The 7 Elements of Trust
By Dr Kate Owen
Clinical Psychologist and Clinical Family Therapist
Trust is a big deal. Every day we encounter people who earn our trust and break our trust. But what are the key elements of trust?
Brene Brown (2018) uses the acronym BRAVING to describe the 7 elements of trust identified in the research. Let's go through each of these elements.
Setting boundaries is making clear what is ok and what is not ok, and why. When boundaries are clear and respected, this contributes to trust in a relationship.
As Brene Brown says "To be clear is to be kind". It is ok to speak up and be clear with your family, friends, and work colleagues about what your boundaries are and where the "line" is.
For example, if your partner is directing subtle criticism towards you and rolling their eyes when you talk, it is ok to let them know that respect is important to you. If they continue to treat you this way, let them know that their behaviour is not ok, and decide what actions would honour your boundary.
As relationships are reciprocal, this requires you to be curious about other people's boundaries and understand where the line in the sand is for them also. For example, if your colleague asks you not to text work-related messages after hours, then stop and evaluate if the situation is a major catastrophe before interrupting your work colleagues' home life.
"I trust you if you are clear about your boundaries and you hold them. And you're clear about my boundaries, and you respect them" - Brene Brown.
This quote beautifully captures another important point, in that trust is strengthened when you and others maintain the boundaries that have been set. Those who make it clear about what is ok and not ok, and then change their position to suit different circumstances, erode trust in the relationship and confidence in the person. Mixed messages and incongruence can be confusing in relationships.
The key point is to take time to get clear on what your boundaries are, as well as understand the boundaries of others, so that these are clear for everyone involved and can be respected and applied.
Reliability builds trust when people do what they say they will do, when people are honest about their strengths and limitations, and deliver on their commitments.
Our words have power, so it’s important to be thoughtful about the things you say and the promises you make to the people around you. Your actions are equally as important and are hopefully congruent with your words.
For example, if you promise to catch up with your friend and then consistently ditch them at the last minute, then be prepared for trust to erode. Another example would be to volunteer to lead a project/task/chore and when something goes wrong, withdraw and let others clean up the mess. If someone has been letting you down on a regular basis by not following through with what has been agreed, this might help you understand why you have been feeling dissatisfied in the relationship.
Hold close and value the people in your life who are consistent and dependable, and reflect on how reliable and dependable you have been in your relationships with others. Do you do what you say you will do?
Lastly, hold in mind that a part of reliability is making sure we, and others, are clear on our limitations so that we don't take on too much and fall short on commitments.
Accountability contributes to trust when people accept and own their mistakes, apologize, and try to repair and make amends. Trust can also be strengthened when we allow others to step into their accountability.
For most people, the challenge in this is admitting to their mistakes without feeling shame, and without the fear of being shamed by the other person. Often accountability requires a leap of faith and a willingness to be vulnerable. It can be a devastating blow when you own your part of a situation to have that thrown back at you.
When owning a mistake, embrace the “Yes, and…” approach. Even if you perceive that you are not at fault, the other person’s experience that they feel hurt is still valid. We can accept that the person’s hurt in response to our actions is worth feeling compassion for, and when we make mistakes we are still a good person.
And if someone has hurt your feelings, as much as it might feel counterintuitive, allow them the opportunity to own their mistake and make amends without shaming them or putting up a wall of resentment. This process is often referred to as "rupture and repair" and can be a powerfully positive experience when both parties engage in a meaningful way.
The concept of “vault” means that you don’t share information that is not yours to share. This represents confidence in the relationship that information is safe and protected. Gossiping about others is not ok. What is said in the vault, remains in the vault.
This concept makes sense, as you know how it feels when you learn someone has been talking about you and sharing your personal information.
This concept also means that we do not partake in gossip when others are breaching someone else's trust and sharing information that is not theirs to disclose. It takes courage to say, "I don't need to know that information". Read the next section on 'integrity' and the premise of choosing courage over comfort to understand this further.
If someone in your life is breaching the "vault" and sharing information about you without your permission, address this with them directly and let them know what is ok and what is not ok. Perhaps this is a boundary that needs to be overted to be understood and respected.
What is integrity? Brene Brown identified three components that contribute to integrity: (1) choosing courage over comfort, (2) choosing what's right over what's fun, fast, or easy, and (3) practicing your values and not just professing them.
As Brene Brown says "I cannot trust you and be in a trusting relationship with you if you do not act from a place of integrity and encourage me to do the same."
So if someone says that they value trust, safety, and communication in a relationship then you would hope that they would enact these values. However, if they continually blindside you and make you feel anxious, then perhaps they are "talking the talk" but not "walking the walk" so to speak.
And vice versa, consider how you want to show up in the world and continually check in with yourself to see if you are living in alignment with your values, or if there are actions that need to be taken to be more congruent.
Read my "Discovering Your Values" blog with resources and activities to explore your values further and gain clarity on how you want to show up in the world. It would help if you were clear for yourself so then you can be clear with others.
When you trust someone you can express your needs and feelings, and they can express their needs and feelings, without fear of judgment.
If you are afraid to express your needs because of the actions of another (e.g., being dismissed, invalidated, blamed, or shamed) these are negative relational patterns where trust and relational safety are diminished and I encourage you to seek support. Conversely, if you find yourself becoming defensive and reactive when hearing another person express their needs, please seek support to find ways to regulate and engage in more healthy and collaborative ways.
When there is trust in a relationship you can ask for help without being judged by the other person, and they can expect the same from you. Brene Brown explains "Let me tell you this: If you can't ask for help, and they cannot reciprocate that—that is not a trusting relationship".
The concept of “generosity” is an openness to extending the most generous interpretations to the intention, words, and actions of others. If you are unsure about someone’s actions, be generous in your processing, and then check in with them about your experience.
For example, when someone upsets you try saying, "Hey, that situation yesterday has been on my mind, but I know you are a caring person and wouldn't want to hurt my feelings on purpose" and approach the conversation from a place of generosity and understanding.
Brene Brown (2018: p233) writes that "While trust is inherently relational and most pronounced in practice with other people, the foundation of trust with others is really based on our ability to trust ourselves."
The acronym of BRAVING still applies to self-trust.
Think of a time that you hit a bump in the road that made you question your ability to depend on yourself and reflect on these questions (adapted from Brown, 2018: p234).
Did I respect my own boundaries?
Was I clear with myself about what my boundaries were?
Was I clear with others about what was ok and what was not ok?
Could I count on myself?
Was I using positive self-talk to remember how I could show up for myself?
Was I truthful with myself about my strengths and limitations?
Did I follow through on my commitments to myself?
Did I hold myself accountable for my part in the situation?
Did I blame others?
Did I hold others accountable for their part in the situation?
Did I allow others the space to step into their own accountability?
Did I share, or not share, appropriately?
Did I stop others from sharing inappropriately?
Did I choose courage over comfort?
Did I practice my values?
Did I do what I thought was right?
Did I opt for a fast and easy option?
Did I ask for help and express my needs?
Was I open to hearing the needs and feelings of others?
Was I judgmental about needing help for myself?
Was I generous towards myself?
Did I have self-compassion?
Did I treat myself with kindness and respect?
Trust is an important aspect of the human experience and can contribute to a sense of safety internally and in relationships. Trust can mean different things to people, and the work of Brene Brown helps us to break down the concept into specific qualities and behaviors so that it can be more easily understood. BRAVING is an acronym that I encourage you to reflect on in relationship to yourself, and others.
Brown, B. (2018). Dare To Lead: Daring Greatly and Rising Strong At Work. Penguin Random House.
Please note that this article is educational in nature and does not constitute therapeutic advice or recommendation. Please seek professional support if required.