How to Work With Somebody You Don’t Trust

I once worked for about eighteen months with a peer I couldn’t trust. It was awful. I wasted time, effort and attention on parsing his emails, protecting my team and laboriously documenting “agreements” that “clarified the situation” to my boss (which would be run over an hour after we had met to “ratify” them).

And I felt bad. All the time. There’s just something nasty about not knowing: not knowing what will happen in the next meeting; not knowing if an agreement will be kept; not knowing when another email will come in from your boss, from your team, from a peer, with another set of bruises and breakages and emotional upset. And there’s something more than that: having to be around somebody who you don’t fundamentally trust is spooky, uncomfortable, unpleasant.

Trust is a foundation for everything we do as humans. We are social beings — we need human connection and human support — and when trust is absent, that connection and support drops away, leaving us grasping for it, alone.

So what can you do when the relationship feels wrong, that the connection is not there, and may even be deliberately damaging? (This came up for me again recently as I taught a workshop on Emotional Intelligence and Communication — how do we use the useful techniques of inquiry and reason if we think the other person is out to get us?).

Some steps:

  1. What Is True? When we feel untrusting, we head into emotional territory quickly. Asking ourselves “What Is True?” takes us back to the rational. (To see this in action, check this short video). Trust requires that we believe the other party has two things on our side: motive and ability (this from the excellent Crucial Conversations. Khalid Halim, a coach who works with many startups in Silicon Valley, made a similar comment: “trust depends on sincerity, reliability and competency”).
  2. So: What Is True about first, their ability? Maybe a peer who doesn’t deliver on time is just swamped. Maybe a technical person who keeps saying they are going to fix a bug and doesn’t needs some technical coaching. Get emotionally clear, and carefully ask yourself this question.
  3. Then: What Is True about their motive? Yes, the tricky one. There’s only one way through here, and that’s to be Radically (maybe even Courageously) Curious. Ask. What’s causing the other person to do what they’re doing? Be genuinely curious. Look for the authentic response. Don’t argue: you are looking to get the situation clear, and you can’t know their motivation anyway. You can only judge their actions. Are they going to say “my motive is to cause you difficulty”? No. But enough authentic (or inauthentic) descriptions of motive will give you insight for your decision. And, of course, most of the time you’ll discover a motive that you had no idea was there.
  4. Decide. Motive or ability?
  5. Be clear and upfront with them about what you’ve decided. The trick here is to be specific. You don’t have to trust them in everything. “I don’t trust you” is nuclear. “I don’t believe you are able to make your deadlines” is a workable conversation. Although it may be scary, “I don’t believe you are working in my best interest in this deal” is a workable conversation. Radical Candor helps here. Can you care for somebody you don’t trust? Yes, if you are dealing with specific issues and not labelling the whole person as “untrustworthy”.

So would this have helped me with my peer back in the day? Yes, definitely. It would not have been east — we would have had a whole series of specific conversations which would have been hard and direct, but there would have been a possibility of a productive working relationship.

More importantly, I (and my teams) would have had a year and a half of working life without near constant stress, tension and difficulty. And in the always memorable words of Annie Dillard:

“How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives”

Would I have had the emotional maturity to ask “What Is True?”. I don’t know. Maybe if somebody has suggested it 🙂 I wish you good luck with this if you are grappling with it right now.


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