Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Trust & Empathy

On this website, we often talk about empathy and all of the different issues that are associated with it, directly or indirectly. One such issue, we generally only touch upon indirectly, is that of trust. You see, empathy and trust go hand in hand as a platform for effective communication, understanding and relationships.

Empathy is about understanding another person's point of view. And part of the empathic process is about establishing trust through listening, without judgment, and offering understanding, even when one personally disagrees with the other person. All of this is done in order to develop a rapport with another person, in order to interact with them on equal footing.

In earnestly listening, without judgment, and offering understanding to the other person, even if we personally disagree with them, we offer them a level of respect as we communicate effectively with them. And respect, by meeting others on equal footing, is a basis for establishing both trust and empathy.


There are several ways to define trust. Let's look at some of these ways.  The first that we will look at comes directly from a dictionary.  The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Trust like this:

a : assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something
b : one in which confidence is placed

Another site takes a different approach in describing Trust:

Trust is both and emotional and logical act. Emotionally, it is where you expose your vulnerabilities to people, but believing they will not take advantage of your openness. Logically, it is where you have assessed the probabilities of gain and loss, calculating expected utility based on hard performance data, and concluded that the person in question will behave in a predictable manner. 

Definition 1: Trust means being able to predict what other people will do and what situations will occur. If we can surround ourselves with people we trust, then we can create a safe present and an even better future. 
Value Exchange 
Definition 2: Trust means making an exchange with someone when you do not have full knowledge about them, their intent and the things they are offering to you. 
Delayed Reciprocity 
Definition 3: Trust means giving something now with an expectation that it will be repaid, possibly in some unspecified way at some unspecified time in the future. 
Exposed Vulnerabilities 
Definition 4: Trust means enabling other people to take advantage of your vulnerabilities—but expecting that they will not do this.

The Establishment Of Trust

Now that we have taken the definition of trust  from a generic dictionary definition into the realm of emotions/logic, let's explore the emotional side of trust in more depth.  First, we must ask ourselves some questions.  When we feel trust, what kinds of emotions do we experience in association with trust, as a feeling? What does it take to come to the point of experiencing trust, and the emotions associated with it, with others?

Trust can engender many sensations, when we are interacting with others.  Some emotions associated with trust include (but aren't limited to) companionship, friendship, love, contentment, agreement, relaxation, comfort, empathy and compassion.

Now, how does a person come to the point of feeling these kinds of sensations with another person?  To answer that we have to understand what trust requires of us.  Trust requires us to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and open with others (vulnerable to the possibility of betrayal).  It also requires us to think well of others, in general, and to have a positive outlook on the competence and trustworthiness of the people in question.

But trust is also a two way street.  Now, one could surmise this two way street is about establishing trust on the part of each participant in the other person, during any interaction.  And while that is definitely one level of this premise, it is not the only one.

Trust requires us to be vulnerable to other people.  And in doing this, we not only must put our faith in someone else, but also in ourselves to be able to express such emotional states in the presence of another.  What this means, is that even as we put trust/faith in the other person, we must be assured in our own worthiness in sharing such emotional expressions with others.  If we do not trust ourselves, or our voices get halted by guilt, shame, or the belief that it isn't worth acknowledgment by others, then we will find ourselves unable to evince vulnerability to others.  And trust can not be established.

Now we come back to the previous level of this process, in which each participant works to establish a rapport with the other person, where in, there is an ease of comfort during communication and interaction.  For this to occur, there must be a degree of understanding and empathy between both parties.  And this occurs through patience, the willingness to listen without judgment, and the genuine offering of respect and understanding.

Trusting someone is always about taking a leap of faith, because even if we can potentially predict the dependability of another person, based on their behaviors and opinions, and we can genuinely allow ourselves to be vulnerable with them, it is always about risk and stepping into the unknown in the hopes of gaining a positive association with others.

Trust And Empathy

As we stated at the beginning of this discussion, empathy and trust go hand in hand as a platform for effective communication, understanding and relationships.  Empathy is about understanding another person's point of view. And part of the empathic process is about establishing a rapport of trust with others.

Engendering trust allows for a degree of reliance and connection to develop between two people.  While enabling empathy between two parties, allows each to understand one another at a much deeper level.  In other words, a connection of comfortable reliance is established and the process of sharing and understanding is openly allowed to occur.  And this allows the connections that bind to deepen....establishing friendship.

Now, empathy has three different levels; the cognitive, the emotional, and the compassionate.

  • Cognitive Empathy: we recognize what another person is feeling
  • Emotional Empathy: we actually feel what the person is feeling
  • Compassionate Empathy: we want to help the person deal with their situation and emotions
Trust is established within the scope of compassionate empathy, where we have a desire to reach out to another person.  This is because during the other two types of empathy, we may not necessarily express those feelings of camaraderie externally, even as we experience them within ourselves.  It is only with the desire to reach out and help someone else, can trust be created.

What Does All Of This Mean?

All of this is simply an exploration into the connections between trust and empathy.  It is offered up to be food for thought to be pondered, at your leisure.  So think about it.  ^_^

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