Setting Empowering Frames for the “Trust” and Trustworthiness

The Neuro-Semantics
of Trusting and being Trustworthy

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.

“Trust: faithful, assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something, a dependence on something future or contingent, reliance on, having confidence in.”

“All relationships are built on trust;
if you don’t have trust, you don’t have much of a relationship.”
Dennis and Michelle Reina

There are few subjects less emotionally loaded than the subject of “trust.” When we begin to ask questions about trust and to explore our experiences around this concept and category, it’s not long that we all experience some strong emotions and perhaps even some “semantic reactions.”

Who do you trust?
Who do you not trust?
What allows you to trust another person?
What kinds of actions, behaviors, etc. prevents trust, even eliminates trust as a possibility?
Has your trust ever been violated or betrayed?
Have you ever violated or betrayed someone’s trust?
Are you trustworthy?
What are the traits and characteristics of trustworthiness?
What do you look for in another person as evidence that he or she is worthy of your trust?

Born to Trust!

As we pose these and many other questions about the experience of trust, we begin to flesh out many of the facets, stages, components, and elements of this complex state that we call “trust.” In some ways, this is funny or weird or paradoxical. It’s funny because we are all born with an uncanny ability to simply trust the world and the people in the world. If this wasn’t the case, we would have stood our ground and not learn their language, their ways, their customs, and we wouldn’t trust them to feed us, clothe us, put us to bed, school us, etc. Yet we did. We trusted them implicitly. Trust was our default system.

Trust is built into us from the first moment as a survival mechanism. In what way is this really strange? Mainly because we have no basis for trusting them. After all, who are they? What do they want with us? What are they going to do with us? Can they handle their own emotions, states, meta-states, actions, etc.? Yet we trust. We naively trust. Of course, we also don’t really have any other choice, but to trust. It’s part of our original programming.

Trust is one of the developmental stages. Eric Erickson noted that the question of trust comes into play very early in our development. “Can I trust the world?” “Can I trust my care-givers?” “Is the world a friendly place or an unfriendly place?”

Hurt to Distrust

Of course, it is precisely here that many people are slapped with a tremendous handicap for coping with life. The handicap? They experience the world as an unfriendly place full of pain and hurt. Plotted down in the homes of those who have no ability, skill, or understanding about parenting―they suffer the ignorance, stupidity, cruelty of their parents. As a result they come away with a deep distrust of people and of the world. Sometimes they pick up a deep distrust of themselves. When I say that this is a handicap C it is really a big handicap. As social creatures, we only truly thrive by working with and through others. We need each other. We are only sane and effective when we are able to get along with others. Damage in the area of trust undermines all of our social skills and damages our intimacy skills.

Distrust can be created and installed in our mind-body-emotion system in other ways. Most of us are skilled at taking a traumatic event and reading it and interpreting it as calling the world into question, others into question, or ourselves into question. Add massive pain at almost any stage of life, and our minds do what minds do best― they take off on a search for meaning and reasons. Of course the problem with an infant’s mind or a young child’s mind or even an untrained adult mind is that the kind and quality of reasoning and thinking that is used in the meaning-making. Such minds do not do quality thinking, do not engage in critical thinking, and lack the ability to think about one’s thinking. So the maps generated are typically trusting maps plagued with magical thinking and other thinking distortions.

Damaging the Ability to “Trust”

The ability to trust can be damaged. Give a person plenty of disappointments and hurts and traumas and our ability to open up our minds and hearts to others and to events becomes weaker. We becomes less receptive to the words of others as accurate reflections (or maps) of some piece of reality. Trust, as our ability to take people at their word and depend on what they say, becomes damaged. We put up walls, boundaries, and defenses. We expect and anticipate hidden agendas, games, and tricks. We look for schemes and con jobs. We fearfully anticipate set-ups for rejections and disappointments.

The list of human “hurts” that can damage the fabric of trust is extensive. What does it for you? What violates your trust? What induces you into a state of distrusting and feeling hurt in that way?

Someone not keeping his/her word
Being talking about behind your back
Pertinent information not shared
Lack of Reliability
Posturing, Image Grooming
Unmet expectations

In the end, our ability to trust is weakened, threatened, or lost. We come to not trust easily. We demand lots and lots and lots of “evidence” and “proof.” We get on the defensive. We distrust and disbelieve and ask the world of people to constantly prove themselves. Out of this some people develop a meta-program of “never convinced” about the truthworthiness of other people (See Figuring Out People). If we experience the slightest sign of human indecision or weakness or double-messages, we react emotionally. We have a semantic reactions (we freak out) of defensiveness, fear, anger, upsetness, etc. If this becomes our key frame about others, we think, feel, and act so as to communicate a self-fulfilling frame, “You have to prove to me over and over that you will not betray me.” Yet this demand that the other proves a negative (what they will not do) puts us in a position to always be looking for the slightest hint of such distrust.

To trust a person or event is to be open to it and receptive. It is to dance and play with it and see what happens. When our powers of mind and emotion won’t or can’t do this, it’s because we won’t play. We wont’ engage the person or event. We feel it’s too dangerous, too threatening, and that we could get hurt. We fear hidden agendas and schemes.

“Trust” a Relational Nominalization

If you have had linguistic training in the Meta-Model, you undoubtedly know that “trust” is a word that sounds like a noun, but is not a noun. It’s a nominalization―a pseudo-noun. Someone has labeled or named (hence “nominalize”) a set of actions. Those actions would be better served if we used a verb. Yet someone has frozen the action or actions in time and space and named it so that it sounds like a “thing.” Trust is such a word.

What are the actual actions that someone has reference to? Ah, that’s the question. What does trust look like, sound like, feel like, etc. when someone is actually trusting another person, thing, or object?

What do you trust?
How do you know that you trust that thing, that activity, that object?
What are the things that I could video-tape about that activity of trust?

Nominalizations also are seldom the actions of a single person without any reference to anyone else. Most nominalizations are relational in that there is the person trusting (doing the action) and there is another person who serves as the object of the action (receiving the trust).

Who are you trusting and about what?
What do you trust that other person to do?

This brings up the other side of trust, namely, trustworthiness.

The Multiordinality of “Trust”

If you’ve learned the new extended Meta-Model, you know the distinction of Multiordinality that comes from Alfred Korzybski in Science and Sanity. This is the linguistic distinction of those nominalizations that can be used in self-referential or self-reflexive ways. The test is the question, “Can you apply the term to itself?” If you can, then the term is multi-ordinal and will have different meanings at different levels of abstraction.

Trust is such a word. Can you trust your ability to trust? Can you trust the state of trust? Can you trust your trusting of another person or thing or event? Can you trust that your trust of your car to get you where you want to go? Do you distrust your trust? Can you distrust your distrust?

Trust is a prime state because to live and to be healthy in mind and body necessitates trust. We trust our minds that we can gather information, process that data, and learn. We trust that our emotions accurately reflect the relationship between our mental evaluations and our somatic states in relation to the world. We trust our immune system to distinguish between self and non-self and keep us healthy.

When we start distrusting ourselves, we turn a very negative mind-emotion state against ourselves. This generates the beginning of numerous dragon states. Distrustdistrust onto ourselves sends a message that can undermine the body’s ability to keep us healthy. It sends the message, “I do not trust you.” And if the body minds-to-muscle that idea, it can disable the healing processes of the body and immune system. Could this be at the heart of many of the body’s dis-eases? Could it be the cognitive content of cancer, arthritis, heart disease, etc.? It is certainly one of the first things I check when working with those issues. “Do you trust your immune system?” And when I get a “No,” that’s the first meta-stating I go for, bringing a sense and feeling and belief of trust in the body’s natural healing powers.

I trust until a person proves untrustworthy.
Evidences of trustworthiness makes trusting easy.
Do you have trouble trusting? Is this a general pattern or is there a particular problem or situation that you don’t trust?

The Other Side of Trust― Trustworthiness

Think about someone or something that’s totally untrustworthy. Think of something that you should not, under any circumstance, trust. Got it? Good. Now, does this say anything about your ability to trust? Your ability to accept a strong and robust state of trust?

Of course not! There are times when trusting would be the wrong choice, when trust would set us up for a disappointment, rejection, or hurt of some sort.

We should not trust Mike Tyson to remain calm and cool at a press conference! He has given us plenty of reasons to question, and doubt his ability to control his own states and to manage his anger. Conversely, I can trust that he will probably get out of control with his anger and get into a fit of rage at Press Conferences. I can trust that he will not follow the rules and that it’s only a matter of time before he gets in trouble with the law again. I trust that so much, I’ll wager money on that one.

Trust always occurs within complex systems of relationships within complex systems of mental frames of beliefs, values, understandings, history, etc. You would be a fool to always trust anyone about everything. Totally trusting puts us in a fool’s world. Such naivety does not describe a resourceful state. It describes the lack of discriminations to evaluate and index when and where and who. Conversely, never trusting anyone about anything is just the other side of the same continuum and just as unhealthy.

We trust what is worthy to be trusted. We trust the trustworthy― those who are dependable, reliable, congruent, and as good as their word. What they so, they do. It is trustworthiness, in fact, that invites and calls and elicits the healthiest kind of trust. What is trustworthiness? What are the signs and components of such?

Basically, when a person says something and then follows it up by acting on those words to carry out the statements and promises, that person is worthy of trust.

Trustworthiness presupposes numerous things:

  1. A person can make statements about thing within his or her zone of control― his or her thoughts, feelings, speech, and behavior.
  2. That person can and will then act in such a way that’s congruent with those words.
  3. The person will typically and generally “be as good as his or her words.”
  4. The person knows him or herself fairly well and can manage his or her states.
  5. If circumstances arise that interfere, the person takes responsibility for self without blaming, accusing, and proactively seeks to make things right.

As you can see, trustworthiness is no mean feat. It speaks about a high level development of self and victory over moods, emotions, circumstances, and excuses. As a trustworthy person, we operate from a frame that it is important to make the reality of our behavior correspond to the reality of our words. We value that. We believe that such is important. Those who don’t think this way, who don’t operate from that frame, will not have the strategy and supporting matrix of frames to be trustworthy. It takes these meta-levels of beliefs, values, and understandings to be a truthworthy person.

Trustworthy people are willing to pay the price of being responsible, accountable, and true to their word. They are willing to suffer the consequences, rather than hide and cushion themselves in excuses and explanations. They do not cowardly avoid confrontation, but have a strong enough sense of self to be open, forthright, and accountable.

Those who have not learned how to be trustworthy suffer from blaming, irresponsibility, the dragons of secrecy, fear of openness, rejection, criticism, a fragile ego, conditional self-esteem, etc. They cannot earn and merit the trust of others by the congruency of their words and actions because they run scared. So they put on a show. They hide behind the masks of their public persona. They massage their image and work on their Image, valuing it as much more valuable than their word. To use the phrase of Scott Peck and the title of one of his books, they are the people of the lie.

Linguistically, they say whatever fits the moment, whatever serves their Image and Persona. They say what others want to hear rather than the reality of the moment. Being authentic scares them because that exposes their real self. And in the end, they are as sick as their secrets.

Ironically, those who protest the loudest about the untrustworthiness of others are usually the very persons who have not learn how to be trustworthy. They don’t trust themselves. And it is that distrust that they then project on others. They are quick to take offense, paranoid (or nearly so) about the faults of others, and therefore quick to judge and mind-read the motives of others. Conversely, the more trustworthy we are, the more we also trust ourselves to be able to handle the inadequacies, moods, incongruency, even the lies and deceptions of others.

Dancing with the Dragons of Distrust

People who do not trust easily may have legitimate reasons in their history, reasons which may explain the origins of their frames that governs the distrust games they play. People who do not trust easily were typically wounded early in life. So, for them, even trusting trustworthy people may not come easily. Yet that historical fact is no excuse from the work of learning to trust.

A handicap is just that. It is a handicap. It is not fate. It is not destiny. It does not put one out of the game. It is not an excuse from learning how to be trustworthy and how to trust trustworthy people. Having made an accurate map that some people are hurtful, obnoxious, unthoughtful, etc. does not validate the over-generalization of distrust, “You just can’t trust people.”

To undo this damage will mean rising up above their fears and comfort zone and confronting the dragons within. To do so means breaking the old generalizations and learning to make finer distinctions about who to trust and who not to trust, about the signs of trustworthiness, about how to handle conflicts, how to confront relational problems, and how to both be accountable to others and to hold others accountable in respectful ways. It will mean coming out of hiding in the safety of secrecy and taking the chance to trust those who we find trustworthy.

After all, it is not the experience of having been hurt or violated that “makes” us who or what we are. That which has that kind of formative power on our personality is not the experience but the frames and maps that we made from the experience. Lots of people suffer all kinds of betrayal, hurt, trauma, violation, etc. and do not create frames of distrust and so do not live such lives. It’s the map that determines our states, not the raw experience.

Every dragon that lurks in the dark corners of our mind is there because we have turned negative thoughts in the form of beliefs, understandings, and feelings against ourselves. They are there also because we have become used to them. They are familiar. They have become a habitual way to think and feel. Such familiarity leads some people to conclude (yet another meta_level) that the dragon belief must be real.

Dancing with such Dragons can be challenging because of this self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing nature of the beliefs. Yet if we keep quality controlling the system and asking if the distrust really serves us well and asking if we really want to live our lives in that attitude, then we can get some leverage on the dragon.

The Trusting-Being Trustworthy Frame Games

Trusting is what we do. It’s based on several abilities that we bring to the task.

  1. Profiling people. We discern the patterns of people in terms of what they actually say and compare that to what they actually carry out.
  2. Reality oriented. We recognize the reality and personality constraints that play a part in carry out what we say and how they may interfere with a person’s actual doing what he or she says. Being realistic in this way enables us to not be blind to personal and inter-personal reality.
  3. Secure vulnerability. To trust we have to open ourselves up, be receptive mentally and emotionally to someone or some thing and play with it.

Trustworthiness is what the other does. It also is based on several abilities and skills.

  1. Communication clarity. The ability to express ideas, beliefs, goals, promises, etc, in a clear and forthright way that is honest and accurate.
  2. Response-Ability. The ability to assume personal responsibility for carrying out what we say in our words.

“You can depend on and count on the fact that I will do what I say.”
“I align my actions with my words.”
” What I say, I will do.”

  1. Adjust-Ability. The ability to make proper and appropriate adjustments when we don’t come through. We apologize, inform the other person, ask for forgiveness, make amends, learn, create adjustments so that the failure will not be repeated, etc.
  2. Value and Identify with Trustworthiness. Believe in and value the importance of being true to our word, being a person of our word, being congruent, honest, and living with integrity.

Trust as a “Prime” State

In Neuro-Semantics we have been identifying a dozen or more states that we call prime states. Starting from the basic states that make up the heart and core of human development, we have revisited these states in terms of being foundational for full development and maturity. In the field of Developmental Psychology, it is recognized that without effectively negotiating these foundational states, personality will not develop fully and completely, but will become distorted and warped, it will become disordered. Eric Erickson identified many of these core or prime states. Piaget added to them, as did Fowler and others.

We have taken them and made them foundational as the prerequisites of genius in our basic Training on Personal Genius. What are these prime states?

The recognition of our basic “powers” of thought, emotion, speech, and behavior
The ability to feel strong and powerful and vital in these powers
The ability to claim them, own them, to say “Mine!”
The ability to disconfirm by saying “No!”
The ability to confirm by saying “Yes!”
The ability to pleasure, enjoy, delight ourselves, have fun
The ability to dream, pretend, imagine, create
The ability to accept, to appreciate, and to esteem, to adore
The ability to learn, to be curious, to wonder
The ability to care, to love, to feel compassion
The ability to “go in” and “come out” ― to be in sensory awareness and to get lost inside
The ability to want, to intend, to desire, to feel ambition
The ability to reflect on ourselves, to go meta, to rise up in our minds
The ability to send our brain out to the events of the world and back inside an up and then round in circles and loops

These, as core prime states, are those that enable us to define and experience ourselves as a “self” and to then create meta-levels in our mind-body-emotion system that we recognize as meta-states. Yet there is one more prime state, and a crucial one,

The ability to trust― to trust self, our mind-body-emotion system, the world, and others

Building and Re-Building Trust

Trust is essential for every relationship. There is no relationship that’s not based on trust. Working with and through others in business is based on trust. Leadership is based on trust. Intimacy is based on trust.

Conversely, distrust, the lack of trust, behaviors that erode trust, and betrayal undermine relationship, effectiveness, and resourcefulness. Dennis and Michelle Reina (1999) put it succinctly in their book Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace, “Betrayal is systemic: it affects the whole system.”

“Betrayal can escalate into major betrayals if not addressed and resolved. Minor betrayals can stay alive in people’s minds for years and become bigger.” (p. 37)

To rebuild trust, they note several kinds of trust: contractual trust, communication trust, and competence trust.

Contractual trust is managing expectations, establishing boundaries, delegating appropriately, encouraging mutually serving intentions, keeping agreements, being congruent in our behavior. We will do what we said; we will honor agreements. … Building trust is reciprocal. To build trust we have first to be true and honest with ourselves. (71)

When our behavior accidentally produce a result that we don’t want and did not intent, we have to deal with that. And we need to deal with it immediately by assuming responsibility to straighten things out. This means apologizing, making amends and bringing out actions under control so that they match our words. Trust is always earned and we earn it by our actions, by acting with consistency. This means conscientiously honoring our agreements.

Communication Trust is the willingness to share information, tell the truth, admit mistakes, maintain confidentiality, give and receive constructive feedback, and speak with good purpose. (81)

When working together or in personal relationships, we need to know what is going on. To work efficiently and effectively in any arena of life and to be a part of things, we need to know what’s happening. The general rule of this game as suggested by Reina and Reina is this: “If I am not sure whether I should or should not communicate, I should.” (83). We actually undermine the trust others can put in us when we do not share information. It puts them into a position of guessing, assuming, and mind-reading. It is hardly ever in our best interest to be secretive.  What do you feel when vital information is not shared with you? We typically feel as though we have not been trusted or valued.

This means that truth-telling is a prerequisite for becoming more trustworthy. Of course, telling the truth takes courage. We have to accept the power of response (hence, responsibility) for ourselves and allow no excuses for “excusing ourselves” from being real with others. When we do not tell the truth, we compromise our own trustworthiness to others as well as to ourselves. Truth-telling means admitting our mistakes and so rebuilds trust. We have lots of examples of political leaders who refused to acknowledge mistakes or make amends and who thereby eroded their own trustworthiness.

Competence trust is respecting people’s knowledge, skills, and abilities and judgment. (99)

Recovering from the Betrayal of Trust

1) Step back in your mind to simply observe what happened.

Notice and accept.
To what degree was the betrayal intentional or unintentional?
What were the positive intentions of the other person?
To what degree was their behavior a function of their unresourceful states?

2) Welcome the feelings that surface as just emotions.

Emotions are just emotions, not edicts about what’s true or not instructions about what to do.
Accept them as emotions and explore them in terms of what maps have been violated.
What have you learned that will help and enhance your life?
How can you detect trustworthiness better?
What skills do you need to add to your repertoire for being more masterful in this area?

3) Take Responsibility for your role in the process.

How were you indiscriminate in your openness and trusting?
What boundaries do you need to establish?
How did you blindly and naively trusted and didn’t ask for more credible evidence?

4) Forgive yourself and others.

What bitter and angry thoughts do you need to release and free yourself from?
What is your best reference for letting go, releasing, and forgiving?

5) Let go and move on.

How will you act differently from this day forward?
How will you keep your ability to trust without being blind or undiscerning?
How can you lighten up so you don’t take yourself too seriously?


  • Trust as a resourceful state of mind-and-emotion and trustworthiness as a resource way of being in the world is utterly crucial for leadership, quality relationships, and being able to take risks and make a difference in the world.
  • Trust begins early, from the moment we arrive in the world. We are made for trust. Yet trust can be violated, damaged, and undermined by a wide-range of actions that we consider a violation of trust. This gives no license to not trusting, it only increases the challenge of learning to distinguish trustworthy from untrustworthy. Reliability gives off signs and we only have to look to see the congruence between what a person says and does.
  • Where there’s the violation of trust, the burden falls on the person who has not been reliable to prove him or herself and to demonstrate in actions and not just with words and promises that he or she can and will come through, be true, and align actions with words.
  • Trusting others only truly arises when we trust ourselves and trust our skills for being able to cope in the world of events and people. It arises from self-efficacy. As we become more and more true to ourselves, dependable and reliable to our word, our ability to trust others and processes increases.


Reina, Dennis; Reina, Michelle. (1999). Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace: Building Effective Relationships in Your Organization. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers

Hall, L. Michael. (2000 in press). Frame Games: Persuasion elegance. Grand Jct. CO: Neuro-Semantic Publications.


L. Michael Hall, Ph.D., researcher and modeler, international trainer and entrepreneur lives on the western slop of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado (P.O. Box 8; Clifton, CO. 81520 USA; 970 523-7877). See our web sites and links: and