Trust is crucial for getting along together. We trust others to keep their word and depend on them to do their part in our community. Others trust us to do the same. It seems so basic that we don’t notice it most of the time. But without trust, we would devolve into chaos, with no connection, only suspicion and discord.

When we trust someone, we have confidence that we can rely on them. We can depend on them to be able and willing to do what they say they will. We know they have integrity, honesty, and good intentions.

When trust is there, successful communication is much easier. People who trust us will give us the benefit of the doubt when we say something wrong or say it badly. On the other hand, with those who don’t trust us, not matter how carefully we phrase something, they will assume the worst. They may even twist our words to mean something we didn’t ever intend.

The current lack of trust in our political climate is a great example of this. Instead of assuming a politician is in the position to make the world a better place, we immediately suspect their motives. Many of us expect the worst until they prove otherwise, which is very difficult for them to do. This dynamic isn’t uncommon in the workplace either. Just one person who is not worthy of trust, especially if that person is in a position of leadership, can poison the work environment. As a result, productivity falls and colleagues start to dread coming to work.

Trust is part of the foundation of society, but it’s also hard to know who to trust and about what. We shudder when we hear stories about those who trusted too much, losing their life savings, or even endangering their lives. Yet we likely also know someone who does not trust enough and has become isolated and bitter.

How do we find that balance between trust and wariness?

A good place to start is to trust openly, but conditionally. If we start by assuming trustworthiness in small matters, we can then increase trust as it is earned. It’s interesting that those who research trust tell us we have the best odds for trusting wisely by starting out trusting most people, rather than automatically suspecting them. Expect the best at first, but then take your lead from how the other person acts. If we give our trust and they show trust for us, we continue to trust. If they react by not trusting us, we stop trusting them. Using these guidelines, we would reap the benefits of deepening mutual confidence, while minimizing misplaced trust.

Most people respond positively to trust, working to live up to it. Occasionally someone will abuse that confidence and that’s not fun. We feel anger and shame that we believed the person and got “taken”. Even though betrayal is the exception, we humans are wired to remember painful times better than ordinary moments, so we tend to inflate the risk of deception. We forget that there are also significant dangers that come with suspicion, which brings missed opportunities for synergy, fun, creativity, collaboration, ease, learning, joy, love, and all sorts of other things that make life worth living.

Rely on your ability to discern how much to trust in a given situation. We usually know the answer if we stop and ask ourselves if a person is to be believed. Assume the best, but don’t ignore warning signs, like words at odds with a tone of voice or actions. Our bodies also send us messages about whether to believe someone, based on subconscious signals we’re picking up. Who we are inclined to distrust has a lot to do with our unconscious biases, so we should question our reactions to someone who looks or sounds significantly different from us.

When we rely on someone, we open ourselves to the possibility of disappointment. There is always a risk in trusting, but when trust is warranted, it usually pays big dividends in connections with others. And it is a necessary risk in order to get along and function as a community.