The Trust Gap: What happens when misunderstandings turn toxic?

Read time: 6 minutes

Trust is like a charging battery

Like a battery, our trust in a person can either gain or lose charge based on our experiences with that person. If I’ve had zero previous experience with a person, then that person’s trust battery should be at least 50% full. The phrase, “give people the benefit of the doubt” comes to mind. When a person does something to earn my trust, for example following through on our agreed-upon deadline, then their trust battery gains charge. Alternatively, if they do things to lower my trust in them, for example being dishonest or not following through on our agreed-upon deadline, then their trust battery may lose charge.  

Why do we jump to conclusions about trust?

If I meet someone new (no previous experience with them) and their trust battery seems to be automatically lower or higher than 50%, it is worth asking yourself why that is. We often bring assumptions into our interactions with people, assuming them to be more or less trustworthy, but what causes this increase or decrease in trust when we  have zero experience with a person?

Research tells us that we are less likely to trust things and people we do not understand. Sometimes this gap in understanding — and therefore trust — even turns into fear and rejection. This is a classic human pattern — let’s call it the Trust Gap pattern. 

Trust Gap example: A case of miscommunication turning into violence

You may have heard about the events in Los Angeles in 1992 commonly referred to as the L.A. Riots. The L.A. Riots refer to a significant outbreak of violence, looting, and arson in the Los Angeles area that ignited in response to acts of violence toward the African American community in the area, namely the savage beating of Rodney King and the murder of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins. Often untold, however, is the story of mistrust that slowly kindled this fiery outbreak of violence. 

Gaps in trust formed in large part due to a conflict of communication styles between these two groups.

The formation of the Trust Gap

In the lead-up to the L.A. Riots, there had been a growing level of mistrust between two cultural groups around the city of Los Angeles: the Korean immigrants who owned and managed stores in the area, and the predominantly African American customers who frequented these businesses. According to researchers — specifically linguists — who studied the cross-cultural context here, the gap in trust formed in large part due to a conflict of communication styles between these two groups. 

The Korean store owners and employees practiced an in-store communication style that placed a high value on personal boundaries and privacy, and therefore tended to keep any personal information out of in-store interactions. To these shop owners, this was considered respectful communication behaviour with their customers. 

On the other hand, researchers noted that the customers who frequented these stores —  predominately African American customers — valued familiarity in their in-store communication, and therefore tended to ask questions and share information about their personal lives with the employees and shop owners. To the customers, this was considered respectful communication behaviour with the shop owners. 

Unfortunately, due to this misunderstanding of what was actually considered respectful communication, a trust gap began to form between the two groups.

The misunderstanding

When the Korean shop owners kept interpersonal communication limited, taking the strictly-business approach to their interactions with customers, the African American customers often perceived this behavior as cold and disrespectful. When the African American customers would ask questions and share information about their lives with the employees at the stores, the Korean shop owners often perceived this behaviour as intrusive and disrespectful. 

When the Korean shop owners kept interpersonal communication limited, taking the strictly-business approach to their interactions with customers, the African American customers often perceived this behavior as cold and disrespectful.

A gap formed, in other words, between the two groups’ understandings of each other’s intentions, which led to a gap in trust between the groups. This trust gap intensified over time and created a dangerous context that exacerbated the already violent L.A. Riots. 

Bridging the Trust Gap

Communicative differences are only one way that trust gaps form. A trust gap can form as a result of any misunderstanding, which is why Breakview Training offers models and practices for bridging the trust gap.

Reflection Questions

How could a trust gap interfere with your team’s productivity and well-being? 

What kinds of misunderstandings could lead to a gap in trust between your people?

What can you do to prevent a trust gap from forming?

Your Next Steps

Awareness: Uncovering your trust gap

Start a conversation with the people on your team. You can start by practicing with a friend or family member.

Conversation starters:

What steps can I take to ensure that my communication style helps me be seen as trustworthy?

When it comes to handling issues, what adjustments can I make to help us disagree without being disagreeable?

Prevention: Digging deeper

Learn about the warning signs and skills for recognizing and extinguishing misunderstandings within your own context.

Learn more about our Online Courses and Webinars today by contacting us directly at or by calling our toll free number: 866.377.0165.

Outsmarting Prejudice

Whether subtle or serious, prejudice gone awry can have harmful consequences.

I recently learned about a simple strategy for disrupting prejudice, which involves appealing to the power of your reasoning skills. I learned about this strategy from a TED Talk I watched, titled Can Prejudice ever be a good thing?

The speaker, Paul Bloom, starts his talk by introducing the concept of prejudice as a naturally occurring process. He presents a quote by the great philosopher William Hazlitt in his essay, On Prejudice:

“Without the aid of prejudice and custom, I should not be able to find my way across the room; nor know how to conduct myself in any circumstances, nor what to feel in any relation of life.”

William Hazlitt (1778–1830), On Prejudice

In other words, if I can’t prejudge my experience with something, how can I anticipate any consequences of my future actions? How can I learn from a mistake, or from something that harmed me? Our ability to prejudge things, then, is necessary for our survival. The problem comes when our tendency to prejudge something – or someone – goes awry. 

To demonstrate the idea of prejudice gone awry, Dr. Bloom presents the results from a 2015 study on racial bias, in which the researchers found that products sold on Ebay, such as baseball cards, received higher bids when the images in their ads showed the baseball cards being held by White hands, compared to ads where the same products were held by Black hands. 

To demonstrate a more serious, even life-threatening consequence of prejudice gone awry, Dr. Bloom presents the findings from a study done at Stanford University, again on racial bias. In this study, researchers found that individuals who identify as Black, who were found guilty of the murder of a White person, were more likely to be given the death penalty if they appeared more “prototypically Black”. 

“It turns out, holding everything else constant, you are considerably more likely to be executed if you look like the man on the right than the man on the left, and this is in large part because the man on the right looks more prototypically black, more prototypically African-American, and this apparently influences people’s decisions over what to do about him.”
-Dr. Paul Bloom

Whether subtle or serious, you can see that prejudice gone awry can have harmful consequences. Dr. Bloom presents two ways to disable the effects of prejudice.

So what does Dr. Bloom mean when he says you can break the habit of prejudging others by appealing to the power of reason?

The first strategy is to appeal to the power of your empathy. This strategy is described in detail in our article titled, The Power of Empathy.

The second strategy presented by Dr. Bloom involves appealing to the power of your reason.

Dr. Bloom argues that although you may have heard the phrases, “love thy neighbour” or “love thy enemy”, these goals are not realistic. Do we really love these people? Many people don’t even like their neighbour, let alone love them, but that doesn’t mean you want to cause them harm. You feel a certain obligation to treat them and their property with respect, because you understand that their life and their property are as important to them as yours is to you. You use reason to guide your behaviour toward others, not love. 

You can bind yourself to certain rules that will disable you from prejudging an individual based on irrelevant characteristics.

You can bind yourself to certain rules that will disable you from prejudging an individual based on irrelevant characteristics. One example of this is when orchestras audition their new musicians behind a screen or curtain. They do this because the only information that is relevant to their decision-making is the individuals’ ability to play their instrument. 

Another meaningful example presented by Dr. Bloom of how to bind yourself is when representatives of a country sign a constitution. A nation can decide that no matter how much one citizen, or a group of citizens may want to discriminate against individuals based on their protected characteristics (age, race, sex, religion, etc.), the nation has bound itself from those options.  

What steps can your organization take to bind itself from even accidentally prejudging a person based on irrelevant information?

The Power of Empathy

I recently watched a mind-blowing TED Talk on the topic of prejudice. What I found so moving was the way the speaker, Paul Bloom, explained prejudice in such simple terms, and what’s more, how he prescribes two simple life hacks for dismantling your own prejudiced thinking. 

One of the life hacks Dr. Bloom talks about is appealing to the power of empathy. The truth is, when presented facts and statistics about an issue, we are less likely to do something to help, such as donate or volunteer. However, when we’re presented with a story about a real person’s experience with tragedy or hardship, something inside us drives us to act – our empathy. That’s why the stories in movies, TV shows, and books are so compelling; and that’s why you see commercials for UNICEF on television telling the story of a specific child suffering from starvation, rather than numbers and statistics. Advertisers understand the power of empathy. 

Because you too understand the power of empathy, you can now harness this power and use it to strategically rewire your thinking about groups of people you are not familiar or comfortable with.

Dr. Bloom presents a famous example of this rewiring process when he talks about the influence of the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Although the book is now known in large part for its offensive use of stereotypes, another big impact it had was that it gave readers a view into the perspectives of individuals who were enslaved in the US during the 1800’s. By putting readers into the shoes of an individual suffering in slavery, the book gave many people a sense of empathy that they didn’t have before. In fact, this book is believed to have significantly fuelled the movement toward the abolition of slavery in 1862.

Appealing to the power of your empathy can be as simple (and enjoyable) as reading a book, going to an event, or watching a movie about a culture of people that you don’t understand. Think of a group of people outside your comfort zone, and ask yourself, how will I learn more about this culture?

What resources will I use to appeal to the power of my own empathy?

What makes you frustrated? Wish you could address it?

There are four ways we express ourselves:

  1. Passive (people can read my mind)
  2. Aggressive (the superior being)
  3. Passive-aggressive (the stamp collector)
  4. Assertive (rights & responsibilities)

The manifesto says:

Every Human Being has the right to be treated with respect and express opinions or feelings, so the question becomes…

How can I express what I need to express, without offending?

How can I translate what I want to say into what I can safely say?

It’s not only possible to address frustrating situations – it’s encouraged.

From *quick draw responses* to *holding that difficult conversation with someone*, we have communication strategies for you, based on credible research.

Contact us if your team could use more

Open and Honest Communication

Connection is the key to setting boundaries

Speaking your Truth to Power
Listen to the article

I believe everyone can agree that, generally, if a person crosses someone’s boundary, it would be great if the offended person spoke up. It would be great if everyone abstained from coping with any life issue using passive or passive-aggressive behavior.

Yet, we do need to acknowledge the difficulty of calling someone out where a power imbalance exist. Dealing with power is more art than science. It can be quite challenging to speak truth where candor is not valued in organizational relationships.

If you asked an HR professional for their honest opinion, they would probably say that many of the issues they deal with could have been avoided if the parties involved had simply had a conversation about the issue first.

Easier said than done many would say. No.

It does take courage and skill to speak your truth to power. However the key is connecting the issue to values.

We often try to change others or set boundaries based on our values (what’s important to me). Yet, we need to acknowledge that people don’t willingly change unless something they value is at stake.

If by offending someone I put something of value to me at risk, I will be more willing to change to protect what’s valuable to me. Everyone, no matter how altruistic, is motivated at some level by self-interest or the desire to survive.

It can be challenging to view the issue from another person’s perspective. If you draw a blank when you wonder “what value is at risk for them,” it probably means you don’t know them.

Here are four tips for developing the skill of speaking your truth to power:

  • Remind yourself that your goal is to “build a deeper connection with the other person”;
  • Be in tune with the value(s) of the other person in the specific context and frame the issue from their perspective (what they value);
  • Start the conversation by focusing on the value at risk and avoid beginning with your interpretation;
  • Be open to changing your perception (interpretation), by inviting them to communicate their perspective.

Assertiveness takes practice. It is a firm pathway for speaking truth to power.

Contact us at 1.866.377.0165 to book a mini-course on “Speaking Truth to Power” or to gain access to a 15 minute video that you can use to lead a team discussion.

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