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  • If I pay attention, I can tell how much I trust someone by how I respond to an ambiguous event. Let’s say we’re planning to have lunch. I arrive on time. Twenty minutes pass. The other person still hasn’t arrived. If that person is someone I deeply trust, I may become concerned about her or his safety. If it’s someone I don’t deeply trust, I may find my inner conversation to be more like, “I don’t know why she or he can’t get here on time.”

    In the present moment there is no distinction. I have the same amount of information (or lack of information) in both cases. So what makes the difference? Our past experiences. We have history that informs my assessment of how much I can trust that person today. And, of course, the same is true for the other person.

    Recently I got a text from someone that, though longer, basically said, “We need to talk.” I felt the clutch in my stomach. I found myself thinking, “What does she want? What have I done wrong? Will we make it through to resolution?” An ambiguous message, yes. But clearly our history together has led me in a particular direction. And in that moment, my level of trust in her was revealed. Not much.

    I anticipated that she would be defensive and that I might be attacked and blamed. In preparation, I made one big decision: I would listen and not defend or blame back. What was in it for me? I’m an expert at defend and blame already in this sort of circumstance. My listening skills could use some growth and development and, in addition might offer me something new.

    She arrived with a lot to say. Loudly. I acknowledged the accuracy of her experience. She was right. I apologized. She continued. And now she was repeating her main points. One of her main points was that the discomfort she felt in our relationship was completely because of me and what I did and didn’t do. Inside I realized that this was a significant clue as to why I didn’t trust her.

    I apologized again and clearly let her know I had gotten the message. Then I asked her what else she wanted from me. She stopped for a moment and said that it was hard to stop repeating her points because she had come prepared for me to be defensive and to have to defend herself. When she didn’t have to defend herself, she didn’t know what to do with all of her built up energy.

    I asked her if she was interested in hearing where I was coming from. She said yes but I don’t know that I got very far. As I started to tell my story, she took us right back to her arguments. Again.

    Our conversation may lead to increased trust on my part but not necessarily. I’m guessing that if something similar happens in the future, I’ll still feel the clutch in my stomach. It’s a clutch that I don’t feel when someone I trust says, “We need to talk.” The biggest reason that occurs to me is that in the second instance I feel safe, supported, loved, and know that we will make it through the tough times. That’s just not clear in the first instance.

    I learned a lot from our conversation that I might not have ever come to know about her otherwise – especially if I had also taken a defensive stance. I learned about what’s not been working for her. I learned that she has been suffering. That’s what I am especially sorry about. And a really big thing I learned is that she has courage. Otherwise, why would she take the risk? I learned that she must value our relationship more than I realize.

    We did make it through. Now we will see whether we can truly let the storm pass over time. For now, the air is clear. Let’s see if the sun comes out. As a friend said to me many years ago after he and I resolved a conflict, “We’re all making all of this up as we go along. The main event is not the mistakes or betrayals. Rather, it’s how well we recover, re-establish trust, and heal.”


    [Photo by Barbara, Theo Wirth Park, Minneapolis, December 2015]
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