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Trust: Foundations for Peace

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

Trust is a fundamental part of all relationships. While we often have a basic understanding of how trust is vital in very close and personal scenarios, we may not be fully aware of the constant role it plays in daily functional exchanges. Trust can be pivotal to successful negotiations, collaborations, or conflict management. A more complete awareness of trust may aid us in understanding how relationships of all kinds can be geared towards more positivity and cooperation.

Types of Trust

In her book The Mind and Heart of the Negotiator, Leigh L. Thompson[1] describes three types of trust, and ways we can be mindful about how it is both built and broken.

Deterrence Based Trust. This is a trust that is developed and maintained through the existence or enforcement of consequences. If consistency or follow through is not sustained, the offending party understands that they will face some sort of punishment. This type of trust can frequently be seen in the workplace: employees may be “trusted” because they consistently adhere to standards that are also enforced with implicit threats. Deterrence based trust has significant drawbacks. It requires surveillance to ensure the viability of implicit threats, and maintaining an elaborate system of oversight takes effort.

However, perhaps more significant than the effort it requires, deterrence can also have a backfire effect. Typically referred to as the concept of “reverse psychology” in the vernacular, “when people think their behavior is controlled by extrinsic motivators… intrinsic motivation is reduced.”[2] The very system that is intended to engender “trust,” can put any semblance of trust severely at risk. This form of trust might lead you right into a corrosive climate of distrust.

Knowledge Based Trust. Knowledge based trust functions on an interesting paradox. On the one hand, uncertainty or asymmetry of information between parties creates a situation in which deceit and exploitation are highly possible. This can be hard on trust, because the stakes are high to be trusting. Conversely, if there is no risk or asymmetry, high levels of trust are unlikely to develop, as parties don’t have to put much on the line and know that their counterparts don’t either.

Knowledge-based trust thus comes about when parties learn, through one another’s behavioral predictability, to feel safe engaging in an exchange or transaction where there is some sort of informational deficit or uncertainty. In other words, you have enough information to go on, but not enough for the situation to be risk free. This trust tends to produce relationships that have some longevity, and foster increased dependence and commitment.

Identification Based Trust. This trust is grounded in empathy, and often takes on the more personal elements of what is considered a trusting relationship. Trust thrives in these scenarios because parties take on one another’s values, identify with one other, and develop emotional connection. The result is that they choose to act in one another’s interests, and trust one another because their interests have become collective by virtue of their relationship.

This type of trust goes beyond the more functional elements of the first two types, and can be deeply gratifying. It can also provide an incredibly strong foundation for a relationship, allowing it to persist through various forms of stress or conflict.

Building and Breaking Trust

Trust is built through both affective and cognitive routes. Cognitively, trust can be increased through rational choices, framing interactions in such a way that trust becomes possible. Changing a conflict that is very personal to a more task oriented and depersonalized frame might take the edge of emotional risk out of the situation and foster increased trust levels. Similarly, establishing shared goals or shared problems to address, or agreeing together to focus on the future and its possibilities versus a more difficult past, can create foundations on which trust can be built.

Affective routes to trust include developing an awareness of variables or characteristics that play a role in the emotional experience of trust. Emphasizing similarities may help parties to become more conscious of their shared humanity, and develop the basis for identifying with one another. Physical presence also has a great deal of influence: interaction where parties are physically near each other are more likely to foster the establishment of trust. Stepping out on a limb helps too: acting out reciprocity (a strong value that crosses through many cultures) or making oneself vulnerable through voluntary self disclosure, can both be excellent strategies to stimulate trust building.

Mistrust is often caused by a breach in trust, in which one party breaks the understood parameters of the trust agreement. However, mistrust can also be the result of miscommunication, when it appears to one party that there has been a breach when in reality there may not have been. Misunderstandings of this kind are much more likely to occur with less face to face contact. Being aware of the potential of misunderstandings can help us refrain from jumping to conclusions, and instead mindfully approach situations where our trust is being tested.

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.


[1] Thompson, Leigh L. The Mind and Heart of the Negotiator (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011).

[2] Ibid., p. 132


Author: Ellen Kandell

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