I would like to believe that if I treat people with honor and respect they will return the favor. I know from experience that I will sometimes be disappointed. Usually, these discouraging circumstances are the result of a difference in perspective rather than an outright betrayal of trust. Something that I see as very important someone else may view as a minor or trivial matter.
The people we trust the most are those who consistently show us over time that they will honor their word and reach out to bridge misunderstandings and differences in perspective. Some years ago, a couple of my closest friends and I got in the habit of playing practical jokes on one another. I think my worst offense was putting a snake in one of my friends’ fishing tackle box without bothering to consider how he might feel about the trick. Fortunately for me, his sense of humor was marginally stronger than his fear of snakes; and the story is one we both laugh about more than 20 years later. Unfortunately, the “jokes” did not stop at that point; and on one occasion, they crossed the line between funny and hurtful. We remain close friends today because the person who was hurt spoke up in a humble but powerful way that included a clear message about his feelings and forgiveness for the injury he received.
Many times we don’t get the chance to correct a misunderstanding, and we may never know when we offend someone or cause them to feel we have betrayed their trust. A few years ago, I attended a gathering where a woman I did not know well was angrily accusing a good friend and fellow city manager of being untruthful. I doubt my friend even knew this woman, but something he had said at a public meeting led her to believe he was untruthful. Someone else stepped in and defended my friend’s reputation on that occasion, although I doubt that the accuser’s attitude was changed.
I’ve learned from these experiences and others like them that even when I feel I’ve been wronged, my first obligation is to learn why the other person acted as he or she did. No offense was intended in most cases, and the conversation can lead to a better and stronger relationship. I usually need to take a little time to get over my initial reaction and think about how I can approach the other person before I confront the situation. Angrily accusing someone of something they hadn’t realized they’d done is usually not a winning strategy.
My job provides many opportunities to offend and be offended, which may explain why I’ve learned so many painful lessons about building trust. I think the most important idea I need to constantly remind myself about is that lingering anger and resentment over a perceived slight costs me far more than it does the person I believe caused it. Resolving the concern and getting past it is the best form of revenge.