When Your Trust Has Been Violated

In last week’s blog post, we explored how leaders can find a way to trust others even when doing so requires vulnerability. As promised, this week’s post is a follow up to answer the “yeah, but” question about people you’ve trusted and times when you’ve been burned by trusting others in the past.

It’s easy to build walls to protect ourselves. There are messages all around to support taking a self-protective stance. You’ve heard phrases like “once burned, twice shy,” and “fool me once, shame on you but fool me twice, shame on me.” You may even use these phrases and thoughts like them to fortify the walls you’ve built. The more you find yourself withholding trust and being suspicious of others’ motives or intentions, the stronger your walls are becoming.

Here’s the problem with walls. They keep others out. But they also keep you in. So instead of walls, consider building bridges. This includes building bridges between you and the people who have violated your trust in the past. I’m not suggesting, by the way, that every person gets their own bridge. You’ll decide, one person at a time, who to build that bridge with. Bridges are narrow and pretty easy to manage. You will still be in control.

With a bridge, you’ll be able to consider some possibilities that you may not have considered before. Put yourself in the shoes of the other party. Maybe there is something more to the story than you realized. Here are some common reasons that people fail to come through on what they’ve promised:

  • They don’t think they can safely say “no” to you, so they say “yes” instead even when they aren’t sure they can truly do what you’ve asked.
  • They lack the experience, skill or understanding to comprehend what you’re asking. They agree without realizing that they have a very limited view of all that is entailed.
  • There is a simple misunderstanding. You weren’t as clear as you could’ve been. No one meant any harm, no one recognized there was a disconnect. It just happened.
  • They forgot. Most of us are busier than we want to be, distracted more often than we’d like to be, and trying to do more than we actually can. Forgetting what was important to you is not a true representation of how important you are or are not – it may just be an indication that the person who forgot was on cognitive overload at that moment.
  • They are protective, too, considering self-interests that are in conflict with your interests.
  • Their needs are not being met. You have let them down in some way, too, that you may not even realize.
  • They had an emergency situation to respond to, something that truly did take priority over what you requested or expected.

Of course, your first response was disappointment and a feeling of betrayal. You were counting on the other person to come through in the way you expected. You may have responded emotionally rather than giving the opportunity for an explanation. Or, perhaps, no explanation was going to be good enough so you barely heard the “excuses” and exacerbated the situation by letting your hurt and anger take over. By doing so, you probably violated the other person’s trust, too.

That doesn’t mean it’s too late. Grace is something you can extend at any time. Grace is a merciful pardon, something you give without evaluating whether or not the other person deserves it or not. You do it to build a bridge and tear down a wall. It helps you.

To handle a situation where trust has been violated, start by considering this perspective: “Together, our mutual trust has been broken.” That’s quite different from the usual mindset of “You broke my trust.” It gives you a lot more to work with, and it opens the lines of communication to repair the damage regardless of who’s to blame, how much each party should assume the blame, etc.

You may be thinking of another “yeah but…” I’ve used it just as much as you have. It’s the one that goes “yeah, but she hurt me. She’s the one who should try to rebuild the trust…” Do you see the wall you’re building with that perspective? Chances are good that the other person is saying something similar about you. So you can be the bridge builder without giving up anything at all – your approach that says “together, our mutual trust has been broken” acknowledges that you are both responsible for the repair work.

One final note. Everyone deserves grace and a chance to explain. You will feel better when you build bridges that you choose, bridges that keep healthy relationships intact for you. This perspective may not be the best one for you to take with repeat offenders, people who have broken your trust over and over again. That’s why you will be selective in the bridges you build.