My personal method for evaluating whether to trust somebody

One of the key skills to acquiring positive juice is to know whom to trust.

Trust is a wonderful thing. It feels so good… to trust. That’s why so many of us tend to trust somebody even when we shouldn’t–we don’t want not to!

But of course, this trust backfires when it is undeserved, and we’re left feeling a horrible pit inside. We may get angry at the person in whom we trusted… but usually, we’re really angry at ourselves for having let ourselves be misled.

Thus, we all have an incentive to be careful with our trust. Because if we aren’t, we can lose the ability to trust anyone, even those we should trust. And that feels horrible.

I’ve found that I tend to look at 4 specific character traits of a person before trusting them. Here they are:

  • How well does this person listen? And not just listen, but listen and withhold judgment. Here is what I mean: Say a neutral person tells the person I am thinking of trusting that their opinion is that suicide bombing is a good thing. How does my potential “trustee” react? If their immediate reaction is “that’s disgusting, how can you think that?” then they certainly don’t know how to listen and you might have to walk on eggshells with them when you have a radical thought in mind—so don’t trust them.

    If their immediate reaction is “no, it’s not a good thing, it does nothing but kill people,” this is better than the first reaction, but still, it’s not fully listening, it’s passing immediate judgment.

    Real listening means that when somebody says something you don’t agree with, you ask them questions about it. You hold their viewpoint to be just as valid as your own; they are a human being just like you, and they are not lower or higher than you. So the good listener who happens not to think that suicide bombing is good asks something like, “what do you think it’s good for?” to get a sense of why the person is saying what they say. After you ask four or five such questions like this, you might find an answer that makes more sense than you thought, even though you might personally disagree with it still.

    Then you no longer fear the unknowns about how the suicide bombing advocate thinks; you know his/her psychology around the issue, which better equips you to relate to/deal with him/her, whether you choose to be friends or not. If the other person cannot listen with this kind of an open mind, set some limits to what you trust them with. Someone who cannot just listen, cannot be trusted with what you tell them, because at any given point you may lose the chance to correct a misunderstanding and own your own words due to a dogmatic, judgmental shutdown.

    Even a little sign of a “shutdown” is a signal. For example, there is somebody I used to work with who liked me very much. One day, I was buying my lunch at the cafeteria. I was about to pay for the food, when she jumped up and stuck her hand out with a $5 bill in it to pay for my lunch–without asking me first. I calmly told her it was all right, I would pay for my lunch, but she continued to push and ended up paying for me. As well-meaning a gesture as this was on her part, it actually was an example of not respecting my boundaries, given her ignorance of my quiet objections to her paying for my lunch. That event alone showed me that, as much as I liked her, trusting her beyond a certain point would not be an appropriate way to share love with her, unfortunately, because I couldn’t count on her listening to me if I need that.

  • How open is this person?If I share some of myself with them, but they don’t share any of their self with me, that’s fine, that’s their choice, I won’t force them to do anything—but maybe it’s time for me to stop sharing for just a bit. No matter how cool a person looks/feels/sounds, if they aren’t sharing and showing some vulnerability after you have opened up some, it’s time to pause the trust process.

    Serial killers, secret informants, and people with something to hide (as opposed to something they just don’t want to talk about yet until they trust you) are like this. In every way but their vulnerability, they make you feel that you can say anything you want and not be judged, and this makes it extremely easy for you to just open your floodgates. No matter how outrageous what you say sounds, they’ll even pay close attention and encourage you to open up more, and in non-coercive ways at that… but ask them questions, real, deep, incisive questions that pick at things they haven’t yet let you in on. If they make the choice every time not to get any deeper, quietly let them make that choice [don’t push] but tighten up the screws on your jaw. The vast majority of course are not serial killers or informants, but even unintentionally, an imbalance of sharing can lead to hurt feelings where you never saw it coming.

  • Is honesty a problem? This one can go two ways: the more obvious way is lying, or comfort with other peoples’ lying (“if he’s cheating on me, I don’t want to know”). But then there are some people who feel they always have to be brutally honest about everything, all the time—and this is also immature and drama-inducing. Say a tone-deaf person sings a karaoke and then asks, “do you like how I sound?” The appropriate response is not “no, you sound terrible!” There are other ways to tackle that issue without lying.

    You can smile and ask “did you like how you sounded?” which avoids lying and focuses on the fact that it is perfectly ok for someone to like the sound of someone who cannot sing in tune, even though you may not like that. You can also remark on what you like about their singing (no matter how bad it is, there’s usually something you can find—did they enjoy it? Did it show? Did they move a certain way, sing with confidence, etc?). Open-minded people understand that even when things look really black and white, there’s still a thousand shades of white and a thousand shades of black, to quote Ani DiFranco.

    People you can trust will combine honesty with consideration, and save everyone a lot of drama both by not lying and by managing potential powder kegs so that they get resolved with less hurt. That’s the kind of person you want to trust to step up to the plate for you when you are in mixed company and don’t want the secrets of your life thrown out there.

  • What about boundaries? People you can trust will set boundaries, respect yours, and have no problem clarifying these boundaries as soon as necessary. The person that lets others repeatedly walk all over them is not trustworthy; you never know when you might be offending them, or making them feel unsafe, in that case, and you may have no way of knowing. So don’t get too close.

    In addition, watch for any type of pushiness of coercion; even just a little bit is too much. If they make you uncomfortable once or twice and you are able to say so and quickly resolve it without them overreacting, that’s a good sign, and it may actually strengthen mutual trust. But if even the smallest indications of pushiness continue happening with somebody (for example, asking you the same question multiple times), you don’t want to trust them too much, because that’s a sign that they really don’t take you seriously. That’s a slippery slope that leads to the same territory as “no” not really meaning “no,” get what I’m saying?

I try, in my own life, to watch out and make sure I’m doing well in these areas–listening, openness, honesty, and boundaries. I’ve found that people have tended to trust me significantly more quickly and profoundly when I practice and actively apply these skills. They go a long way toward creating good rapport with people you meet.

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9 Responses to My personal method for evaluating whether to trust somebody

  1. Layla says:

    I feel that your judgment of your colleague’s actions was very possibly too sharp. In society, we are trained that sometimes people will refuse a gift, even if they want to take it, out of courtesy. Therefore, it is customary in our society to offer gifts multiple times, or even to insist. I find it much more likely that she wasn’t taking your refusals seriously than that she wasn’t listening to your refusals. I could be wrong, but you might’ve had more success by taking her aside afterwards, and explaining that you really (actually) didn’t want her to pay. You could’ve probably given her the money back, and she may not have been so insistent with you in the future. Now there is a possibility that she wouldn’t have listened to you afterwards, but I think its a leap to assume that it was anything more than a misunderstanding, based on cultural mores; and, I think it’s best to give somebody a second chance before you make such a judgment, especially one with as much finality as you seem to have embedded in this one.

    I do take minor issue with a few other things you said, but overall I like the post! 🙂 Keep writing! 😀

    • mpositive says:

      Perhaps the way I put it leaves the reader to think I am being sharp. The reality was, this wasn’t the first time something like that had happened.

      Also, this person turned her back on me to face the cashier when I told her I would rather pay for myself. It was like she wasn’t going to let me pay no matter what. Hard to describe, but it was really the way in which she forced herself in there that gave me a signal that, even when faced with opposition, she still wouldn’t listen.

      None of this meant I didn’t like her and trust her with certain other things. However, what this event showed me was more the fact that if I tried to get too friendly with her, she would have preconceptions and expectations about how our personal relationship should be, and it wouldn’t be easy to talk to her about them.

      Thanks for the encouragement. Just curious… what other things did you have a minor issue with?

  2. Shamona says:

    Deep post. Some women like to feel they need to show strength twds a man to be recognized. Maybe she didn’t realize some men don’t like pushy (but trying to come off as “independant” women.

    • I don’t think she was trying to be pushy. She just wanted so badly to make me feel good, and she overreached. You can’t force feeling good down someone’s throat. 🙂

  3. Shamona says:

    This is true! Boy oh boy do I know how true that is.

  4. Shamona says:

    When you don’t truly know a person and you are interested in them and the “normal” approaches don’t work… A person will reach as far as the sky to try to plse that individual. True words.

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  6. Hasix says:

    Thank you Mitch.

    Just what I needed right now – I can’t say I didn’t think the same way about those points beforehand, but certainly; reading the descriptions of their impact and effects puts some things into perspective again.


    p.s. I’m loving what I’ve seen of your website so far, currently trawling through old posts 🙂

    • Glad it helps! This post is actually one of the oldest I put up… it’s a slightly modified version of an email I wrote to somebody who asked me about when they should trust people. In fact, one of the great motivations of starting this blog was that I was writing a lot of emails like this, and then forwarding them to other friends when a situation came up.

      Take good care of yourself. 🙂


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