Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Building Trust By Honoring Agreements

August 13, 2001

How do we build trust? Better yet, how do we rebuild trust as we all fall short of complete reliability in our word and deed?

At a recent "Smart Marriage, Happy Families" conference in Orlando Florida, Jack Rosenblum, EdD, JD, of Deerfield, Massachusetts presented ideas on the way we enter and keep agreements as being a key factor in the development of trust in close relationships.

Rosenblum believes that trust hinges on four main principles: openness, honesty, respect and credibility, all of which are under-girded by consistency.

- Openness. Openness is sharing things about oneself so that others know what you are thinking and feeling. If they don’t know, they will guess and perhaps guess wrong. If they err, they might err on the self-protective side. A closed or secretive person leaves a lot to the imagination. Trust is harder to form.

- Honesty. Trust starts and ends with honesty. Lies and dishonesty destroy trust. Honest feedback, for better or worse, is important in helping others understand the impact of their behavior on others. If others have to guess, they may guess wrong or worry about you. A true friend has the courage to tell us the truth with compassion.

- Respect. Respect means hearing and understanding others, acknowledging the greatness in them, recognizing their positive intentions, disagreeing without making them feel "wrong," and telling them the truth with compassion. We value their rights and opinions as equals. We seek to understand and resolve problems to our mutual satisfaction. In giving respect, we earn respect.

- Credibility. Credibility means that we are taken at our word. We build our credibility by reliably doing the things we say we are going to do. Every time we fail to do something we said we would do, we chip away at our credibility. It is that simple.

Rosenblum elaborates on how people can enhance or destroy their credibility by how they handle agreements. He gave four rules governing the making and keeping of agreements that had a profound life-changing effect in his own life.

1. Make only those agreements that you intend to keep. He feels that most of us are guilty of over-promising what we intend to do. Sometimes we make a casual commitment not really expecting to follow through. Be extremely careful about which agreements you make and follow through on the ones you do make.

Rosenblum offered this additional counsel on how to handle requests. He suggests four ways of responding that help clarify whether there is an agreement or not - or identifying what your first response is to the request.

"Yes, I’ll do it. Here is the time I’ll be able to do it."

"No, I won’t do it and here is why."

"I’ll do it under these circumstances." This sets the stage for negotiations.

"I need to think about it and I will get my answer back to you at such and such a time."

Trust is established by the seriousness by which you take the request and the straight-forward manner of dealing with it. People lose trust by responding to requests in a vague or untimely way.

2. Don’t make or accept fuzzy agreements. Rosenblum found that his own frustration with others and himself was really his problem because of the lack of clarity in his agreements. By specifying the expectations precisely, he found it cleared up confusion around fuzzy agreements.

When his wife told him she would meet him "around" 3:00 p.m., she meant anytime between 3:00 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. His idea of "around" 3:00 p.m. meant 3:00 p.m. sharp. By adding clarity to their agreement, they avoided frustration and conflict.

3. Give the earliest possible notice when an agreement needs to be broken. Life isn’t always predictable Things come up. Stuff happens. Agreements need to be renegotiated. You owe it to the other party to let them know as soon as possible if you have a change of circumstances. It is a common courtesy. Early notice doesn’t hurt your credibility. Late notice does.

4. Clean up broken agreements. Take the initiative in acknowledging a broken agreement. Don’t let it fade into the woodwork. People notice. It hurts your credibility. Do this as soon as it is feasible. Explain the circumstances and apologize if necessary. "What do I have to do to get back in your good graces?"

If someone has broken an agreement with you, approach him or her and initiate a discussion. Clear up the matter as best as you. If he or she indicates they can be counted on in future agreements, forgive them and restore the relationship.

It makes a difference. How would your relationship with your partner be different if you practiced these four principles of making agreements all the time? Some of the benefits might include the elimination of confusion, clearing up old resentments and avoiding new ones, less guilt, less over-commitment, more responsibility to each other, and more clarity about boundaries and obligations.

An agreement on how to handle agreements would be a benefit to most marriages, but don’t make it unless you intend to keep it.