Whether you’re thinking of personal relationships or the workplace or you’re teaching your children, how can you know who to trust? Some people think that it’s morally and spiritually advanced to start by trusting everyone. You’re somehow a bad person if you don’t trust people. After all, you get what you put out. Other people say that everyone is out to get whatever they can so you should start by trusting no one.
Where do you usually begin? And do you have any horror stories of people who trusted too much or too little? Or heart-warming stories when trusting won over a previously un-trustworthy person?
Read more and you’ll learn about the 9 circles of trust – a process for getting around the unanswerable, philosophical trust-question.
Seventeen year-old Abby doesn’t know what to do with her boyfriend or whether she should trust her step-father. She grew up knowing men were not worthy of trust. Her father bailed on the family when she was six, leaving her mother with Abby and three younger children. They never heard from him, but Abby knows he took all the money. Her mother worked hard, but it was years before they could get on their feet. Abby saw a succession of boyfriends take advantage of her mother; bullying and abusing her, and verbally intimidating the children. The men were selfish and self-centered; real narcissists.
Her mother finally found a great guy. They’ve been married for eight years and Tim has been wonderful to her mother and all the children. It’s as if his heart has adopted them even though they’re not his biological children. He spends his money on them as if they were his real family. He helps around the house. He’s always there for Abby, her mother and the other kids through their emotional ups and downs. He attends all their functions and has gotten Abby in the middle of the night when she’s needed help. He’d even support her if she went to college. Should Abby trust Tim or is he going to turn out just like the other men?
Abby’s 22 year-old boyfriend is demanding, abusive, intimidating and controlling. He blows up when she doesn’t do what he wants. He says he proves his love by being insanely jealous and insisting that she doesn’t go to college because she might meet other guys. He doesn’t work and says he needs her support to get his life together after the terrible treatment he suffered at the hands of his parents. He even wants her to drop out of high school now so she can get a job and they can live together. With her help, he might be able to stop drinking and smoking dope. Since he says he loves her and would be lost without her, how can she not trust him?
Let’s compare that with a situation at work. Lizzie’s boss is a bullying, control freak. He gives everyone impossible tasks and deadlines. Since they’re never perfect, he micro-manages, yells and delivers crushing putdowns. He’s verbally abusive, emotionally intimidating and threatening. He’s created a hostile workplace.
But when people started complaining and leaving, he promised he’d change. He’d be more understanding, kind and caring. Liz had begun to look for another job, but now she wonders if she should trust him. Notice that while this looks different from Abby, it has the same key question: should Lizzie trust her boss?
I’ll use Abby to describe how the Nine Circles of Trust method works. Think how Liz could apply it at work or someone could teach her daughter how to apply it to the other kids at school.
With coaching, Abby sees that she’s making a problem for herself by looking at trust in the old way – should she trust someone or not. What’s more useful is for her to develop an accurate, realistic prediction of what another person is likely to do, based on their past behavior. The more accurate her estimations are, the more she can trust her estimates. That’s what trust is about: trusting her accurate estimations.
Abby also makes a problem for herself when she thinks the question with her boyfriend is whether or not he loves her. She’s better off when she decides how she’d like to be loved (what behavior would make her feel loved) and then tests whether or not her boyfriend treats her that way. It doesn’t matter what he calls it. What matters is whether he treats her the way she defines love.
In order to develop a repeatable process, she imagines herself at the center of a bull’s eye. She makes nine circles of trust getting further and further out from her; like she’s at the center of a target. She writes how someone would have to behave in order for her to allow them to move from the furthest limit to one circle closer. Actually, she makes different lists: one for her stepfather, one for her boyfriend and one for a girl at school. At this distance, her tests for whether she’ll allow them closer are about non-threatening, physical behavior: no hitting, throwing things or physical abuse.
Then she makes lists of how they’d have to act in order for her to let them into the next closer circle. At this distance, it’s about polite, civil behavior; not stealing her things, lying, bad mouthing her, yelling, threats or intimidation.
Then she makes a list for admission to the next closer circle. And so on, closer each time. Now she’s ready to decide how, for example, her boyfriend has acted and which circle she’ll put him in.
Abby’s shocked at her estimation of him. She puts her boyfriend into the ninth circle. He’s a bully and she won’t allow him any closer. Despite her previous experience with her biological father and her mother’s rotten boyfriends, she brings her stepfather right next to her. He has proven himself during eight years, despite lots of bad behavior from her.
Some of the other important considerations when using this process are:
- Adjust the prices of admission (the tests) to each circle as you learn more.
- Ignore reasons, excuses, justifications, pleading and coercion – base your estimates on actions.
- Be open to surprises (good and bad).
- Move people further away when they act bad.
- Keep people in their previous position even if they do one thing nice – recognize established patterns.
- You may move a particular person closer or further away depending on the circumstances – for example, you might go to a party with someone, but never lend them money.
You’ll find more examples of the effective use of methods like the Nine Circles of Trust in personal and work life in “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” and “Bullies Below the Radar: How to Wise Up, Stand Up and Stay Up.”
In which circle would you place the people in your life if you trusted that your estimates of what they’re likely to do?