What makes us trust someone? What makes us distrust them?

The answers to these questions are the key not only to happy romantic relationships and soul-nurturing friendships, but also to being a successful leader at work. And according to researcher (and TED talk phenomenon) Brené Brown, our ideas about how trust is built and broken aren't generally very accurate.

The author and University of Houston professor recently shared the findings of her research on trust as part of Oprah Winfrey's SuperSoul.TV talks. Intuition, she explained, tells most of us that trust (or lack thereof) is about grand gestures or terrible betrayals. We guess that we trust others because they did something great and noble for us, or distrust them because of some nasty incident.

Trust is a jar of marbles

But that's not actually how trust works, according to science. Instead, trust is like a jar of marbles.

Brown borrows the metaphor from her child's third grade teacher who kept a glass jar in her classroom. When the children were well behaved she added marbles to it. When they were less well behaved, she removed marbles. When the jar was full they got a reward.

Trust, like the celebration for a full jar, is cumulative. The data on trust reveal that the feeling is actually the sum of small gestures, kind words, secrets kept, and other everyday actions, which contribute to filling the mental "marble jar" we keep for each person in our lives. Distrust isn't (usually) about soap-opera-worthy bad behavior. It's about a pile-up of little failings. In other words, if you want to build trusting relationships, you need to do small, good deeds every day -- and avoid equally small slip-ups that lead to an empty jar of trust.

Just what sort of behavior builds trust?

If you want a full explanation of exactly what sort of actions build and destroy trust, it's probably worth your time to spend 24 minutes watching the complete video. The basic takeaway, however, is this: trust can be broken down into seven components, which Brown labels with the acronym BRAVING. Here are the constituent parts in brief:

  • Boundaries: you know and respect the other party's.
  • Reliability: you do what you say you're going to do over and over again. This requires that you know your limitations and only make commitments that you can actually follow through on.
  • Accountability: you own your mistakes, apologize and make amends -- and you let the other party do the same.
  • The vault: not only do you keep the other party's confidences, but you keep other people's too. (Gossip about third parties, in other words, still erodes trust.)
  • Integrity: Brown offers an in-depth definition of integrity, but essentially you know and live by you values.
  • Non-judgment: you don't just build trust by offering help, but by receiving it without judgment as well. "If you can't ask for help... that is not a trusting relationship," says Brown.
  • Generosity: you give the other party the benefit of the doubt.

The point of this exercise, Brown stresses, is to be take a big, nebulous concept like trust and break it down into more easily actionable components. If someone tells you that they don't trust you, you probably won't be immediately clear on how to remedy that. If someone examines why using BRAVING and instead tells you that you're never accountable for your actions or never give them the benefit of the doubt, you'll actually have an idea how to go about fixing the relationship.

Brown also notes that the acronym can be used just as productively to assess your own trust in yourself. If you're feeling down about your own behavior, conducting an inventory of your failings with BRAVING can give you a clearer sense of what you need to work on to once again begin to trust yourself.