Why is it more difficult to gain trust from some people than others?

[really_simple_share]At least since I became a patent lawyer, and perhaps earlier, I’ve always been fascinated by why some people were so easy to connect with – both professionally and personally – while others were not.  Why some people naturally trusted me and became clients, while with others it felt like there was some type of trust barrier that I couldn’t explain.  With the first group, from the moment we met, there was instant rapport.   It seemed so clear we would be working together.  Many of them were thrilled and thankful to be working with me.  With the second group, from the moment we met I felt their skepticism.  And no matter what I did, I could never overcome it or explain it – that is until now.

It wasn’t until I got involved with personal growth and coaching : both coaching and being coached by some of the best, both attending workshops and leading workshops – that I began to see the truth emerge about the nature of trust.

Today I am excited to tell you that I have discovered something so very important about individual preferences for trusting or mistrusting.  I am about to share it with you.  It explains why certain collaborations between people are successful, and others  are flat, disconnected, and yield poor results.  Learning this will give you access to trusting and gaining the trust of people you never could quite connect with or work well with before.  And if any part of your livelihood depends on sales or maintaining relationships, learning this will increase the people who will trust you and buy your product or service, and will help you keep your relationships healthy.  More importantly learning this will give you a better understanding of yourself, why your co-workers or employees often fail to meet your expectations, and even why you have not able to close the deal with certain people.

Before I can share with you my own ground-breaking discovery, I must first explain some teachings that are not new, but which you probably haven’t heard before.  In fact these teachings blew me away when I first learned them.  I began exploring them further and noticed certain patterns, which  eventually lead to my own discovery.

What I learned several years ago, is that although we use a single word in the English language to describe it, “trust” actually describes three separate domains.  In particular the domains of trust are character, competence, and commitment.  These are the things we can either trust about someone or not.  In particular:

  1. Character – do I trust that you have the characteristics of a good person?
  2. Commitment – do I trust that you will remain true to your promises?  Do I trust that you will follow through?  Do I trust that you are on my side?  Will you remain committed to me and my interests?
  3. Competence – do I trust that you have the skills and capabilities of carrying out the given task?  Do you know what you are talking about?  Are you capable of getting the job done?


What I found most interesting when I learned this is how often we are essentially talking different languages when we talk to others about our own trust or distrust.

If we were about to work on a project together, and if you heard me tell someone that I don’t trust you.  Which would you automatically think I mean: character, commitment, or competence? Well our tendency, if we ever heard someone say “I don’t trust you,” would be to assume they are talking about our character – saying we are a bad, ‘un-trustable’ person.

But this could not be further from the truth.  In fact 90% of the time, when someone says they don’t trust you, they are lacking confidence in one of the other two domains – commitment or competence.  One way to look at it, is that if they really mistrusted your character – you wouldn’t even be in a conversation with them about working together!

So the greater majority of the time, when someone lacks trust, and they are holding back from working with you, hiring you, buying your product or service, starting a company or project with you, etc. – they are questioning whether you are committed to or whether you are competent for the task at hand!

Clear so far?  After I digested these concepts, I began to notice that being able to tell whether someone lacks trust in competence or in commitment has a HUGE impact on the success of any type of sales conversation.

Listening for “Trust” in Sales Conversations

Often when deciding whether they can trust you to buy your product or hire your services, a sales prospect will ask you one or more questions to test whether you are trustable.

I will illustrate how important it is for you to know, before you answer their question, the difference between someone questioning (concerned about or doubting) your competence and someone questioning your commitment.  Once you understand this you would realize that depending on which they are concerned about, you must address the very same question in a very different way.

For example, when someone asks “how many clients do you have?,” consider that the path toward them gaining trust for you, would require you to give OPPOSITE answers, depending on which type of trust was lacking for them:

Let’s imagine your first attempt to answer is: “We have lots of clients in our industry.  In fact several of your competitors use us”.

  1. If they are questioning your competence, this might be a satisfactory answer, since it shows you can handle their situation.  Accordingly, it might instill trust in your competence.
  2. If they are questioning your commitment, however, this would be a terrible answer!  Imagine that they are wondering if you will be committed to their goals, be on your team no matter what, will have the time for them, and remain unswayed by other interests.  But with your answer you highlight the fact that you are also working with their competitors, and have a lot of clients!  Can you see how this would likely build mistrust in the area of your commitment to them?

Simply providing a different answer, won’t solve the problem.  Again, it will be the right answer for one, and the wrong answer for another.  Let’s take a look:

Same question: “Do you have a lot of clients?”

This time, let’s try to answer it this way: “We tend to serve a few clients at a time.  We don’t have any other clients in your industry.”

  1. If they are questioning your commitment, then this answer will likely instill trust.  They will gain a sense that you won’t be too busy to remain committed to their goals.  They will be comforted by the fact that you don’t have any other clients in their industry that might interfere with your commitment to them.
  2. But now this time if they are actually questioning your competence, then this answer will not help them feel any better.  They will wonder if you really know how to help them if you don’t have any clients in their industry.  They will also wonder if you are really that good at what you do if you only have a few clients.

Can you see that you can’t possibly give the right answer without knowing whether their doubts or missing trust is oriented toward your competence or commitment?  Does this mean that you are doomed to get it wrong half the time?  Not exactly.  There are two solutions, the more profound one will come later after I  explain the thesis of this article.  For now, the simpler answer is to just listen.

If you listen to their questions, and listen beyond the words for the concerns they express in the conversation – even those not directed at you – you will notice a pattern.  When a person is experiencing a particular fear or concern, they will ask questions and say things consistent with that such as:

“I am wondering if this can really be done”.  “What do you think – have you seen anything like this before?”

In this case they are questioning competence.  Don’t be swayed just because their questions or concerns aren’t directly about you or your abilities.  Doubts about ability to “do it” show a lack of trust in competence.  When they are questioning their own competence, in essence they are also questioning yours, and vice versa.  The point is, their attention is on the question of competence.  They are probably thinking of many examples when things didn’t happen because someone (themselves or others) didn’t have the skill or expertise to do it.    This is the first hint at the punchline of this article – if they are mistrusting competence or commitment, it is actually more about their own tendency to mistrust in this area than it is about you!

Just for the sake of a counter-example, if they are saying things like:

“It’s hard to find people willing to help with this”.  “What happens if I encounter a snag, can I call you?” “I have alot of unfinished projects,” etc. – then trust of commitment is at issue for them.

What happened next, as I listened to more and more people for whether they were focused on competence or focused on commitment, I began to notice something surprising.  It seemed that if someone was focused on competence in one conversation, they were focused on competence in every conversation we had!  Similarly I noticed that a person focused on commitment, seemed to always to be focused on commitment.  This lead to the thesis of this article.

Human beings have something I call a “trust type.”

As best as I have seen, when deciding whether to trust, there are people whose attention is primarily oriented toward competence, and people whose attention is primarily oriented toward commitment.  I call them “competence people,” and “commitment people,” respectively.

In other words, when it comes to trust it’s not just that in a particular moment, with a particular person, or in a particular situation you trust or lack trust of someone’s commitment or competence, but you might notice that you and others actually tend to focus on just one of these domains almost all of the time.  There are people, then, whose primary orientation is toward trusting or distrusting someone’s competence, and there are other people whose primary orientation is toward trusting or distrusting someone’s commitment.  Once again, I call the former “competence people”, and the later “commitment people”.  I’ll explain why this matters a bit later – but I promise you’ll see: IT REALLY MATTERS!

First, let’s determine which are you.  Are you a competence person or you a commitment person?

  1. Are you a “competence person”:  Do you find that you most often get upset with people when they can’t/won’t/don’t do things right?  Does it really bother you when you feel that people don’t know what they are talking about?  When people don’t do things right, does it almost feel like they intentionally didn’t do it right?  When people are late, you might let it slide, but making mistakes or doing it wrong is almost unforgivable. And with regard to yourself, do you constantly feel like there is more that you can do to get better, smarter, know more, be more skilled – not the same as enjoying learning, but really feeling compelled to learn?  Do you tend to beat yourself up the most when you get something wrong, make a mistake, and/or can’t figure something out? If all or most of these statements resonated, then you are what I am calling a “competence person.”   –OR–
  2. Are you a “commitment person”: Do you find that you most often get upset when people don’t follow through on the things they said they would do?  Cancel or miss appointments?  Show up late?  Do something you perceive as being ‘disloyal’?  Not show the same amount of passion or commitment to a project or relationship as you do?  When someone can’t seem to get it right, but you know they are trying hard for you, or they are a team player, will you let it slide, and perhaps try to help them?  On the other hand, is someone not showing up for an appointment with you almost unforgivable?  With regard to yourself, do you feel like things would be better if you could only follow through on all the things you want to do, execute better, stick to your word more often if not all of the time?  Do you tend to beat yourself up when you break a commitment, miss or are even just late for an appointment, or when you don’t follow through on something?  If all or most of these statements resonated, then you are what I am calling a “commitment person.”

Notice that if you are a competence person, you may be asking yourself, “Who is this Rich Goldstein person?  He is a patent lawyer, not a psychologist, right?  What are his qualifications to say what he is saying?  Didn’t he notice that typo and that poor punctuation?  I don’t know if I trust what he is saying if he is the type of person that doesn’t proof-read his article before posting it! [If you’ve even read this far!]  Are his writings worthy of my time?  If I subscribe, is he going to send me a bunch of poorly written crap?”.

If you are a commitment person, however, you might be wondering “Is he going to tie it all together, or is he going to leave me hanging here with more questions? Is this just a come-on to sell me a book or something? This is clearly a brand new blog, is he going to stick with it or fade away?  What are his intentions – why does he want me to subscribe or follow him on twitter?  If I follow him on twitter will he overwhelm me with junk posts?  I wonder if I should subscribe.  If I do, is he going to overwhelm me, or am I never going to hear from him again?”

These are examples of the two different types of “trust discernment dialogues” that happen naturally inside the head of each of the trust types when they encounter new people, new companies, new websites, and new organizations, and are deciding if they can trust them.

So far, most people I have spoken to about this immediately locate themselves clearly in agreement with one of these descriptions and clearly not in agreement with the other.  Usually it is the question about what upsets them the most, that immediately illuminates their trust orientation.  Thus, my thesis is that most individuals are either primarily oriented toward determining trust with an eye on commitments or are primarily oriented toward noticing and discerning competence.

HOW STRONGLY they are driven by this preference, however, I think varies. As a result, some individuals might consider themselves to be somewhere in between: more frequently using one of these criterias when assessing trust, but sometimes using the other. This is the area where I am currently learning the most. I would like to see more data, and collect the experiences of more people to make more complete conclusions.

This primary orientation toward competence or commitment has several key consequences:

  1. It doesn’t mean that competence people don’t keep commitments or that commitment people are incompetent.  It simply reflects the primary orientation of their attention in assessing relationships.
  2. A person’s trust type reveals a ‘winning formula’ of sorts.  It establishes what is the ‘primary striving‘ for the person.  That is, a competence person acts like the key to winning at life will be to find a way to be more competent.  The commitment person acts like the key to winning at life is to find a way to be better at meeting their commitments, executing, or following through.
  3. Each trust type can reflects a personal “void,” that is impossible to fill.  The desire for a competence person to learn more, achieve more credentials, certifications, degrees, or awards can feel endless and insatiable.  Similarly a commitment person, may notice a constant desire to get better at following through, honoring their commitments, getting better at making sure people to keep their word with them, being a team player, etc.
  4. The trust type is a preference.  It is simply where the person habitually places his/her attention, when deciding whether to trust.  But I have noticed this preference being exercised almost universally, and totally unconsciously by that person. This preference MAY adapt or change in time or as circumstances shift dramatically. For example, if a commitment person finds them self in a setting that highly values competence (such as a new job setting), a good deal of their attention may shift toward competence, to survive, thrive, or just fit into the culture of the company. In this case when working with others – knowing that competence is important in this setting – they may begin to use competence as a meter for determining who they can safely work with, and start to speak the language of competence unconsciously!

With these key components, I have noticed certain common results or consequences when competence people and commitment people interact with the same or opposite type:

  1. People of the same trust type tend to congregate, resonate better, and just plain get along better with each other.  Expectedly, they tend to have more misunderstandings and value conflicts with people of the other trust type.  Not always, but commitment people tend to have a lot of judgements and little patience for competence people, when they act unreliably.  Similarly, competence people tend to have a lot of judgements and little patience when they encounter commitment people that do something incorrectly, or don’t seem as focused as they are on doing things correctly.
  2. Competence people tend to work together.  Academia and  top law firms often have competence people at the top.  I believe that many top executives are competence people, although the commitment people at the top are often well known for their ability to lead their team.  For example, many startups are founded by competence people, and while growing quickly they are often filled with hordes of commitment people who get in at the ground floor because they are spurred by being a part of the team.  This can cause a rift between the founders and the hordes who scramble to execute better, but who don’t  necessarily know what they are doing.  One  or more commitment oriented executives often keep the team motivated despite a feeling of disconnection from the competence oriented founders.
  3. Commitment people tend to hire other commitment people (or join with them on teams or projects), and thus often end up with a very committed staff, who perhaps are not the best qualified for their job positions.  This happens because when hiring, the commitment oriented interviewer is listening for signs of commitment, and also listening for weaknesses in the commitment of the other. At the same time, the commitment oriented job candidate, believing the key (to it all) is to show people how committed he/she is, focuses on ‘putting out there’ how interested they are in the company, what a team player they are, etc. – in essence speaking the language of the interviewer, which is what gets them hired.  Once hired by a commitment oriented boss, if a person fails to perform their job function, the boss will often try to adjust the job to fit the  capabilities of the person, as long as they feel good about the commitment of the person to the company!
  4. What happens, however, when a competence oriented job applicant, however, shows up to be interviewed by that same commitment oriented interviewer?  This candidate will want to get across how qualified they are talking about their degrees, certifications, achievements, and awards. Because their attention is not oriented toward the language of commitment, the interviewer will sense ‘something missing’ in this candidate’s commitment, and might ask questions to suss out whether this candidate is committed. These questions will fall flat on the candidate, and will not be answered to the satisfaction of the interviewer (as we illustrated in the sales example earlier in this article).  Because of this, it is less likely the candidate will be hired.
  5. Competence people tend to hire other competence people, and thus end up with a very competent staff, although perhaps not the most loyal group.  Once again, being a competence person doesn’t mean that they cannot fulfill on commitments.  In fact, competence people will often see being good at certain types of commitments as being part of what it takes to be good at their job (e.g. a ‘good’ lawyer returns their clients’ calls the same day).  The difference is, they don’t feel it as a drive to stick true to their word, instead they see it as part of being good at what they do, and to help avoid doing things the wrong way.  A company of competence people can have a high turnover as employees are less hesitant to jump at a better opportunity.  Consider also what happens when a qualified person with a commitment orientation comes in to be interviewed.  They may be quite qualified, but since the candidate will be focused on their commitment related attributes, the interviewer would likely wonder if they are competent enough!
  6. Once you recognize someone’s trust type, you have some great information about how to relate to them both in the moment and from that point forward!  You can count on the fact that for competence people, giving them information that has them know things are being done correctly will keep them trusting the relationship.  Similarly, for commitment people, giving them information that has them know you are totally on their team, and totally in their corner, is all they need to hear to keep trusting the relationship.

An insight as to how we got to this moment

While reading this article are you having a bit of an “a-ha” moment, where things that were fuzzy before about yourself and interactions with other people have suddenly become a bit clearer to you?  Do some interactions and conflicts you have had in the past with people, jobs, and relationships, now make a lot more sense?  Are you curious, then, about how you came to have that experience while simply reading an article on your computer?

This is going to get technical/philosophical for a moment about how your point of view may have been somewhat altered by reading this article.  For now, I’ll just provide a brief explanation for now.  In an upcoming article I will explain how that happens in greater detail.

I want to clarify, then, that what has happened from reading this article is that I have created with you a new “distinction of human behavior”.  What do I mean by a “distinction”?  A “distinction,” by definition, is a process that creates something new from an “undifferentiated background”.  In this case, the undifferentiated background is ‘people in general’.  Before you had this distinction, all you saw was a group of people, undifferentiated from each other.  Now that you have the distinction “trust type” that was made step-by-step in this article, you can now look at that same group of people and instead see two distinct types of people.  “Commitment people” and “competence people” now clearly emerge in your view from what was previously the undifferentiated background that you just saw as “people”.  If you find this fascinating as I do, watch for an upcoming article in which I discuss this process of distinction as the root of all innovation.

What’s next?

You now have a new distinction with which to view people, and understand interactions with and between people.  Anytime we gain a new distinction, the way life occurs to us, our very view of life will alter somewhat.  When our view of life alters, new possibilities arise, and new actions are possible.  For example, now that you can ‘listen for’ trust type, you have more choices about how to tailor your conversation and even your understanding toward the person with whom you are speaking, selling, teaching, or just relating.  You also have new access to choose to trust people that your preferences previously mandated you could not.

Distinctions are the most powerful tools that we have.  The more distinctions we have, the more powerful our relationship is to reality, and the more choices we have in life.

Thank you for sticking with my through this article! I know it’s longer than the average blog post, but the point was to deliver to you a tool you can use – which wouldn’t be possible in a typical 300 word blog post.

I am thankful to now have the luxury to share what I have been learning and teaching by writing and publishing on this site.  I am happy to say that if you follow my tweets or subscribe to this site, you will see me distinguish many other aspects of human behavior – especially as it relates to business, sales, leadership, marketing, performance, relationships, and yes – even patent law.  And I will go deeper into this very topic of “trust type” in future articles.

Since this is in essence a theory, I welcome your thoughts and feedback from your own experience.  Funny – I just realized while writing this article that my wife and I are opposite trust types, and my parents are both the same as me.  Very interesting!

Take a look for yourself.  What is your trust type, and how does it relate to the trust type of your spouse, your friends, your family, and your co-workers?

Do you tend to congregate with people of the same trust type?  If not, how (if at all) do you think you may have adapted your personality to adjust to, accept, or tolerate relating with or working with people who have a different trust orientation?

Please comment below. I would love to hear from you with your own thoughts and observations.


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