The importance of building trust

Increasing levels of trust is critical in government and all relationships.

Trust is a simple word, but a complex topic. How important is trust in business, government and our personal interactions? Looking back over a wide variety of experiences in more than 25 years of working with non-profit organizations and governments, I think issues of trust, or the lack of it, have played a role in nearly every conflict situation I have seen.

There are many disagreements about values and about the facts and those differences often get the blame. But in many of those situations, once there was some level of trust established between the parties, they could at least get to a point where they could work together on the issues they agree on, and could agree to disagree on the rest.

About 20 years ago, I was involved in a policy dispute between a local government official and the board of the farm organization I worked for, and of which the official was also a member. We brought in a local government specialist from the state level organization to talk about the issue and the reasons why the organization had taken the position they had. She was a trustworthy person, clearly and openly sharing information, respecting the position and beliefs of the local official. She extended trust and confronted the realities of the situation, calmly and honestly. At the end of our discussion, no one had changed their position. There was, however, a new and deeper understanding of each other’s values and how they had reached their positions on the issue, and a willingness to simply agree to disagree.

What does all this have to do with local government? I don’t believe in silver bullets, but my years of experience have convinced me that greater efforts by individual government officials and citizens to act in ways that build trust and extend trust to at least the degree it is deserved, will go a long way toward resolving some of the pressing issues governments deal with today. Furthermore, this application of trust building efforts will have a tremendous impact on the civility of the discussion and our ability to govern effectively. While we will never all agree on many topics (how boring and unproductive that would be), increased trust will smooth the process so that we can find solutions on issues where compromise is appropriate and we can interact in a civil manner on those few issues where such compromise is not possible.

How do we start this process? In a recent Michigan State University Extension seminar, I taught a session on trust. Actually, I should say the participants taught the session. We discussed thirteen trust building behaviors identified by Stephen M.R. Covey in his 2006 book titled, The Speed of Trust. In future  articles, we will explore those behaviors, and pose questions for you to consider in your quest to build trust.

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