa. “It lubricates collaboration and cooperation.”
Trust, or this willingness to be vulnerable, largely relies on three foundations, Williams said, citing 1995 research: The ability to accomplish whatever task you’ve been entrusted with; benevolence, or, care for or protection of the other person; and integrity, which means acting according to an acceptable set of values.
When you violate someone’s trust in you, the person might have trouble believing in your subsequent good intentions or genuineness. In romantic relationships, distrust can harm the emotional and physical connections between partners, said Kiaundra Jackson, a licensed marriage and family therapist, private practitioner and television personality. And in the workplace, one of the greatest costs of broken trust is the loss of rapport due to negative emotions and therefore avoiding each other, which prevents resolving the distrust, Williams said.
No matter which side of the broken trust bond you’re on, if it’s a relationship you consider worth saving, experts have advice for what you should do.
Empathizing and apologizing
If you’re remorseful and want to apologize, know that different people need different apologies, said Darlene Lancer, a licensed marriage and family therapist and psychotherapist in Santa Monica, California. With some people, “it doesn’t matter what you say; they want to hear the words ‘I’m sorry,'” she said. “Other people couldn’t care less. They want you to listen to them and understand how they feel. And then other people just say, ‘Well, show me. I don’t care what you say.”
“Often when people accuse you of being untrustworthy, your immediate response is to defend yourself and your good intentions rather than listen to them,” Williams said. “A lot of times that empathy is really important.”
Active listening that seeks to understand someone rather than preparing to respond while the other person is talking is key to rebuilding trust, Williams said, and should be done shortly after your infraction. If you hurt your partner, ask what your partner thinks happened and why it hurt. Empathize with aspects you couldn’t see from your vantage point. Apologize for what your partner perceived as the harm. During these conversations, focus your full attention and time on listening and, without interrupting, asking questions to accurately perceive your partner’s feelings and thoughts.
Once that person has finished sharing, you can share what you think happened from your perspective. But own what you did and don’t make excuses, Jackson said.
Apologizing is a crucial step, but it’s often not a magic wand that will make the relationship go back to normal immediately or quickly.
“There’s a great paper that talks about the asymmetry in trust,” Williams said, referring to University of Southern California professor Peter Kim’s 2009 paper on the repairing trust. “The idea is that when someone’s trust is violated, they are more resistant to rebuilding trust than often the other person is. So, you want to rebuild trust, but the other person is a little bit standoffish because they now see you as someone who might cause them harm.”
Thus, persistently maintaining that relationship by consistently showing your trustworthiness could really help the other person want to let you in again. If your manager doesn’t trust you because you were significantly late to work, don’t be surprised if your manager is mad when you’re five minutes late on another day — trust violations tend to accumulate in others’ minds, so objectively small breaches could seem big. For someone to believe your efforts are sincere does take time, so don’t give up too soon, Williams advised.
Additionally, know the person you hurt doesn’t have to forgive or trust you again if that person want to, Jackson said.
Trying to trust again
One of the main reasons why some people never return to their prior level of trust is one-sided effort, Jackson said. With the efforts of both parties, the relationship can be mended.
If you’re on the receiving end of someone’s gestures to rebuild trust, be receptive by considering that person’s perspective, Williams said. If applicable, perceive the person as someone who has made mistakes, not a perpetrator whose only intention is harm. You, too, likely have made bad or inconsiderate choices at some point. Recognizing this can help you work together.
Rebuilding trust “can be a long road. It’s probably one of the hardest things that most people have to experience, because it’s very time-consuming,” Jackson said. “I’ve seen people stick in there, put in the real work. Oftentimes they may or may not need professional help, depending on the scenario, to get to that goal.
“But once it gets to that place, I often feel like those relationships are stronger than they were before.”