“How can we rebuild trust after a conflict?” is an enormous question, the stuff of entire books. The way to answer it is to break it into a much smaller and more incremental question.
The intention behind the question is very lovely and right. Yet the sheer scale of the question makes it nearly impossible to answer. I have seen many colleagues, couples, and friends thwarted by this question, daunted by its magnitude.
It’s impossible to answer because the answer can’t yet be known for sure. Rebuilding trust after a conflict is, after all, a process that takes place over time, one trust-building act followed by another, one trust-allowing thought followed by another. It is unknowable, at the start of trying to rebuild trust, whether or not it can be achieved.
There are better questions, ones that are answerable and help get things started. They don’t require a perfect plan, just a desire to consider what’s possible and get started.
These more effective questions are informed by the old adage, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
It’s helpful to think of rebuilding trust as incremental, with three steps forward and perhaps one going back. I describe it to my clients this way, so that they understand trust-building isn’t a clear trajectory, constantly moving in the upward (improved) direction. It will be erratic, as they find their footing with each other after months — sometimes years — of trust eroding.
Here are three questions I’ve found very effective for discussing trust-building after conflict. You can use the “bite-sized” idea behind them to develop additional questions of your own:
- What is one simple thing you can do today to start rebuilding trust in each other again? We’ll worry about tomorrow later.
- What if, just for the next little while, you pretend to trust each other like you used to? No long-term commitment, just an experiment for an hour, one that you both agree to. How would you act in the next hour if trust were as strong as before?
- If you were ever to give him a chance to rebuild your trust in him, where would you want him to start?