I’m going to ask you to, um, trust me on this: some of the people you think you can trust—whether friends, family members, clients, bosses, political leaders, or romantic interests—are fundamentally untrustworthy. It’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way, and one that I wish to pass on.

The common wisdom is that the only way to know for sure you can trust a person is to trust him or her. And, while there is an element of truth to that proverb, there are most certainly some tangible criteria for sizing people up before you place any significant amount of trust in them.

Whether you’re taking stock of your acquaintances and friends, looking to hire personnel for your new organization, or considering a romantic alliance, trust is the glue that will hold your relationship together. Nothing fosters healthy growth in an organization, ignites the flames of a romantic union, or deepens the bond of a friendship more than trust; conversely, nothing causes dysfunction more than its absence.

Unfortunately, far too often we rely on a set of unreliable criteria to determine whether we can trust a person. For example, often we depend on our intuition, assuming that, after having interacted with a person, we can rely on our “gut” feeling to be a reliable indicator. Or, we might fall back on the fact that we like or even love a person, assuming that love and trust necessarily come together in one package. But these and other criteria are not reliable for deciding whether, and to what extent, we can trust a person.

This raises the question of why we can so easily be fooled by certain people who are among our closest colleagues, friends, or family members. And, for many of us, it can bring to mind personal memories of one of the most heart-rending experiences in life: the shock, disorientation, and fear caused by betrayal.

In order to avoid such betrayals in the future, it is wise to reflect on certain objective criteria for determining the level of trust we may wish to invest in a given person. Thus, this post will draw upon the criteria developed by Robin Dreeke, a veteran FBI Profiler and former Director of the Counterintelligence Behavioral Analysis Program. In Sizing People Up, Dreeke offers six criteria used by FBI behavioral analysts to determine the level of trust should be invested. To Dreeke’s list we will add a seventh indicator, resulting in a list of “7 Criteria for Sizing People Up”:

  1. Vesting: Do a person’s words, body language, actions, and intentions reveal a significant degree of alignment with my own goals and aspirations? If a person is “vesting” in me, personally, or in my organization, he or she will consider my best interests, offer unsolicited help, talk me up to people, offer encouragement when I succeed, and perhaps share things in confidence. If a person is not vesting in me, he or she will leave me out of things, magnify my small errors, exhibit negative body language, talk me down to people, and rarely give praise.
  2. Longevity: Does a person perceive longevity in my relationship with them? If they do wish for more than a short-term connection, they will include me in things, position me as hard to replace, often say “we” instead of “I” or “you,” and ask me to participate in their long-term goals. If a person does not perceive longevity in the relationship, he or she often will not try to connect with me at a personal level, leave me out of the loop on important issues, not care if others are rude to me, and not mention me when they talk about the future.
  3. Reliability: Is the person under consideration reliable? They are most likely reliable if they are appropriately confident, speak in specifics, are transparent about their weaknesses, work quickly and effectively, are inquisitive, accept responsibility, and don’t hold resentments or seek revenge. They are likely unreliable if they are chronically late, hard to contact, present themselves carelessly, learn slowly (because of apathy), and don’t take their mistakes seriously.
  4. Actions: One of the best ways to determine a person’s trustworthiness is through his or her actions. When looking for positive “tells” in this respect, consider whether a person is loyal, avoids unnecessarily divisive topics, and lives with integrity. Negative “tells” include whether a person lacks transparency about their past, has gaps or exaggerations in their stories, behaves inconsistently, and has difficulty accepting responsibility.
  5. Words: When sizing up a person, listen carefully and pay attention to any inconsistency that may arise between their words and body language. If a person is generally trustworthy, they look at you directly when they talk, rarely try to “win” arguments, communicate in a manner easy to understand, value morality more than political correctness, talk more about you than about themselves, and refrain from jumping to conclusions. Conversely, an untrustworthy person often is grandiose, defensive, likes to argue for the “win,” speaks in absolutes, displays discontinuity between his words and body language, and uses psychological labels to avoid accountability.
  6. Stability: When taking stock of a person’s trustworthiness, consider whether a person embraces her own perfections, demonstrates emotional instability, and has “unmanageable” problems. A trustworthy person will be appreciative, humble and non-judgmental, happy with herself, flexible and calm, and not inclined to seek out problems, while an untrustworthy person will use his “helplessness” to manipulate, act the victim, have a sense of entitlement, blame others, and manipulate.
  7. Humility: Does the person consider himself or herself the center of the universe? Hopefully not. If a person is genuinely humble, he or she will be polite, listen to others, admit weaknesses, display gratitude, be sympathetic, and take things in stride. If a person is not humble, he or she will be impolite, disinterested in others, thin-skinned, self-righteous, vain, materialistic, insecure, or arrogant.

Sometimes, sizing people up can feel impossible. Yet, these seven criteria can help us to do what sometimes feels impossible: take stock of a person accurately, based upon objective indicators.

Trust, or lack thereof, is at the heart of all human transactions. And we must realize that a properly-based trust is based on the predictability of the person under consideration—whether the person meets the seven criteria above—rather than upon our “gut” feeling or natural inclination to like or dislike that person. Thus, let us “trust, but verify.”


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