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On Sunday I found one of my slippers upstairs on the newly adopted dog’s bed. “Ohmi! No!” I said as she followed me into the hall. “Don’t take my slipper!” Instead of continuing directly down the stairs, she turned with a suspicious look just as I tossed the slipper. It hit her lightly on her back. She flinched and ran away, out the doggie door.

For a while I didn’t notice that she had made herself scarce. I called for her. No Ohmi. I went outside to the dog yard. She wouldn’t come close, her tail between her legs. For about a day and half Ohmi regressed to the scared and skittish dog from her first days with us. Finally on Tuesday I was able to sit on the couch and pet her.


What does all this have to do with conflict? Trust. In our relationships with others we are always either making deposits into or subtracting from the reservoir of trust. We humans aren’t so different from our canine cousins in that regard. My months with Ohmi had contributed drop by drop to the trust reservoir. Yet one incident when I raised my voice and inadvertently harmed her, slight though it was, had taken us many steps backward.

Lack of trust is pretty often the situation when a human conflict has become unmanageable. In our work we see this often. Lack of trust leads to conflict and the consequent negative assumptions.

  • This from a workplace mediation session: “She walked right by me as if I wasn’t there. That, along with the way she had responded to me in the meeting, showed me that I couldn’t trust her. I had to watch my back all the time from then on.”
  • This from a post divorce parenting conflict: “The one thing I asked him to please do, he never does. My daughter comes home on Sunday without clothes for school on Monday. Every week. He doesn’t care.”
  • Or this from a landlord/tenant conflict: “He came into the apartment to fix the heat and now it is colder than before. He is trying to make us sick.”

In each of these cases, if there ever was a reservoir of trust built, it has been dramatically depleted. The actions may have been inadvertent, misunderstood, or unplanned. Like my toss of the slipper at the wrong moment, the reaction on the part of the other person––or dog––was to think the worst.

Building Trust and Undoing Assumptions

At just about any stage in a conflict, trust can be rebuilt. Slowly. Carefully. Intentionally. You do not have to approve of everything about the other person to work to build trust. Here’s six ways toward raising the level in the trust reservoir.

  1. Listen. Just listen. You don’t have to agree or refute. Just listen. Take it in.
  2. Don’t Judge. Put aside your judgments. This is the truth according to the other person. Turn your viewfinder around so the video is playing from the other’s experience.
  3. Paraphrase. Repeat back what you heard. So if I understand you right, you saw it this way . . . or, I want to make sure I get what you are saying . . . or, Here’s the way it happened from your perspective . . . did I get it right?
  4. Encourage. Make encouraging statements designed to have the other person talk more about what has happened. Be open to hearing about their feelings. I want to know more about what you are thinking. Or, Anything else on your mind? Or, So you felt . . .
  5. Build Make deposits into the trust reservoir by being one or more of these: kind, helpful, reliable, curious, calm, safe, welcoming, open, friendly. You can only change yourself, not others.
  6. Trust meter. Keep track of your trust reservoir with each person with whom you are in relationship. Make deposits whenever possible; you may need that trust in the future. When your trust meter registers low level, go slowly and carefully.

Great news. Trust can be rebuilt. With intentional actions and patience, you can build trust with others. Here’s how it sounds from a recent divorce case with a couple who had a full reservoir of trust created over many years: “I totally trust her, she always included me in her business. If she says its worth [. . .], I believe her. You can write down the figure she gave you, I don’t need to question it.”

My mistakes led to a momentary depletion of trust with my rescue dog. Over the coming years I hope to keep showing her that she can trust me. It is a daily practice of step-by-step learning about her needs and fears while showing by my actions that I can be trusted. Sometime down the road I may toss another slipper. I hope on that day Ohmi will think, Oh, that must not have been meant for me. My human can be trusted.

Read an article about building trust with more tips here: Trust article

Watch a video about trust: Trust video

Workplace erosion of trust by workplace jerks & bullies: Civilized Workplace

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