I’ve been listening to NPR in the morning, following the news about international politics, and these points keep being made over and over:

  • In (international) relationships, trust is important and vital to getting anything done.
  • The kind of reception leaders get make all the difference in what they are willing to do or not do for the other Country.
  • The view of the relationship from the outside- the (media) perception- does not always reflect what’s going on behind closed doors.
  • What other people see, through the media or with their own eyes effects their perception of a whole Country and their citizens.

Does any of this sound familiar?  (Let me take a moment now and tell you if this “trust” thing doesn’t resonate with you, please go out an purchase “Trust Agents” by my friends, Chris Brogan and Julien Smith immediately.)

The talk about trust, building strong relationships, and what happens when that trust equation fails is a thread that seems to be running through more and more news reports, or I’m finally paying attention and have a new filter through which to view this news.  So if you thought Chris and Julien’s book about the importance of trust and relationships was important for business, what could the same perspective do for relationships not only between individuals, but between nations?

Before you write this off as silly, think what the lack of trust does.  When a Country doesn’t follow through on it’s promises, relationships suffer.  When Israel and the Palestinians seem to go out of their way to provoke each other, it starts to sound like the fourth grade boys teasing each other on the playground, begging for a fight.  Unfortunately, this fight involves serious weapons and the loss of life, not a bloody nose and being sent to the principal’s office.  (I guess the US gets to play Principal in trying to get these kids to place nicely with each other and respect each other’s boundaries, but we call it Peace Talks and unfortunately, you can’t call their parents at home to make them behave.)

And just like in your relationships with friends and family, helping others goes a long way to building trust and constructive relationships.  In a news report this morning on the BBC, a reporter spoke to a Pakistani official who said that when the people saw Americans and American helicopters coming to help them after the devastating earthquake, moving concrete and rescuing people, their perception of the US and Americans in general started to change.  Treating people in other countries like neighbors, instead of as “the other”, as “foreign”, but instead as just people goes a long way to changing hearts and minds about what an “American” is or stands for.

The coverage of international politics sounds more and more like a middle school playground, or a daytime soap opera, where trust and drama and small provocations have similar effects as they do on an actual playground, just painted with a much broader brush.  And just like on the playground, trust is a currency that facilitates relationships, and a lack of trust makes relationships way more complicated.

Trust, I tell my kids, is the one thing that can’t be easily fixed or replaced when it’s broken.  It’s fragile.  When you have it, it can create value- people will do you favors, cut you deals, and treat you well, whether we’re talking neighbors, businesses, or Countries.  When trust is in short supply, people start acting suspiciously.  They look out for themselves first, and others second.  There’s less emphasis on what’s mutually beneficial, but on a competitive advantage- winning rather than compromise.  The dynamics of the relationship totally change, and friction builds up- there’s more checkpoints, more regulation, more checking the score- and all of this friction slows up the process of actually getting things done.

As I look for fundamental concepts that are universally important at every level of human interaction, Trust ranks up there as one of the most important fundamentals we need in order to make progress of any sort.  A lack of trust signals problems that are hard to resolve, since trust requires faith and taking risks that others are worthy of that investment.  Fear that others will not follow through, that they will lie and break our fundamental trust keeps us frozen in time and place, and keeps us from acting.

Rick LaVoie talks about disappointment as being one of the most powerful emotions- the emotional nuclear weapon, we should use only rarely, if ever, with people in our lives.  It makes us feel shame and injures us to the core.  Our fear that trust will be broken is our defense against that disappointment, and the anticipation of disappointment, of having invested trust unwisely causes people to do irrational things, even aggressive, provocative things to strike first and to avoid getting hurt.

If we can remember these things for our personal relationships, if we can apply Chris and Julien’s advice in our business relationships, there’s a chance we can even make things better on a bigger scale as well.

What do you think?  Is this crazy? Or is trust the fundamental currency we all trade in, even when we think it’s all about dollars and cents?