“Hey, what do you think ‘trust’ looks like?” my friend asked as we were thawing by the bonfire at her home on a cold winter night. Even as a psychology student, I was taken aback; I’d never given it much thought before then. Theory after theory raced through my mind, and overwhelmed by the chaos I just mumbled aloud, “Hmm, good question.”

Since then, I’ve reflected and delved into research on trust, and frankly, there doesn’t seem to be any single answer to what trust is exactly. However, there do seem to be certain recurring factors that determine how people convey and perceive trustworthiness. Of everything I read, I especially found the work of world-renowned vulnerability researcher and thought leader and New York Times bestselling author of Daring Greatly, Brene Brown, on trust to be profound. 

She believes that in order to build deep, trust-rich connections with people, vulnerability, or emotional exposure as she defines it, is one crucial quality. It’s the courage to share your true, authentic self despite the risks involved, including judgment or rejection from others. 

If you’re a team leader, you may feel the need to convey an image of perfection to your team. However, displays of imperfection through the act of seeking help set an example for them to seek help when they need it too. This fosters a culture where people don’t feel the need to hide their weaknesses and instead encourages them to be honest and open, seek help and even deliver with quality. In this case, being vulnerable enhances trust.

In personal relationships, Brown defines what trust means to her from her research: “Trust is choosing to make something important to you vulnerable to the actions of someone else.” 

Let’s say you share something embarrassing that happened to you with a friend. You are making that information available to them, expecting them to hold on to that information and not judge you for it. You trust them, and therefore you are vulnerable with them.

You’re probably wondering at this point, does vulnerability lead to trust or does trust lead to vulnerability? Well, it seems to go both ways. We’re more likely to trust people who show vulnerability and check in on us if we are not doing well, as compared to those who don’t. At the same time, if we trust someone, we tend to be more vulnerable and share more with them.

So where’s the line? How vulnerable do you have to be to cultivate trusting relationships? Should you go around telling people your deepest secret even when you know some to be untrustworthy? Not a great idea!

Brown says that vulnerability should be practiced with people who have earned the right to our authenticity. In other words, people who we know to be trustworthy. This is because sharing with untrustworthy people can effectively make us less willing to be authentic in the future. When we share with people who we trust, we are allowing ourselves to be seen as we are. This in turn shows our authenticity and makes the other likely to trust us in return, and the loop between vulnerability and trust continues.

However, to build trust, we don’t necessarily need to show grand gestures or share deep secrets. According to Brown, trust seems to be built in the ‘small moments’; small displays of vulnerability, authenticity and care. Committing to only as much work as you can deliver, being on time for the lunch you had planned, accepting your mistake and sincerely apologizing, checking in on the person who seems to be facing a hard time, listening to a story of shame without judgment, seeking help when you need it, etc. These are examples of such displays. Practicing these starts the vulnerability-trust loop and creates the foundation for meaningful relationships. 

When I heard this I was excited – building trust seemed to be straightforward! And in a word it is, but it requires practicing vulnerability, which may not come easy to most. It’s difficult for us to share with others things we haven’t even accepted about ourselves and give to others when we haven’t given anything to ourselves. Therefore it’s important to remember that building trust with others means working on self-acceptance and self-compassion first!

Haripriya Dalmia is an Associate with the Learning Impact Team at Harappa Education. She is a recent graduate from the University of California, Los Angeles, where she studied Psychology and Economics. She loves to sing and enjoys watching documentaries and reading books on social issues in her free time.

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