Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking at a global leadership conference on the topic of communication and interpersonal relationships at work. I discussed how leaders can use the five essential skills of Relational Intelligence to successfully connect with their people and build strong, long-lasting relationships. A senior executive in the sports, media, and entertainment industry came up to speak to me after my talk. She is a highly driven and results-oriented leader who was frustrated that one of her peers didn’t honor their commitment to the team and thwarted her efforts on an important customer deadline. Sound familiar to someone in your organization? Our teams, projects, and results get stuck when trust is damaged or broken. In fact, a research study conducted by organizational psychologists at Stanford University in 2021 showed that nearly two thirds of American employees believe trust cannot be restored when a violation has occurred.
Few people would argue with the idea that honesty and trust are foundational components in building successful relationships. However, great relationships – the ones that span the test of time and can transform peoples’ lives – require a high level of integrity. A violation of trust is the breaking of an agreement, implicit or explicit, that is considered vital to the integrity of a relationship. The capacity of a relationship to recover after trust has been broken has a lot to do with the responses to the situation, particularly on the part of the person who damaged the trust.
The more open and non-defensive they are, the more likely it is that there will be a resolution. When both parties are committed to this as an outcome, the likelihood of the relationship being restored increases exponentially.
Regardless of how much we may desire to live a life of integrity in which we “walk the talk” and live in accordance with our inner principles, it’s likely that there will be times that we miss the mark. Nobody’s perfect. Violations of trust will occur. The challenge for many people, in both their professional and personal lives, is admitting when they have violated trust and having the humility to take action to restore the relationship. The lies and denials that are often used to cover-up a transgression can do much more damage than the violation itself. Taking personal accountability for restoring trust once it has been broken takes courage. It requires intentionality, vulnerability, and authenticity.
Research conducted by our team at Bandelli & Associates has found that relationally intelligent people practice seven specific principles to restore trust they have broken in a relationship:
1. Acknowledging the Behavior or Action that Damaged Trust: Getting honest, open, and transparent about the transgression is the critical first step to restoring a relationship. If you violate the trust another person has in you, acknowledge your actions, and apologize for what you did. Acknowledging your transgression before the other person affirms it from another source creates a higher level of trust than waiting until you’ve been found out. You will have to commit yourself to zero tolerance for dishonesty in the relationship. Even after you have successfully demonstrated your commitment to restoring the relationship, don’t be surprised if the other person needs a lot of evidence that you are trustworthy before they’ll believe anything you say. This will take time and will require patience on your part.
2. Taking Full Responsibility for the Transgression and Answer their Questions: Addressing the questions the other person has is critical if you want to start the healing process. Don’t be defensive in response to the other person’s need for information. They will want to make sure you aren’t withholding anything else. And they’ll have doubts and questions that only you can answer. Be guided by the question, “Will this information help to heal the relationship?” Keep in mind that your intention in this process is to communicate in a way that will restore goodwill. Try to see their questions as an opportunity for you to demonstrate the kind of truth-telling that the other person needs to see to begin to trust you again. Even if the questions seem to be repetitive or unnecessary, they need answers to come to terms with the situation.
3. Allowing the Other Person to Set Clear Boundaries: Depending on the nature of the transgression, or how deeply trust was damaged, the other person may need to set some boundaries around the relationship. Be patient and understanding of this. In a business context, this could mean they won’t want to work with you on another project or initiative for a while. Don’t get defensive. Be understanding and look for ways to rebuild the relationship. In a romantic relationship, the other person may put their guard up quickly. They will not want to risk being vulnerable again. Don’t get frustrated by this. Let time heal the wound. Relationally intelligent people understand that there are underlying aspects of trust. They honor their commitments. They show up consistently for others. They act with honesty and integrity. You’ll need to do all these things if you want the other person to restore their faith in you.
4. Taking Proactive Initiative to Listen to their Feelings: To rebuild trust, you must be proactive in taking time to listen to their feelings – all of them. Don’t over analyze, evaluate, judge, or reason with the other person about any of their emotions. Listening without disputing is not equivalent to agreeing with someone else’s point of view. It’s possible to listen respectfully even if you don’t see eye-to-eye about everything. Feelings and emotions aren’t necessarily rational, but they are real. You will have your turn to express your perspective, but not until they’ve expressed what they want you to hear. Relationally intelligent people are intentionally generous. They continually invest in the relationship. Sometimes all this requires is being open to hearing their thoughts, emotions, and concerns about the future. It takes courage to work through the difficult moments, but what’s on the other side can be even more powerful than the trust that was once lost.
5. Being Patient when Emotional Triggers Surface: Trust takes time. This is especially true after it has been damaged or broken. There could be triggers the other person experiences that will cause them to doubt your intentions or actions. Reassure them that they can take as much time as they need to rebuild trust. This process will probably take longer than you think it should, and it will require self-restraint, empathy, and compassion. In the end, however, it is likely to bring about a deepening of the connection between the two of you. Strongly resist the temptation to urge them to “get over it.” Everyone heals differently. Make sure to give the other person reassuring words like: “I am serious about the commitment I am making to restore our relationship. And I understand that you need more time to see the evidence of that and trust me. I will give you all the time you need.”
6. Demonstrating Consistency in Your Actions: When trust has been broken, your actions will always speak louder than your words. You cannot drop the ball here. If you commit to doing something for the other person, you must follow through with it. There can be zero tolerance for a slip up or mistake. You’re on thin ice when trust has been damaged and you’re trying to restore the relationship. The work of recovery from a breach of integrity in a committed partnership, personal or professional, takes time and effort. The process can be humbling. The stakes will be high, but the benefits of consistently putting in the work are enormous. Successful healing can transform a damaged relationship into a sacred one. This is particularly important in romantic relationships. The crisis that came from the betrayal can ultimately lead to a profound deepening of the love and trust if you put in the hard work.
7. Staying Focused on Your Intention to Re-Establish Trust Over Time: Restoring the trust that was lost in a relationship requires you to give up a bit of your own ego. You must be willing to shift your perspective and see things from the other person’s point of view. This will be a process and you must stay focused on what matters most. When trust breaks down, communication often does as well. As the person who caused the violation, you need to have the courage to deal with uncomfortable conversations when they surface. When this happens, continue to state your intention to re-establish trust and restore the relationship. Agree on a way for them to provide you with feedback on your actions along the journey. Open communication becomes critical in these types of situations. Your ability to be receptive to their thoughts, feelings, and emotions will accelerate the process of healing to the relationship.
Rebuilding the trust that you’ve damaged with someone takes time, effort, and hard work. You need to take full accountability for what you’ve done, and more importantly, follow through on what you will need to do to rectify the situation. Relationally intelligent people have the courage to do this. They are willing to put in the work and understand that it is a process that will take place over time. So, if you’ve violated someone’s trust – whether that be a betrayal, not following through on a commitment, or lying and being deceitful – be prepared for the challenges that will come with restoring the relationship. If you put these seven principles into practice, your chances of regaining their trust will dramatically improve.
Adam C. Bandelli, Ph.D., is the Visionary Founder & Managing Director of Bandelli & Associates, a boutique consulting firm focusing on leadership advisory services and organizational development. He is the author of the books Relational Intelligence: The Five Essential Skills You Need to Build Life-Changing Relationships and What Every Leader Needs: The Ten Universal and Indisputable Competencies of Leadership Effectiveness. They are available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, and everywhere books are sold. Follow Dr. Bandelli on Instagram at @adambandelli to learn more. You can also visit the firm’s website at www.bandelliandassociates.com for information on other leadership topics and to learn about their consulting services.