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Do You Have Enough Trust Dollars?

Have you ever asked someone multiple times to do something or change something about themselves, but they just don't do it? Maybe you asked very politely at first...

...but eventually, you got annoyed, and it became a point of conflict in the relationship.

Recently, I was chatting with a couple friends about exactly this problem, and I thought of this quote from The Analects of Confucius:

"A superior person first establishes trust before asking his people to work; otherwise, he is grinding himself. A superior person also establishes trust before giving advice, otherwise she is slandering herself."

(Original Text: 君子信而後勞其民,未信則以為厲己也;信而後諫,未信則以為謗己也。)

In other words, we need to earn the other person's trust before we ask them to do things or advise them to change; otherwise, we will inflict suffering onto ourselves and receive a bad reputation for being a "nagger" or "complainer".

To give an analogy, we can imagine our relationship with people as a bank account. Good relationships have a positive balance. Bad relationships have a negative balance. If we want the other person to do something or change something about themselves, we need to spend trust dollars from our bank balance. Small asks cost a small amount of trust dollars; big requests require big amounts of trust dollars. If they don't comply with your ask, then chances are, you don't have enough trust dollars.

Think about it: if our idol, or someone we deeply respect, asked us to do something, we would do it right away. But if someone who annoys us asks us to do something, we would not do it just to prove that they cannot boss us around. The idol has a lot of trust dollars with us, while that annoying person has a negative balance with us.

So the big question is, how do we earn trust dollars? There are many ways, but some major ones that come to mind are

  1. Remove their unhappiness and give them happiness

  2. Let them know you have their best intentions at heart (not your own selfish intentions)

  3. Keep your word consistently

  4. Set a good example first

1: Remove their unhappiness and give them happiness

We all like people who give us happiness and dislike people who give us annoyance, frustration, or negativity. So when we interact with others, we should pay attention to whether they smile more or frown more. If they frown more than they smile, then chances are, we are giving them more unhappiness than happiness. In that case, we should reflect on what we are doing wrong and/or ask them how we can be better towards them.

But a point of caution: Giving others happiness has to be done in a proper way that is beneficial to them in the long-term. For example, if they like smoking, we should not encourage them to smoke. But if they like it when you give sincere compliments or praise, you can try to give more sincere compliments and praise.

2: Let them know you have their best intentions at heart

Lao Zi's Treatise on Cause and Effect explains that a virtuous person would

"View people's gains as my own gains. View people's losses as my own losses."

(Original Text: 見人之得如己之得,見人之失如己之失。 )

In other words, their happiness and gains are my happiness and gains. Their unhappiness and losses are also my unhappiness and losses. This requires us to have empathy first, to be able to feel their happiness and unhappiness with them. If we can have this kind of attitude, we are a virtuous person, and we would surely earn trust dollars in our every interaction with them.

On the other hand, if we are blind to their feelings because all we feel is our own feelings, then we would naturally feel a distance in the relationship. We might even view their happiness as conflicting with our happiness, leading to arguments and fights, which would really hurt our trust balance.

For example, if we want to advise a loved one to quit smoking, we should not say, "Listen to yourself cough! I told you so many times already, if you don't stop smoking now, you're going to get lung cancer and die early and be a big burden to all of us."

That would make them feel very attacked, disrespected, and unloved. Instead, we could say,

"Hey honey, I notice you are coughing more and more, and I care about your health. When you cough like that, I feel a pain in my chest too. I don't want to be a demanding nagger, I just want you to be happy in a healthy way. I also don't expect you to quit smoking in the snap of a finger, but I want you to consider it and work on it."

3: Keep your word consistently

If we said we would do something for others, we need to keep our word, no matter how small the thing is. If we don't keep our word, they will lose trust in us. When they have a negative impression of us, would they want to listen to our advice? Hence, we need to be very careful about what we promise to others.

If we promised something, but later the situation changed, and it is no longer feasible for us to fulfill that promise, we need to communicate with the other person promptly, apologize, and ask how to make up for it.

4: Set a good example first

Setting a good example earns trust dollars. Demanding others to be good when we aren't even good reduces trust and creates resentment.

"A superior person first possess those positive qualities in himself before asking others to have them; first eliminates those negative qualities in herself before asking others to not have them."

(Original Text: 君子有諸己而後求諸人,無諸己而後非諸人。)

If you want the other person to be more (insert positive trait here), make sure you have that positive trait first. If you want them to be a good partner, make sure you are a good partner first. If you want them to do their fair share of chores, make sure you do your fair share first. Otherwise, they will say, "You don't even do it, what right do you have to demand me to do it?"

My Experience

With My Mother

In the past, my mother often criticized me, and I would always defend myself and criticize her back. Our interactions were more negative than positive, more frowning than smiling. Hence, our trust balance was low.

Later, I learned from the Gottman Institute that happy relationships have a 5:1 positive to negative interaction ratio. Hence, I decided to try building trust by praising or thanking her for one thing every day and resisting the urge to defend myself or criticize back, thereby increasing our positive interactions ratio.

At first, it felt a bit forced because, well, it was. But my intention was to improve our relationship, not for any selfish gain, so I persisted. After a couple weeks, it got more natural, and my mom started praising me one thing each day too. Now, it's been over a year, and our trust is very strong.

We also set a meeting time before dinner every day where we communicate our thoughts sincerely and respectfully. If we want to advise or criticize each other, we should only do it during that time, and not criticize each other while they are busy throughout the rest of the day. Moreover, our intention should be to help the other person rather than being annoyed at them. When she advises me now, I feel that she has my best intentions at heart, so I am very thankful, and she feels the same way towards me.

With My Friend

One of my friends needed to pass the IELTS English exam in order to study in the UK. I helped her learn English for a few months, and then later, I got busy, so she started learning with another teacher. As her exam drew closer, I noticed she got more and more stressed and unhealthy. One day, I told her to not be so attached to an exam score, especially to the point that she would neglect her own physical and mental health, making her parents, teachers, and friends worry. She felt very upset and did not listen to my advice.

Later, I understood. She was already feeling so insecure and worried that she could not pass her test, the last thing she needs is someone telling her she is not being a good person. If a similar situation happened again, I would say,

"Hey, I know you have been working super hard these past few months. You've made big progress, and I believe in you. But I also noticed you are getting burned out, and when I see you so tired and unhappy with your daily studies, I feel bad too. I am not expecting you to suddenly be super happy or sleep eight hours a day, but I want you to think about how you can take better care of your physical and mental health while preparing for your test."

With My Boss

I work as a high school teacher, so my boss is my principal. This school year, I made a big request: I asked to work every other semester. This would be quite a logistic challenge for the school, and I honestly didn't know if they would accept my request. To my surprise, they said, "Well, we really value you as a teacher, and the students always give great feedback about your classes, so we will accept your request."

This request definitely costed a lot of trust dollars, and I reflected on how I built that trust:

  1. I never gave headaches or negativity to my principal or students. I always maintained respect and professionalism.

  2. I always kept my word. If I accepted a task, I always did it diligently and on time. If I did not have the time and ability to do a task, I respectfully declined and explained that I don't want to do something half-heartedly.

  3. I set a good example for the other teachers. I always fulfill my responsibilities properly, and I am constantly trying to improve my teaching abilities. I often report my learnings and experiences to my principal, and she sometimes asks me to share my experience in staff meetings.

Since I've built up a lot of trust over the past couple of years, I was able to purchase a big request.

Concluding Thoughts

If we want others to accept or request or advice, we need to accumulate enough trust with them first. Is there someone who you wish would listen to your advice or change for you? Do you have enough trust dollars to purchase that request? If not, how can you earn more trust dollars and prevent losing trust?


Weekly Wisdom #213


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