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Trust: The Key to Social Harmony

Imagine your mother places you on a stool and says jump. For most children, there is excitement in jumping from even small heights, and there is the inherent bonding reward of arms that catch you, unfailingly, then smother you with love. But what if the encouragement to jump was there, the arms reach out as always, but at that critical moment, they are withdrawn. You fall, not far, but your trust instantly vanishes. The wound of not being able to trust may not soon vanish. Repeat that often enough and loss of trust creates a form of psychological instability that manifests in a variety of less than ideal ways. Loss of trust is no small matter. Trust is so important, this is one of the first things we ask when we hire a babysitter, a plumber, or we seek a committed partner, can we trust this person?

Trust is something we all seek and rely on, and yet, it is not guaranteed. When it is there and evident, it bodes well for us. Early traders and sojourners along the Mediterranean depended on trust that they would be paid for the olive oil, wine, and wheat when their shipments arrived. It is no less so now. When trust is missing or fickle, it makes us distrusting, questioning, insecure, or unwilling to participate or enter into a working or even a personal relationship. Failures of trust destabilize social as well as commercial relationships.

America is struggling as never before to establish trust in its two most fundamental institutions, commerce, and government. Since the Great Recession, trust in these two all-encompassing systems has plummeted by a combined average of approximately 60 percent. The same epidemic of distrust has even permeated personal relationships, leading to a startling decrease in the number of people who have a close, trusted friend.

This shocking decline is one of our country's biggest problems because trust lies at the heart of every conceivable exchange of money, power, friendship, and love.  

  •    Only 19 percent of Americans trust big business.

  •    33 percent have a general trust of other people.

  •    9 percent of Americans trust Congress.

  •    24 percent trust the federal government.

  •    21 percent trust television news.

  •    18 percent trust the pharmaceutical industry.

  •    23 percent trust banks.

  •    57 percent, an all-time low, have a trusted friend.      

The financial and personal repercussions of this trust crisis are almost unimaginable. When people don't trust a company, they don't buy its products.  Conversely, companies that were identified as “high-trust” last year beat the average annualized returns of the S&P 500 by 300 percent. That should not come as any surprise, it is perhaps why your parents always went back to the same car dealer or insurance agent—because they trusted him or her.

On a personal level, when people have a generalized distrust of others, they tend not to make friends. Studies show that Millennials are the least trusting generation in American history, and for good reason; the institutions we used to trust have come into question.

Over the years, this was a topic I often discussed with my friend and fellow author, Robin Dreeke. Like myself, he served as a career FBI Agent, where he eventually headed the agency's Counterintelligence Behavioral Analysis Program, a unit that I helped create. 

The mission of that elite behavioral program was to protect national security—no small charge. But the essence of the program was understanding people, their motives and intentions—something that is impossible to do if you don’t develop a level of trust with others, even, surprisingly enough, with our sworn enemies.

Robin’s skill at developing trust and in teaching the art and science of developing trust to others is renowned throughout the intelligence community. Over time and after many conversations, I finally suggested that he write down his thoughts. And that is exactly what he did: The Code of Trust: An American Counterintelligence Expert's Five Rules to Lead and Succeed (St. Martin’s Press), the first book to systematize the creation of trust. A work so compelling that I wrote the book's foreword for one reason: It’s that good.

I wanted him to share his ideas with those interested in the topic and so he agreed to a Skype interview with me, that had to be postponed several times because of an irksome hurricane named Irma.

Here is my Q & A with the remarkable Robin Dreeke:

JN: Why does it seem trust is on everyone’s mind these days?

RD: Think about it, parents that don’t trust children, Nixon and Watergate, the Bush election, the car airbag recalls, the accuracy of polls, promises made and neglected by politicians, on and on. We can’t escape it. Even in the private sector, trust remains a critical issue and people are asking who and what can we trust?

JN: What prompted you specifically to develop your system for inspiring trust? In other words, why codify it?

RD: All of my life, including during my career as an officer in the Marines, I wanted to be able to lead people, but I'm not a natural-born leader. At first, like many people, I relied on manipulation and coercion, but leadership through that style never lasts. I realized that the only way to consistently lead people, and get their best efforts, is by inspiring them to trust you. That's very difficult these days, so I studied the basic qualities that create trust and organized them into my system.

JN: Talk to me about the basic concept of your system.

RD: It's simply this: To inspire trust, put others first. If you're working in someone's best interests, why shouldn't they trust you? If you're not, why should they?

JN: But people think that if they put others first, their own needs won't get met.

RD: That's a really common initial reaction, Joe, but when people try it, they see that if you make yourself a resource for the success of others, without expecting reciprocity, they'll not only trust you but usually help you get what you want, without even being asked. It's human nature. It's especially powerful when you find out what someone's major goals are, and link your own goals with theirs. You're suddenly partners! And when you apply this to a number of people, you're a team!  It's a phenomenally powerful concept that has been overlooked lately, as people have become more isolated, and have led themselves into spirals of further isolation and decline. 

JN: Describe your system or model that comes out of that basic concept?

RD: There five principles. First, suspend your ego. Focus on the other person. Let them be the center of attention. They'll open their heart and mind to you. Second, be nonjudgmental. People don't trust someone who looks down on them. Why should they? It would be self-defeating. Third, validate the opinions of others. That doesn't mean agreeing, it means understanding and just knowing why they feel the way they do. That's all anyone really insists on. If you don't agree, you can still be friends. And you learn the most from friends who don't agree with you. Fourth, honor reason. Stay away from manipulation and debating tactics. They're alienating! Why win an argument and lose a friend or associate? And fifth, be generous. Offer a little extra, instead of the bare minimum. 

If you can do all those things, you'll become a magnet for trust. Then find the people who have goals that link well with yours, get to know the context of their life and beliefs, plan your meetings with them strategically, and communicate with them verbally and nonverbally in the way that best fits their communication style.

JN:  Seems fairly straightforward.

RD:  It is, but it's not second-nature for most of us. We all love to be the center of attention and win every point.

JN: But attention and minor victories don't necessarily create success, do they?

RD: You're absolutely right. There are greater things in life. Such as leadership, achieving your goals, making lifelong friends, having a functional family, knowing that you don't need to manipulate people to get your way, or avoiding petty conflicts. Those are the things that make us happy, strong, and successful.

JN: And you've seen that happen?

RD: If you're true to the principles of the Code, it can't help but happen. The real beauty of it is seeing it happen among the people around you and spreading outward in concentric circles. 

JN: So trust is contagious?  


RD: Exactly. Trust is contagious.

JN: Robin, you are a different person than the one I met all those years ago. From those days to now, what has been a defining understanding of human nature that you think you learned and is critical to trust and relationship building?

RD: There are actually two, and like most all things behavioral they are intertwined. First, I began to notice that the more I began to focus on the priorities, context, and challenges of others and offered myself as an available resource for those wants and dreams of others, the behavior of others became more predictable which began lessening stress and anxiety of the unknown when interacting with them. When you lesson that type of emotional high-jacking, you have much better clarity of thought and action. In essence, if you know what others view as their priorities, challenges and their prosperity, and if you offer resources for them accomplishing them without expectation of reciprocity, ie., no charge…they will do it. Why wouldn’t they?

Second, I would say, is th

e after-encounter review. In other words, following every interaction I have with someone, I review how it went. Not in a way to find fault in others or even myself, but to discern what I did well for others and where I can improve. Did I cause comfort or distress? Did I leave them feeling better for the encounter? Was I too focused on myself or was I vested in them? After doing this for some time I began to recognize an amazing and truly majestic and repeatable pattern. What I began to realize, and live today, is the knowledge that you can have all the talents, skills, attributes, and strengths in the world in whatever area is your passion. But, if you have all that without trust-based relationships, all those talents mean next to nothing. I began to notice this not only in my own profession but also in those I interacted with. Whether it was my children striving to get into the colleges of their dreams or co-workers striving for promotion, or any friends and family pursuing dreams and aspirations. What became blatantly clear is those with the skills and acumen for developing trusted relationships were far more successful in their pursuits than those without. Even when those without the required trust and relationships skills had far-reaching abilities in a particular expertise. They might even be hired or brought on for a short time, but inevitably let go because of their lack of ability to inspire trust and relationships. Because of this awareness, I now focus wholeheartedly on relationships and the development of trust.

JN: Lastly Robin, what can we all be doing to strengthen relationships and trust?

RD: That’s an easy one, Joe. First, spend your time identifying the strengths in others rather than their faults. We are all working on some fault, guaranteed. As human beings, we are genetically coded to seek being valued and accepted by others. When you can start out a conversation stating the specific strength someone has, the likelihood of trust goes very high.

Second, discover the priorities of those you interact with. Their dreams and aspirations; long term, short term, professional, and personal. Then, always talk in terms of those things without judgment. If you add these two things to all your encounters I guarantee you will live with greater trust, relationships, and ultimately prosperity.

Thank you, Robin. 

For more information, Robin’s latest book, “The Code of Trust" is available at major book retailers and of course online. On social media you can follow Robin on: Twitter: @rdreeke; Facebook: Or contact him through his website at:

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