We have a problem with trust

Mar 31


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Helen Whitten

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We have a problem with trust

We have a problem with trust.  If we’re not careful we will end up trusting almost no one – politicians, the police, the NHS, teachers, business leaders, civil servants, the BBC, the media and more.  This is surely a dangerous situation, as trust is an essential ingredient to a healthy democracy.

I believe what we have to remember in this is that there are very few people who go out to break our trust. Most doctors, nurses, teachers, police officers, journalists and yes, even politicians, aim to do a good job.  Train drivers don’t intend, necessarily, to make a train late, doctors don’t set out to keep us waiting for hours on end.  The system can work against people, and we tend to be happier if we put ourselves in their situation and consider what factors are influencing outcomes, so that we don’t lose faith in the whole system.

But of course when someone does break our trust, do something that deliberately harms us, or tells us a lie, it is very difficult to regain the trust in that person again.  This is certainly true of marital infidelity but it is equally true of being involved in a business break-up, or the recipient of ‘little white lies’ where someone, whether an intimate partner or a work colleague, is not careful with the truth.  Small deceptions can very quickly lead to a loss of trust through a sense of unreliability. And this is exaggerated when someone in a position of power lies to us or fails to carry through with a promise.

The trouble then can be that if one raises the issue, that person they may either not have noticed what they said or did, or may deny what you have experienced. I think they call the latter gaslighting. If the statement or action was a genuine ‘mis-speak’ or mistake then this is easily remedied by an acknowledgement of what went wrong and an apology.  An apology will go a long way to regain trust.  But if there is no acknowledgement or mutual understanding of what went wrong it is very hard to build those bridges of trust again.

It seems to me that there has been a relaxing of the standards required of us to speak the truth, especially in relation to those in public office.  The term ‘mis-speaking’ is being used lazily and too frequently these days to justify an erroneous statement, even when the reality is that someone has told a bare-faced lie but is denying the fact rather than apologising for it. Trust is broken in such situations as the person who has lied, or mis-spoken, is disrespecting their audience to the extent that they continue to brazenly try to pull the wool over their eyes rather than accept their action. I think the spin-doctors have much to answer for in this.

We are in a tricky place on this now, too, as who are young people to trust when even teachers, lecturers and senior politicians are fudging the facts on gender and denying the biological facts of life?  It seems ambiguous if we hurl bricks at a politician who has misspoken, or directly lied about something, but let off those in authority who actually also are not relating facts accurately.  That’s not to mention Putin’s lies to his people and the world which are suggestive of a parallel universe. And now we have Trump.

The Brits are known for skepticism and a healthy skepticism has protected us so far from most cults and dictators. We are also known for fair play and a sense of honour of our word, and we have to be careful not to lose this reputation, as it impacts our economy if we are not seen as trustworthy people to do business with.

Where trust is concerned, we can also tap into our intuition.  So often we ‘know’ on some gut level whether we can trust someone the very minute we meet them.  I remember a business friend of mine who would frequently ask me to meet up with a potential business partner and give them the ‘handshake test’ as we gain clues from the felt sense of someone and how they relate to us. Another time, I remember someone who came for an interview with me who could not provide the right qualifications or references and yet I just ‘knew’ she was someone I could trust. I was right. We worked in harmony together for 44 years. But, on the whole, when we can marry up facts with our intuition we are more likely to make a wiser decision.

Skepticism is one thing and sometimes helpful, but endless negative or pessimistic thinking is another and helps very few of us as it just demoralises and can lead to people imagining no one can be trusted, which is untrue. Being critical and analytical thinkers, on the other hand, is helpful and enables us to ensure we do not generalise or immediately label a group of people as evil or untrustworthy just because one or two of them have proven themselves so.

Ultimately, we all need to trust in others within our communities in order for the world to function well. If we approach people from a perspective of expecting trouble we are immediately building barriers.  After all, there are many times when we have to let go and trust and hardly give it two thoughts – for example, trusting our local garage when they service our brakes, our airline pilots when they fly us to distant places, our surgeons when they operate on us, our neighbours when we give them the keys to our house to feed the budgie, etc. Trust is an essential ingredient to life and in order to maintain it, we have to be trustworthy ourselves, which takes self-reflection, and checking with diligence our words and actions. For if we cannot trust ourselves then all is lost. It begins with us and making sure we do not collude in the assumption that no-one is trustworthy but actually check facts before putting up those barriers of disbelief.


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