Who do you trust? 

With your secrets? With your wellbeing? With your life? 

Who can trust us? Who would we go out of our way for? A number of people. We do regularly. Our family, our friends, work colleagues. Who would we lay down our lives for? Very few. For me, my child. And if I am honest, that is probably it. Though I would not want to test this. 

Do we really know those people we trust? Do they know us? Do we even know ourselves? 

The opposite of trust, the abuse of trust, is deception. How often have we been deceived by others? How often do we deceive others? Some would say we deceive others inadvertently, not deliberately, but how often do we stop and clarify when we realise that someone has been deceived? How often do we decide that it’s their problem they were deceived, and carry on regardless? 

Reading the first part of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Talking to Strangers 1, I am struck by his findings. I say ‘struck’ but sadly not shocked. Maybe that’s because I have learned to lower my expectations of people over the years.  Gladwell shows how we are often deceived, individually and organisationally, because we have a false and inflated sense of our own perception. We are easily deceived because we are so self centred. 

In one experiment he shows how we see ourselves as nuanced, complex and enigmatic, but we see a stranger as quite the opposite – simplistic, straightforward, what-you-see-is-what-you-get. He says,   “we think we can easily see into the hearts of others based on the flimsiest of clues.” How arrogant are we? Arrogance of course is a lethal combination of confidence and stupidity, as demonstrated by the work of Kruger and Dunning 2

But, and here is the part of the book I want to discuss, not only do we overestimate our ability to know others and therefore to trust them, or worse, to judge them, but we resolutely refuse to do the same of ourselves. We fight shy of analysing our own behaviours and thoughts. And this leads to the inability of otherwise intelligent and dedicated people to understand when they are being deceived. We are therefore easily deceived because of two human characteristics:our arrogance in judging others, and our refusal to really look at ourselves. 

This made total sense to me. Having spent almost ten years working with clinicians on the art of assessing and evaluating the clinical practice of and offering feedback to their junior colleagues in training, I was constantly frustrated by their inability to separate practice from the person, and their overwhelming need to judge the individual. I would ask how they knew the things they claimed about their trainees, and the evidence was flimsy at best. Those few who were most able to offer nuanced and thoughtful feedback were those who had taken time and effort to look at their own practice and how it affected them personally. 

So what inhibits individuals from getting to know themselves? Some people would claim they are just not built like that. Others are too afraid to uncover something they don’t know exists, and may not exist. A number of my friends are afraid of counselling lest it does that. Having had counselling for over a year, I can say I did not uncover anything I did not want to uncover. So what’s to be afraid of? 

I turned my spotlight inward, to see if I could  find the answer there. I have half a dozen close friends with whom I can spend time analysing myself, or indeed, supporting them in their own self analysis. We share lengthy, in depth conversations putting ourselves under the microscope, trying to work out why we did or did not do something, what the higher meaning might have been, what had influenced us at that time. We help each other to question, hypothesise, understand. I guess this is ‘friendship therapy’ and I feel extremely lucky to have such people who can join me in this way of thinking and being, although it has taken a lifetime to find them. 

But when I look at all other contexts in my life – work, work socials, socials with my husband’s friends, I see that this behaviour  is at best politely avoided and at worst, ridiculed. The dominant  narrative in all other walks of my life is to remain in the here and now, with the concrete, at hand reality. Conversation remains resolutely superficial and fickle. 

Now I am not suggesting for a second that every time we see anyone we all get into self therapeutic huddles, but I do find it curious that we still inhabit a culture, especially in medicine, education and police work (my immediate circles) where knowing oneself is avoided. In all of those professions we are frequently engaged in working with others, as ‘service users’ or as team mates. We must therefore be frequently required to assess, judge and to trust others. And yet we continue to do so very badly, according to Gladwell, because we refuse to engage with the person with whom we spend the most time in our lives. The person who is there when we arrive, beside us in bed every night, and there at the end – ourselves. 

Some of us have used lockdown to get to know ourselves better (see here) and the only danger that could result from that for me would be that in returning to the work which I now know conflicts with my values, I may not be as tolerant as I was previously. But somehow I think that at least knowing the work is incongruent with my values is empowering. I can choose to tolerate it or to leave. I won’t keep wondering if I am crazy because of the boiling inferno of irritation that rears up inside me on a regular basis.

Maybe though, for some of us, the choice is not so easy. Maybe we are stuck in a job that is slowly eroding our sense of self, but to face that truth would be to foreground a choice we cannot make. I do feel huge sympathy for people in that situation. But even a little learning about ourselves can help us cope with others. 

I used to work with a person who frustrated me beyond belief. I liked them a lot away from work, but at work they were constantly wanting to change what we were doing, coming up with a new plan, every twenty minutes. We had worked for several months on a project we were piloting and as I was managing the two day pilot, my colleague kept suggesting changes to the plan. Eventually I broke down in tears of frustration. 

I found help in the Myers Briggs Type Indicator system. I tend to take these typologies lightly, finding some help in using the character trait descriptions, but not believing every word. Looking at my profile again and then thinking about the opposite of it, I saw that my colleague was indeed the diametric opposite type to me. I then saw how frustrated they might feel about me. So I made sure to raise this the next time we had a drink together, how we were so different and how it was a good thing for our project but possibly frustrating for us. It didn’t change us, or the way we behaved but it helped me to tolerate the behaviour a little more. 

Trust. Deception. If we want to improve our experience of these things, we need to start with ourselves. Only by knowing me, can I know you. Or avoid you. There really is nothing to be afraid of but ignorance. 

Try it. You might fall in love with the person you can’t escape from. Or at the very least you will have made a new friend.  

  1. Gladwell, M. (2019). Talking to Strangers Penguin
  2. Dunning, D, Kruger, J (2000). Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77(6):1121-34