• Audrey Tang

Clear communication: one of the best ways to establish - and rebuild trust in organisations


Trust is a feeling of confidence in another person. It can be biased, we feel, and our brains reflect, more "trust" when we believe we are communicating with a good friend; and research using functional MRI (fMRI) monitoring has found that the brain responds with unique patterns when we are unexpectedly supported or betrayed. Further, when a brain has experienced the pain of betrayal the following things can "hang over" to subsequent situations:

  1. The Thinking Center is underactivated,

  2. The Emotion Regulation Center is underactivated

  3. The Fear Center is overactivated. (Sweeton, 2017 [sic - US English])

It is notable that the concept of "trust" is situation and relationship-dependant. I can certainly trust my husband to "do the shopping", but not necessarily to "perform brain surgery"; BUT by the same token, my level of trust in him is so high that I believe in the case of "no other option" - he'd still try.


This shows two distinct approaches to trust:

- Doing what you say you'll do (and what I believe you to be capable of doing, whether this is because of your claims, or because of reasonable expectation is however unclear); and

- Being of "a type" to try should the need arise, even if you are not expected to succeed.

The majority of complaints within organisations relate to the first factor; although the "service recovery paradox" (McCollough and Bharadwaj, 1992) would suggest that if an organisation fails the first - but then goes over and above to rectify the situation - more trust can result than was present before! (It seems who you are can indeed outweigh what you've done).


Related to this, a study by Yao et al (2014) found that restitution (ie restoring what was breached - or even "karma" if you will) was one of the most effective ways of rebuilding trust. However, perhaps because of our desire not to "hold on to too much information" (grudges included), or perhaps because within us kindness is still more powerful than vengeance, the act of forgiveness and moving on (although not necessarily "forgetting", because otherwise how does one learn?) is not just the healthiest approach, but one that we would ultimately prefer.*


*for anyone who says "I'll never forgive" - I would ask you to reflect on whether you HAVE indeed forgiven (or forgotten) time and time again to bring you to this point...and when I talk about "forgiving" - I mean letting go of the control the other person has on your life, and learning from what went on so you can continue to grow. This exercise is not to "blame" you, but to say - at one point, forgiveness was your preference.


How to forgive in a healthy way

One of the reasons we struggle with forgiveness is perhaps related to the findings from Yao - we have been so hurt we want...or believe we need the other party to pay. BUT, do we need to get to that stage?


Somethings we can do at the first transgression (rather than subsequent ones, where the act of betrayal may be reinforced) can include:

- Asserting our expectations and having a plan to have them met. If we are clear with our desires, and set out an agreed way in which they can be met (which is acceptable to both parties), along with the consequences should they not be (which we must stick to) this can prevent many more experienced of repeated heartache over the same issues. It is a common self-help idiom that we "teach people how to treat us" - and if we are constantly setting out ultimatums and reneging on them, we do need to ask - what message am I sending out right now!?

- Explaining why we might take an over-cautious approach. This is particularly important if we have been betrayed - especially in a similar situation - in the past. While it is important not to project old feelings onto the new experience, nor expect the new person or situation to "make up" for the past, being able to explain why you might be taking certain actions can at least help the other person understand you clearly. In doing this, they have the choice to decide at that point, if they wish to enter that relationship/situation, in the full knowledge that there has been a previous benchmark. (This may prove too much for some - but that is more about them and their boundaries - which they are absolutely within their rights to have - rather than a reflection on yours...while I may be disappointed when faced with situations such as this, I find myself respecting their integrity, and my own!)

- Remember forgiveness is not "forgetting". It is about not dragging up the past, but neither is it repeating it. It is both of us being able to make new choices (which may or may not work), but at least knowing we have broken any negative loops.

Other methods of helping us get to the mindset of being able to forgive (whether one decides to rebuild the trust or not) include:

- The Naikan Method. This is a Japanese technique which focuses on the answers to 3 reflections

  • What have we received from the other?

  • What have we returned to the other?

  • What trouble have we caused for the other?

This addresses the tendency to see the story of betrayal from purely one perspective.


Related to the above is - Seeking to understand the perspective of the other. Again this is not necessarily to push us towards forgetting the transgression ever happened, but by understanding it we take it less personally, which in turn alleviates a lot of pressure and blame we may be piling on ourselves.

A method of this is Worthington's 5 P's:

  • Pressures: What were the situational pressures that made the other behave the way they did?

  • Past: What were the background factors contributing to the other's choices?

  • Personality: What are the events in the other’s life that might have resulted in their actions?

  • Provocations: Did I provoke the behaviour (however unintentionally) Alternatively, might the other, from his or her point of view, perceive something I did as a reason for their behaviour?

  • Plans: What might the other's original intentions have been - did they intend to help but it came across as defensive or aggressive or hurtful (perhaps due to the other P's)?

(Worthington, 2004)

Behaviour of others is often much more about them not us and a way we can sometimes approach being hurt is by reflecting that they other person simply could not give us what we needed at the time...and actually, this is no-one's fault.


How to rebuild trust

Worthington suggests the "CONFESS" model:

  • C: Confess without excuse

  • O: Offer a genuine apology eg "I'm sorry that..." and not "I'm sorry if..."

  • N: Note the pain the other feels.

  • F: Forever value the relationship - that is - IF the relationship is that valuable, then be prepared to make sacrifices to rebuild it.

  • E: Equalize through restitution - often by asking "what can I do to make it up to you?"

  • S: Say we will never do it again - setting this intention will help us ensure this to be the case.

  • S: Seek forgiveness for example asking explicitly for it.

For me, one of the key ways which underpins any model we can use is simply "Communicate communicate communicate".

  1. Communicate your concerns. If you have been wronged before, communicate this at the time to the person concerned; and then it may be a case of using that explanation to make clear to someone else why you may choose to behave in a certain way (see above)

  2. Communicate your desires/expectations. When everyone has so much to concern themselves with we cannot expect them to be mind-readers too. Be explicit (and honest) with any expectations that you may have.

  3. Communicate if something has gone wrong. There is no point hiding behind defensiveness or evasiveness...especially if you will be called on it anyway. Further by admitting when there has been a fault, it serves as a reflection to potentially avoid the situation arising again; and may give you an opportunity for the service-recovery paradox (see above).

If you are a person of integrity, then a breach of trust is often not even your fault, but the problem can end up on your lap. Communication is key to establishing the explicitness the other person needs, as well as a means of making sure YOU are not making promises that cannot be kept. We all know that "things happen", but the more we can work to make sure those things are not of our making (and that is not to say "pass the buck") - the better our relationships will be.


Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience.

For coaching tips and tools including positive psychology: click WORK WITH ME or SKILL PILL and here for Media appearances or Psych Q&A. Twitter/IG @draudreyt

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