- Vera Brittain
Edward C. Tomlinson
Roy J. Lewicki
Trust indicates a willingness to become vulnerable to another based on confident positive expectations of their conduct. It has often been praised as the "glue" that holds relationships together and enables individuals to perform more efficiently. Trust reduces uncertainty over future outcomes and simplifies decision processes, and provides us with peace of mind.
Unfortunately, when conflict escalates to a dysfunctional level, trust in the other party is often one of the first casualties, and this can inhibit the effective resolution of the conflict.
If the parties to a conflict desire to reverse the conflict escalation process, they must find a way to (1) cultivate (or restore) an atmosphere of trust, and (2) manage the level of distrust. Trust building is important in de-escalating conflict because it allows individuals to accept the risk of being vulnerable and making conciliatory initiatives to the other with some degree of assurance that they will not be exploited. Until the parties can alleviate their predominant concern for self-protection against the other, they will be reluctant to work together in resolving their conflict. In contrast to distrust, where conflict escalates due to each party's sinister attributions toward the other, trust building is a process that can replace suspicion and defensiveness with benevolence and cooperation. The ultimate objective is to reduce tension and hostility to create the conditions that allow for conflict to spiral downward.
To illustrate the dynamics involved in these processes, we make use of recent research that has drawn the distinction between trust and distrust. Contrary to the traditional notion of trust as a unidimensional construct (i.e., that trust and distrust are bipolar opposites), recent work has asserted that trust and distrust exist along separate dimensions. Whereas trust is seen as the trustor's confident positive expectations regarding the trustee's conduct, distrust is defined as the trustor's confident negative expectations regarding the trustee's conduct. While both trust and distrust involve movements toward certainty of another's conduct, the nature of that certainty and the emotional and behavioral reactions that come with it will differ considerably. That is, trust evokes a feeling of hope and a demonstrated willingness to become vulnerable to the trustee. Distrust, on the other hand, evokes fear and actions to buffer oneself from the harmful conduct of the other party.
Viewing trust and distrust as existing along separate dimensions also recognizes that relationships are complex and multifaceted. In other words, we may trust another in some contexts, but not in others, and similarly distrust them in some contexts and not others. You may trust another individual to arrive on time for a meeting, but not to complete required paperwork by the deadline. An elaboration of this perspective is found in Lewicki and Wiethoff :
Relationships are multifaceted, and each facet represents an interaction that provides us with information about the other. The greater the variety of settings and contexts in which the parties interact, the more complex and multifaceted the relationship becomes. Within the same relationship, elements of trust and distrust may peacefully coexist because they are related to different experiences with the other or knowledge of the other in different contexts.
Thus, arriving at an overall evaluation of the trustee involves a complex assessment that considers both trust and distrust. Moreover, this new view of trust stresses that both trust and distrust have a valid role in managing complex relationships: contrary to traditional, normative views that trust is good and distrust is bad, this new perspective recognizes that trust is valuable insofar as it is appropriate to the context, and that a healthy amount of distrust can protect against the risk of exploitation.
Accordingly, conflicts can be managed most effectively when attention is given to managing the initiation and development of trust, as well as to tempering distrust. In the distrust and trust-building essays, we describe the origins of distrust and trust, the effects of violated expectations for each, and the process of rebuilding damaged trust and tempering distrust. We conclude by discussing the practical implications of our review and directing interested readers to additional resources.
 Lewicki, R. J., & Wiethoff, C. (2000). "Trust, trust development, and trust repair," in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and practice, Eds. M. Deutsch & P. Coleman, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Pp. 86-107. (p. 92)
Use the following to cite this article:
Tomlinson, Edward C. and Roy J. Lewicki. "Managing Interpersonal Trust and Distrust." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: December 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/bi-essay/trust-overview>.