Vulnerability-Based Trust: The Key to Energizing Your Business Relationships

A few hours after a meeting, I received a call from one of my colleagues.

“Hey,” he said. “I was a jerk to you in that meeting. I was feeling insecure and protective. I shouldn’t have taken it out on you. How are you feeling about it?”

His courage to have a hard conversation and confront himself for the benefit of our relationship inspired me.

Trust is like oxygen in relationships. You can’t see it, but when it’s there, it fills you with energy. And when it’s missing, the relationship just doesn’t feel healthy.

A couple of air bubbels in water. Taken in Studio with a 5D mark III.

Employee engagement and culture experts talk about “team trust,” and sales and marketing gurus talk about being a “trusted advisor.” If it’s so important, presumably we all know exactly what it is and how to get more of it.

So go ahead: what’s your definition of “trust”?

First, Know What You’re Building

As I’ve written before, Patrick Lencioni says that to build and maintain trust, you first have to understand the different types of trust. You can trust someone for their competence and ethics (predictive-based trust), or you can trust someone because you can be open with them—even about the hard stuff (vulnerability-based trust).

Predictive-based trust is important, but vulnerability-based trust can be more profound.

What Profound Trust Looks Like

The key to productive vulnerability-based trust, according to psychologist David Schnarch, is shifting the focus “from belief to performance.” In other words, it’s less important to think someone is trustworthy and more important to cooperate collaboratively (rather than collusively).

So what does that look like in the day-to-day of our relationships?

Operating in a collaborative rather than collusive relationship, says Schnarch, involves:

  • Being honest even when it’s hard or personally disadvantageous
  • Communicating all information directly and completely—not holding back
  • Allowing the other person to really understand your perspective, rather than “faking it”
  • Facing and acknowledging your own behavior and emotions before accusing the other person
  • Doing the difficult work of really listening and speaking up for yourself
  • Repairing the relationship when things crash
  • Paying attention to when you drop your side of the relationship
  • Not dropping your relationship responsibilities because you’re nervous
  • Not bailing on the relationship, even when the other person doesn’t fulfill their responsibilities
  • Confronting, challenging and refusing to accommodate, when necessary, rather than needing to make the other person feel good, validated or accepted
  • Keeping your eyes open and mind alert to shortcomings in yourself, the other person or the relationship
  • Maintaining your integrity and values, even if it’s not convenient

Colluding, on the other hand, means being complicit in minimizing, hiding or ignoring the truth. And that is the absence of trust. When you squash the truth, you squeeze out all the oxygen in the relationship.

When I think of vulnerability-based trust that is collaborative, I think of that call from my colleague. That is the picture I have in my mind. Messy. Hard. Risky. But full of the kind of oxygen great relationships thrive on.

Can you think of any relationships you have that are gasping for air? Do you have the courage to build this type of trust?



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