Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

How to Communicate Effectively with Someone You Distrust

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Expert's Council

The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/distrust.htm

Updated  04-11-2015

      Clicking underlined links here will open a new window. Other links will open  an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost.

      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An effective response occurs when you (a) get your primary needs met well enough, and (b) both people feel respected enough.

This article offers (a) perspective on distrust, and (b) ways to respond to someone you don't trust. The article assumes you're familiar with:


      How would you define trust to an average pre-teen? How about "Trust is feeling you're safe from pain, injury, loss, and uncomfortable surprises with a person, group, animal, or situation." So distrust is feeling unsafe from any of these. We learn on early childhood that some people and animals are safer than others.

      Think of someone you trust "completely." Does that mean you're confident of their honesty? Judgment? Motives? Morals? Perceptions? Knowledge? Sense of responsibility? Sensitivity? Reliability? Boundaries? Self-control? Spirituality? Stability? As you see, "trust" spans a wide range of personal attributes. 

      Now think of someone you "don't trust." Can you identify specifically what you don't trust about them? How did that distrust happen? Slowly? Suddenly? Does the person know you distrust them in some way? How does this affect your relationship?

      Some people trust others until they're disappointed, disillusioned, or betrayed in some way. From early betrayals, others approach life cynically and distrustfully. For them, interpersonal trust must be earned over many shared experiences.

      An important aspect of this topic is trust in yourself - i.e. steady confidence in your own judgment, wisdom, abilities, and self control to keep you safe from pain, loss, and injury in various situations. Self-trust may vary with your environment - i.e. unfamiliar surroundings and relationships may reduce your self-trust until you evolve some predictability with them.

      People who become familiar with the subselves that form their personality learn that some subselves are very trusting, and others are deeply suspicious and cynical. Outdated self-distrust can be improved over time using inner-family therapy. If you survived a low-nurturance childhood, you may have significant trouble trusting wisely.

      Stable mutual trust is essential for marital intimacy, friendships, and effective parenting. It's also necessary for effective interpersonal communication!

Response Options

  • Use awareness to notice that you distrust the person, and decide what you distrust;

  • Decide whether to say something to them or not about your distrust. If you choose to ...

  • Mentally review these response-basics until they become a habit;

  • Identify what you feel with this person - guarded, ambivalent, frustrated, critical, disinterested, anxious, irritated, concerned, or something else. Your emotions point to what you need.

  • Identify what outcome you want from your comment or response. Do you need to vent, to inform, to problem-solve, to set or enforce a boundary, to help the person, or something else? 

  • When both of you are undistracted and face-to-face, get steady eye contact, and ask...

"(Name), are you open t some personal feedback?"

If the person says "No," or "Not now," you have a different problem;

      Depending on what you need, choose a calm response like these:

To Vent

"(Name), I need you to know that I don't trust you about (something specific)"

"Since I learned you lied about ________, I don't trust you any more."

"I don't believe you."

"I'm frustrated because I'm not able to trust you (about ____________ )."

"(Name), I suspect you're often ruled by a false self."

To Give Feedback

"Are you aware of how often you exaggerate / bend the truth / avoid eye contact with me / shut down / explain yourself / excuse yourself / generalize / stutter / change your mind / deny / ________ ?"

"First you tell me you're OK, and then you say you're depressed / angry / confused / sad / lonely. I don't know what to believe." (This is usually a sign of false-self dominance).

"(Name), when you avoid eye contact with me, I lose trust in you.

"When your words don't match your face / body / voice tone I lose trust in you."

"When you promise me that _______ and then don't do it, I lose trust in your word."

To Learn

"(Name), am I doing something that causes you to lie / not follow thru / break your word / hide things from me?"

"Do you understand why I don't trust you about _________?"

"Do you care that I've lost trust in you?"

Are you going to assess yourself for false-self wounds?"

 To Problem-solve

"I need to rebuild my trust in you. Are you willing to work on that with me?"

  To Confront or Set Limits

"(Name), I can't have a relationship with someone I don't trust."

"Stop. I'm not willing to hear / debate / discuss this again."

"The next timed you lie / break your promise / don't call / do (something specific) /  I'm going to (take some specific action)."

"For me to trust you again, I need you to ________."

      Note the theme of these sample responses (brief, honest, respectful, direct, specific), and adapt it to your style of thinking and speaking. Avoiding responses like these so you don't "hurt the other person's feelings" or "start a fight" is a lose-lose decision. Pretending trust you don't feel is dishonest and disrespectful, and will degrade your self-esteem and your relationship. 

  • Avoid generalizing. "I don't trust you" is a global judgment which hinders problem-solving. "I don't trust you about (something specific)" lowers the odds of conflict, and increases the chance to do effective problem-solving together.  

  • Expect the other person to "resist" your response - i.e. to deny, argue or debate, whine, shut down, walk away, explain, justify, minimize, catastrophize, generalize, blame you, ignore you, plead, attack, bring up the past, demand an example, etc. Use respectful empathic-listening when s/he does, and then calmly re-state your original response or question. Repeat this sequence until you get what you need or your needs change.

      A common resistance is for the other person to ask you for an example of what causes your distrust, and then to invite you into a lose-lose debate - "I didn't do that!" / "Yes you did." That defocuses you both from the real issue, and can seduces you into making combative "You" statements vs. assertive ''I''-messages.

      Think of someone in your life that you distrust about something. Can you imagine responding like these examples to her or him? How would that feel? How would the person react? How would this compare to your usual reaction to distrusting them?

      Bottom line - you have many communication options with someone you distrust!


      This is one of a series of brief articles suggesting effective ways to respond to common social situations. This article offers (a) perspective on distrusting someone, and (b) examples of how to respond effectively to them depending on what you need. The examples are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge,

  • maintaining a mutual-respect attitude,

  • clarity on your feelings, needs, and mutual rights, and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

For more options, see these articles on responding to someone who is dishonest, inconsistent, and/or insensitive.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

  This article was very helpful  somewhat helpful  not helpful    

Share/Bookmark  Prior page  /  Lesson 2  Print page 


 site intro  /  course outline  /  site search  /  definitions  /  chat contact