The Dynamics of Trust model was developed by the author incorporating the work of Daryl Landau.1 To develop this model, a significant amount of research was conducted in the area of attribution theory, a cornerstone in understanding the dynamics of trust in human interactions.

One of the core issues in conflict resolution between parties is the issue of trust. We often hear the phrase “I don't trust you,” or “I don't trust them” when we manage conflict. Trust, or lack of it, can be a significant barrier to parties' finding a resolution to an issue; indeed, it can prevent the parties from even wanting to talk. On the other side of the coin, trust is a unique resource, in that trust is expanded rather than depleted the more it is used. The more we can access trust with the parties, the more useful and effective it becomes in reaching resolution. Trust is a key element in the conflict management process.

Trust is one of the least understood dynamics in human relationships. We often think of trust as a single thing, a single measure, a single component, when this is patently not the case. As an example, many of us get in a car and drive to work on roads and highways where the only thing separating us from oncoming cars is a white line painted on the road (and in many cases, not even a solid white line!). We are, in essence, trusting thousands of strangers to stay on their side of the line. If we didn't fundamentally trust that they would do so, it's virtually certain that no one would be willing to drive a car. Does this mean that we “trust” every stranger we pass on the road? We clearly trust them to stay on their side of the road, but we probably wouldn't trust them with the keys to our house. This means that we can trust someone in one situation, for one reason, and not necessarily trust them in all situations for all things. Trust, therefore, plays a complex and varied role in human relationships.

There are a variety of definitions of trust that approach the subject from different angles, from a psychological view to a personality view to a behavioral view. For our purposes, we'll look at a functional definition of trust to help us understand the dynamics surrounding it.

A simple definition of trust is this: trust is the level of positive expectations we have about another person's motives and intentions toward us when we are in a situation of risk.2 The two key elements of this definition are:

  1. Risk: Risk is a key element of trust, in the sense that we have to take risks (small or large) to explore, test, and eventually build trust. Without actually relying on someone, without taking a small risk with them, we can never really know if we can trust them. A significant question, however, is this: given a choice, why would anyone ever take such a risk? The answer is simple—it's the only way to get what we want. If there was nothing we ever needed from one another, there would be no need for trust in the first place. The reality, of course, is the opposite. The more interdependent we are (whether at work or in our personal lives), the more we rely on others, and the more risk we must take. The level of trust we have in any given situation or the people involved affects the size of the risk we are willing to take and how frequently we'll take those risks. Risk is integral to trust at all levels.
  2. Motives and Intentions: The motives and intentions of other people are invisible to us. We can only infer or attribute motives based on their behavior or, more accurately, how we interpret their behavior. When we assess another person's trustworthiness, we are assessing whether they have “good intentions” (that they care about the needs of others) or whether they have “bad intentions” (they are indifferent to others' needs, care only about themselves, or will actively harm other people for their own benefit). Our assignment of motives to other people is critical because it also determines how we assign fault and blame. When conflict arises, how we decide who caused it, and therefore who is at fault and who is to blame, will determine what happens to our level of trust with the other party.

The Dynamics of Trust model, from a diagnostic point of view, focuses on these two areas:

  1. the assessment of each party's level of risk tolerance relative to what they want or need, and
  2. the assessment of causes and assignments of blame.

Risk and risk tolerance

Each person's level of risk tolerance is a complex balance of personality (our personal tendency to like risk, or not) and our past experience with (and perceptions of) similar situations. Not surprisingly, it has little to do with factual assessments of risk, because human beings are notoriously bad at assessing actual risk. For example, people going camping in the woods will tend to think about, perhaps even obsess about, the risk of a bear attack, a risk that is statistically far lower than the chances of being struck by lightning. At the same time, they will get in their car and drive 300 miles to reach the campground without even considering the fact that driving is by far one of the most dangerous activities people engage in.

Risk tolerance, however, is not based solely on personality or perception; it is also based on the relationship between the fear of what might be lost (the risk) compared to the benefit of what might be gained (the reward). It is an individual's assessment of this risk/reward balance that determines behavior.

In simple terms, if the risk or loss is seen as greater than the reward or gain,3 a party to a conflict is not likely to take the risk unless they have sufficiently positive expectations about the other party's motives and intentions—in other words, unless there is sufficient trust. This leads us to look in depth at the second component of trust—how we assess motives and assign blame.

Attribution theory and self-serving bias

Attribution theory is a cornerstone in the broader discipline of psychology and has been the subject of a significant amount of research and writing over the last 40 years.

Essentially, what attribution theory argues is this: When a negative event arises, when we are hurt or harmed, our initial response is to attribute the cause to someone or something. We do this in order to make sense of what has happened, and we have a strong tendency to attribute in a very particular way.

Attribution to self

When we are involved with a negative event, we have a strong tendency to attribute the cause to the situation we are in, blaming it on lack of information, lack of training (that should have been given to us), orders from our boss that we had no choice about, market forces, or other circumstances that we see as beyond our control. In essence, we attribute the best of intentions to ourselves and blame outside circumstances for the problem, thus minimizing the fault or blame.

Attribution to others

When others are involved with or cause a negative event, we have a strong tendency to ignore or minimize the situational factors and attribute the cause to the intrinsic nature or bad intentions of the other person. In other words, we lay fault and blame on the other individual personally; we attribute the cause to their innate bad character, their indifference, even their obvious bad intentions. We almost always give ourselves the benefit of the doubt but do not give it to others.

Psychologists have demonstrated this tendency as being so strong that they refer to this as “fundamental attributional error,” combined with “self-serving or egocentric bias.” The research has found this bias to be present and pronounced in virtually all studies done on how we attribute fault and blame.

Effect of self-serving bias on trust

This self-serving bias has a profound effect on trust. It means that in many situations, negative events are attributed in a way that exaggerates the wrong, invents bad intentions, blames the other party, creates feelings of betrayal, and makes the conflict deeply personal. All of this happens because of the assumptions driven by our self-serving bias and not necessarily because of what is true.

These negative attributions and blame magnify the “risk” side of the equation and minimize the possibility of any reward, making any amount of trust almost impossible. Clearly, a practitioner must understand the dynamics of attribution and blame in order to work effectively with trust in conflict situations.


What attribution theory highlights is that there is a whole range of attributions that people are capable of making in a given situation (albeit with a bias toward blaming others rather than oneself). From the practitioner's point of view, the Dynamics of Trust model will help diagnose the underlying attributions that are perpetuating a conflict. Diagnostically, then, the Trust model says that there are fundamentally three types of attributions people can make in conflict situations: situation, intrinsic nature, and intentional/hostile (Figure 7.1).

Situation attribution

When we attribute the cause of a conflict or problem to the situation as opposed to a person, we are saying that the cause was due to factors beyond the control or intention of the person involved. The intentions were good, they tried their best, and the outcome was not desired by anyone. Some of the beliefs that this type of attribution tends to generate are:

The Trust model depicting three types of attributions that people can make in conflict situations: Situation, Intrinsic Nature, and Intentional/Hostile.

Figure 7.1 Three types of attribution

  • Circumstances outside of the person's control caused the problem, or forced the person into doing what they did.
  • Their lack of skill or knowledge, or lack of accurate information, caused the problem.
  • It's not their fault; they deserve very little blame, if any.
  • The person did their best in spite of lacking necessary information, knowledge, or skill.
  • The problem they caused is not indicative of their nature or character.
  • The person's intentions were good, regardless of the outcome.
  • The person's actions were not personal.

Some examples of a situation attribution are:

  • A boss fires three employees because the company is close to bankruptcy and he doesn't have any other option.
  • A person kills an intruder or attacker purely in self-defense.
  • A driver rear-ends the car in front because of black ice on the road.
  • A clerk makes a mistake because he was never trained properly on the computer system.

This type of attribution results in relatively low levels of blame, maintains higher levels of trust, and gives parties a strong sense that this problem can be prevented in the future if it's properly addressed.

Intrinsic nature attribution

This attribution can result in a wide range of blame, from low to very high. Essentially, it involves one party attributing the cause of the conflict to the intrinsic nature of the other party. It may be because they're shy, it may be because of their culture or traditions, it may be that past experiences or core values have strongly affected them, it may be that they simply don't pay attention to other people, but in all cases the issue is blamed on the other person's innate character or nature rather than to conscious, intentional behavior. Some beliefs that this type of attribution tends to generate are:

  • The person caused the harm because of their intrinsic qualities: personality, culture, values, past experience.
  • The person's intrinsic nature can be seen as benign or dangerous.
  • The person's actions are less personal and likely not intentional.

Some examples of an intrinsic nature attribution are:

  • A manager who steps on people's toes because she is a workaholic committed to meeting the team's goals and objectives
  • A child who starts a fire that injures someone
  • An employee who doesn't address a problem because he simply cannot deal with confrontation of any kind
  • A friend who betrays another's confidence because he or she is simply incapable of keeping a secret

When parties make an intrinsic nature attribution it's usually more personal than a situation attribution but is typically less personal than an intentional attribution. How much blame we assign will be based on our assessment of how dangerous these intrinsic qualities are.4 In many cases, an intrinsic nature attribution allows significant levels of trust to remain, most often in parts of the relationship unrelated to the conflict.

Intentional/hostile attribution

This is the most destructive form of attribution in that it lays complete blame on the other party. It characterizes their actions as intentionally causing harm, either because of personal hostility or because they stood to gain in some way from the harm they caused. It assumes that the other person knew what damage their actions would cause and proceeded anyway. It assumes intentional dishonesty, malice, and hostility. Some beliefs that this type of attribution tends to generate are:

  • The person intentionally caused the harm, for personal gain or advantage.
  • The person is a “bad person,” that is, morally deficient, unethical, etc.
  • The actions were aimed personally and directly at us.

Some examples of intentional attribution are:

  • An insurance claimant who is lying to collect on an insurance policy
  • A manager who degrades employees in front of the team to “teach them who is boss”
  • A person who deliberately breaks a contract because he or she found a cheaper price elsewhere
  • A friend who betrays a trust for personal gain

This attribution results in very high levels of blame, eliminates trust, and brings a strong sense that any further dealings with this party are too risky and dangerous, including any attempts at resolution.

Attribution and blame

There is a strong correlation between the type of attribution we make and the laying of blame. In general, the situation attribution minimizes the laying of blame on the other party and depersonalizes the situation; the intrinsic attribution causes a low-to-moderate level of blame along with a moderate amount of “taking it personally,” and the intentional attribution lays a significant amount of blame that feels highly personal. It can be arranged on the scale as follows (Figure 7.2):

The Attribution and blame model arranged on a scale, where the intrinsic attribution causes a low-to-moderate level of blame and the intentional attribution lays a significant amount of blame that feels highly personal.

Figure 7.2 Attribution and blame

How attributions form

Motives and intentions cannot be seen, they can only be inferred from our interpretation of the other party's behavior. Attributions, therefore, are fundamentally assumptions and perceptions, not reality. These perceptions are influenced mostly by two factors: information and preconceptions.

  • Information, or data, can greatly influence what attributions are made.5 Misinformation, lack of information, different interpretations of information, and even too much information, all make it difficult to evaluate any given situation. Nevertheless, we must evaluate a situation in order to make sense of it. This evaluation is done, therefore, by selecting the information that supports one view of a situation and rejecting or ignoring the information that contradicts that view.
  • Preconceptions refer to the values, beliefs, past experiences, stereotypes, and assumptions that we all carry. Although most of us accept the phrase “Seeing is believing,” numerous studies have shown that the reverse is more commonly true, that in fact “Believing is seeing.” This means that whatever we already believe is what we tend to see. If we believe our friend can be inconsiderate, for example, when she arrives 15 minutes late we will likely believe she doesn't value our time rather than blame the fact that it's rush hour and snowing outside.

Fortunately, attributions can be changed. As practitioners, we can help to influence parties' attributions by working with or challenging the two elements that form these attributions, namely, information and preconceptions. This process is explored further in the strategic section of this model.

Summary of attributions

The Trust model clearly shows us the following:

  • The attributions each party makes in a given situation (including our own) dramatically influence the behavior of each party toward the other.
  • Some attributions maintain trust between the parties, and some not only destroy trust, they also prevent any rebuilding of trust.
  • Attributions are frequently based on incomplete or incorrect information, along with preconceptions and stereotypes.
  • Attributions can be changed.

How we work with parties' attributions will greatly influence the outcome of a conflict.


In our case study we can apply the Trust model to diagnose the parties' attributions and in doing so begin to understand the source and level of mistrust and blame each party is dealing with in the situation.

Applying the Dynamics of Trust to our case study, the attributions might look this way:

Bob's attributions to:


  • Bob attributes the loss in the competition to a bias against him on Sally's part, believing that the competition was set up so that Diane would win and he would lose. (intentional attribution to Sally)
  • Bob also believes that Sally created the AS-1 role just to favor Diane, because both of them are female and “women always stick together.” (intrinsic and intentional attribution)
  • Bob also believes that Sally dislikes him and wants to have no communication or contact with him, which is why all contact is being routed through Diane. (intentional attribution)

In looking at these high levels of intentional and strong intrinsic attributions, Bob believes Sally has personally caused this conflict and has assigned a high degree of blame to Sally for the current situation.


  • Bob doesn't seem to have too much of an issue with Diane personally, because he attributes the problems in the situation to Sally, not to Diane. Diane, he believes, is just trying to do her job as ordered. (situation attribution)
  • Bob believes that Diane is supporting Sally in part because “women always stick together,” but in Diane's case, he views this as intrinsic only and not intentional.
  • Diane gets frustrated with Bob at times, which Bob attributes Diane's lack of accounting skills. (intrinsic attribution)

Because most of his attributions toward Diane are situation or mildly intrinsic, Bob has little or no blame to lay on Diane for the conflict. He attributes little of the cause to Diane personally, even though the daily interactions with Diane are tense and negative.

Sally's attributions to:


  • Sally is frustrated that Bob won't listen to what she has ordered him to do. She attributes this to Bob having an “entitlement” mentality and being incapable of seeing that he's not the best candidate for the job. (intrinsic attribution)
  • Sally believes that Bob just doesn't have the people skills to be an AS-1. (intrinsic attribution)
  • Sally also believes Bob has not recognized that he lacks certain skills because he is too proud to admit any faults. (intrinsic attribution)
  • Sally believes that Bob is trying to upset her and frustrate her enough that she'll eventually promote him, or rerun the competition for a third time. (intentional attribution)
  • Sally also believes that Bob doesn't like losing but that this is understandable because no one likes losing. (intrinsic attribution)
  • Finally, Sally believes that others in the department are encouraging Bob to rebel in order to try to derail all of her changes and that these other people are manipulating Bob. (situation attribution)

Sally clearly believes Bob has caused the current situation. That said, because most of her attributions are intrinsic or situation, Sally is only moderately taking the situation personally or blaming Bob on a personal level.


  • Sally believes that Diane is a good person, and is behaving poorly out of frustration with the difficult situation she has been put in. (situation attribution)

Sally has little, if any, blame for Diane because the attribution is purely situation.

Diane's attributions to:


  • Diane believes that Bob is angrier with Sally than with herself but that she is paying the price because of her promotion. Bob would have been angry with anyone in her position. (situation attribution)
  • Diane thinks Bob is somewhat sexist and doesn't like having a woman as his boss. The fact that he suddenly has two of them is a big part of the problem. She also believes he is “from the older generation and can't help it.” (intrinsic attribution)
  • Diane also believes that Bob is frustrated with some of the tasks she has assigned him to learn, because he is not comfortable in a customer service role. (situation attribution)

Although Diane is very frustrated and believes Bob is behaving poorly, she assigns only a low or moderate amount of blame to Bob, based on the mainly situation and low intrinsic attributions she is making.


  • Diane thinks that Sally has been thrown into the lion's den unfairly by her boss and that upper management generally hasn't given her much support for the changes she's trying to implement. (situation attribution)
  • Diane thinks that Sally has moved too fast and pushed people too hard, both because Sally is impatient and likes to get things done and also because she doesn't have a choice if she wants to meet her boss's expectations (intrinsic and situation attribution)

Although she recognizes that Sally's actions are contributing to the current problems, Diane has assigned very little blame to Sally, due to the mainly situation and relatively positive intrinsic attributions made.

Through this analysis, it becomes clear that although everyone is frustrated, Bob has taken the situation deeply personally, Diane a little bit personally, and Sally sees the problem both as a situational problem as well as a “Bob” problem. Bob has attributed the cause of the situation primarily to intentional reasons on Sally's part, with a negative intrinsic attribution supporting that. Sally, on the other hand, has attributed the cause mostly to neutral intrinsic and situation factors, that is, Bob's nature and skill level, and only a little to intentional causes. Diane, finally, thinks the whole problem is mostly situation, with some intrinsic issues with Bob.

Note how the attributions for each party are dramatically different. In the next section we'll see how effective practice based on this model can address these differing attributions.


Now that we understand roughly what each of the parties believes to be the cause of the conflict, the Trust model can offer the practitioner a range of strategies for how he or she may proceed. Before moving on to strategies, however, we need to look at two different types of trust and some of their characteristics.

The Trust model identifies two broad types of trust that parties to a conflict are constantly relying on: personal trust and procedural trust.

Personal trust

Personal trust is a set of feelings that defines how comfortable we are taking a given level of risk with a specific person. This has to do with our judgment of that person's character, integrity, values, and so on. It answers the question, “How much do I trust this individual?” Some characteristics of personal trust are:

  • It is the strongest form of trust.
  • It is usually based on belief and assumption and less on actual information (e.g. “I just know that this person can be trusted”).
  • Inconsistent behavior may have absolutely no effect on personal trust (e.g. “I know them, and they must have had a very good reason for doing that”).
  • With personal trust, parties tend to assume the motives of the other person are good.
  • It is based on perceived common values and common interests, to a large degree.
  • Examples of strong personal trust include doing business on a handshake, sharing information with a close friend that could be harmful if revealed, sharing sensitive information in a negotiation because we have worked with the other party before, etc.

It is impossible for people to “will” personal trust, meaning that it is built on experience and is not achieved by parties simply agreeing to trust one another. It should also be noted that personal trust is difficult to establish and easy to lose.

People tend to assume that all trust falls under the umbrella of personal trust—if I don't trust you on a personal basis, then we have no trust. In reality, this is only one, albeit important, form of trust.

Procedural trust

Procedural trust is the trust we place in a structure or process we are involved in, as opposed to a person. For example, parties to a conflict often attempt mediation when they have very little trust in each other, and may have little experience with the mediator as well. In this case, they are placing their trust in the mediation process itself.Procedural trust answers the question, “How much trust do I have in the process itself, regardless of the individual(s) involved?” Some characteristics of procedural trust are:

  • It is limited, situation-specific trust and tends to be more fragile than personal trust.
  • Procedural trust is based on trusting the structures surrounding the individuals involved (Are they licensed or trained? Do they have credentials? Have their products been tested and approved by the government?)
  • It is based on monitoring (A third party monitors and verifies the quality of the work; the manager monitors the employees' arrival time to verify attendance).
  • It is based on deterrence (I don't pay you until the work is completed).
  • Parties tend to assume the motives of the other person are either unknown or uncaring of others, which is why the procedural trust is needed in the first place.
  • Examples of procedural trust include the process of buying a house, where the purchase money and the deed are exchanged through a trusted third party (such as a lawyer or a title company); court-supervised visits with children where the marital relationship has broken down; having a facilitator or mediator manage the negotiation to ensure that neither side does anything unfair or unreasonable.

Procedural trust is significantly different from personal trust, in that procedural trust processes can be collaboratively built and agreed upon by the parties themselves. Procedural trust is not a matter of will; it is a set of steps or structures that are tangible and defined. This makes procedural trust a powerful tool when working with conflict, and when applying some of the following strategies.

Strategy #1: Focus on procedural trust, not personal trust

One of the first casualties in conflict is the loss of trust, but how much trust is lost and how the practitioner should proceed are best assessed by looking at the attributions that the parties are making. In extreme conflict, both personal trust as well as procedural trust can be lost. In these cases, parties simply don't want to deal with the other party because they can't see a safe way to negotiate with an untrustworthy party. For this reason, Strategy #1 is to focus the parties away from personal trust (which can be seen as so risky to the parties as to be inconceivable) and focus them on various forms of procedural trust, on a process that will effectively protect both parties' interests enough to begin discussions and move forward.

How exactly to move forward can be decided by looking at the attributions that are in play for the parties. Different types of attributions will direct the practitioner toward taking different steps in order to intervene effectively.

Procedural trust and confidence-building measures

Personal and procedural trust are directly linked to the attributions the parties have made. In general, situation attributions maintain the most personal trust and require the least procedural trust; intrinsic attributions can damage personal trust and require some level of procedural trust, whereas intentional attributions destroy personal trust and require an almost exclusive focus on procedural trust in order to move forward. (Figure 7.3.)

Illustration of how situation attributions maintain the most personal trust and require the least procedural trust; intrinsic attributions damage personal trust and require some level of procedural trust, whereas intentional attributions destroy personal trust and require an almost exclusive focus on procedural trust.

Figure 7.3 Attribution and procedural trust

Because conflict is extremely destructive to personal trust, the more blame and negative attribution the parties make toward each other the more practitioners need to look toward procedural trust to help the parties move forward. In other words, by effectively implementing procedural trust we can help the parties rebuild some personal trust down the road.

The first step in implementing procedural trust is to create a safe environment to begin the negotiation. This means shifting completely away from any substantive negotiation and focusing on the negotiation process itself.6 Procedural trust often focuses on who will attend, what will be on the agenda, what will be confidential, how the process will be monitored and made safe for everyone, how agreements (if reached) will be monitored, what the future relationships between parties might look like, and so on. Gaining agreement to important procedural elements often lays the groundwork for effective substantive negotiations. Another strategy to build enough procedural trust to move parties forward is by encouraging the use of “confidence-building measures,” or CBM’s.

Confidence-building measures

Procedural Trust Confidence-Building Measures Increase in Personal Trust
  • Monitoring
  • Third-party help
  • Mutual deterrence
  • Risk/reward analysis
  • Steps taken with independent verification that requires little personal trust to commit to, that is, no/low risk.
Image of an arrow-mark pointing toward the right side.
  • Unilateral steps taken by one party to show good faith and to test the good faith of the other party.
  • Once parties see each other performing as agreed, it encourages parties to take greater risks with each other in the future.
Image of an arrow-mark pointing toward the right side.
  • Parties see each other taking risks, fulfilling commitments.
  • Parties build history of trustworthiness between each other over time.

Confidence-building measures are small steps taken by one or both parties that signal a readiness to unilaterally demonstrate trust to the other side. They are actions taken beyond what is needed to establish basic procedural trust. A confidence-building measure is an action that does not ask the other side to place their confidence in us, but shows that we are prepared to place some confidence (or trust) in them. By taking a small risk and “going first,” one party creates a positive pressure on the other party to reciprocate. CBMs often break negotiating logjams and create a pattern of important procedural trust steps.

Examples of confidence-building measures can include:

  • In a construction dispute, one side offering to resume work on site today, provided the other side makes a partial payment within a week
  • In a supplier dispute, the manufacturer waiving the requirement for cash up front by offering to ship small orders on a 15-day payment basis
  • In a workplace dispute, the manager offering a terminated employee his or her previous position back, provided the employee attends certain training courses within two months of reinstatement

In each of these examples, one side is demonstrating willingness to take a risk and go first by offering a CBM; in doing so, they create a situation where if the other side didn't reciprocate,7 they would risk being seen as the difficult party. This dynamic creates a positive pressure on both parties to behave well. When parties begin to see each other as reliable through effective use of procedural trust and confidence-building measures, they will begin to rebuild personal trust, slowly reducing the need for CBMs or the need for extensive procedural trust structures in the future.

Strategy #2: Attributional retraining

The second strategy to deal with negative attributions is to directly address the attribution made by each party about the other. This strategy applies where there is an abundance of intrinsic or intentional attributions.

As previously noted, whenever attributions are made, they are based on assumptions, on interpreting the available information in a particular way. Parties frequently take the same information and yet arrive at very different attributions and conclusions.

A good analogy is a children's connect-the-dots game, where a series of numbered dots are printed on a page but form no obvious picture. By connecting the dots in the right order (which is helped by the fact that the dots are numbered), a picture such as a dog or house emerges. In real life, when we assess conflict situations we are presented with the same series of “dots” (in this case, data points such as experiences, feelings, events, etc.) only in our case without the numbering. In Figure 7.4, to draw a “picture” we have to find a way to connect the dots that makes sense to us.

In Figure 7.5, however, the same data points (dots) are connected in different ways, leading to very different pictures.

A series of “dots” to draw a “picture” by finding a way to connect the dots that makes sense to us.

Figure 7.4 Data points

Diagrams of the same data points (dots) that are connected in different ways, leading to two very different pictures.

Figure 7.5 Different pictures from the same data points

To complicate matters even further, now imagine the situation where some dots (or data points) exist in one person's picture and others exist only in the other person's picture (each party having information the other doesn't have, or attributing different reasons for the events or information). Finally, as in Figure 7.6, it is not uncommon for a party to draw a picture that simply ignores some of the data points because they don't fit the picture the party has created or assumed. Completely different pictures can then be created, each of which will be completely legitimate (even seen as exclusively “right”) to the party drawing it. Our assumptions, our attribution of motives, and our interpretation of the situation and the other party's behavior all become highly influential in how we feel about the other party.

Diagrams of cherry picking data points to draw a picture that simply ignores some of the data points, because they do not fit the picture created or assumed.

Figure 7.6 Cherry picking data points

What this all means, then, is that both parties' attributions can be, and often are, biased, exaggerated, or simply wrong. Frequently, this biased attribution of the other person's actions is in the direction of minimizing situation causes and creating intrinsic or intentional causes, leading to high levels of blame and strong emotions.

Attributional retraining is a fancy term for (gently) challenging a party's assumptions. By challenging these assumptions, we help the party change their “picture”—if the dots that they used to draw the picture of the boat no longer exist, they will need to find a new picture to make sense of the situation. This process can help a party shift from intentional attribution and strong blame, to intrinsic attribution and less blame, or even to situation attribution and the elimination of some blame altogether. This process can significantly de-escalate a conflict and introduce enough trust to move forward, even if it is only procedural trust at first.


Having diagnosed the situation for what kind of attributions have been made, it becomes clear that the strongest and most negative attributions are between Bob and Sally, and it is the strength of these negative attributions that is preventing any kind of solution. This means that a first step might be to work on the negative attributions that Bob has made about Sally.

Strategy #2: Use attributional retraining with Bob

The mediator could meet with Bob alone and begin unpacking the assumptions and attributions Bob has made. This would be done by asking Bob some of the following questions, all of which uncover and gently challenge the assumptions Bob has made:

  • You feel that Sally biased the competition in favor of Diane. Given that she didn't sit on the competition panel, how did she do this? (Bob: She spoke with the panel, that's how.) When did she do this? (I don't know. She just must have.) Why doesn't the union feel this competition was biased? (They're on her side.) If they were on her side, why did they make her rerun the competition? Why didn't they just let the first one stand? (Well, I don't know.)
  • You feel that Sally doesn't want to have anything to do with you, and that's why she wants everything to go through Diane, is that it? (Yes, it's just a way of ignoring me because she doesn't like me.) Why do you want contact with her? (I want to know what's going on, because I'm important around here too.) How would your view change if Sally, knowing this was important to you, were to keep your direct communication lines open? (She won't!) And if she did, what would that tell you? (Well, I don't know, that maybe she's rethought some of this?)
  • You believe that Sally is inventing the AS-1 role as a way of rewarding or helping Diane, because she is female, too. (Yes, they all stick together.) How clear are you that the director, Sally's boss, has ordered this position created in offices across the country, and that Sally had nothing to do with this decision? (What? Where did you hear that?) From Sally. How could you verify that? (I can call other offices to find out, I guess.) And if that is true, how would that change your view of why Sally is making these changes? (Well, I'd have to think about it.)

This dialogue is an example of attributional retraining, introducing information and interpretations other than the ones Bob has made and effectively causing Bob to rethink some of his attributions. If Sally had nothing to do with creating the position, Bob would have to rethink his view of Sally in some way. That is the goal of attributional retraining. Although it can take a bit of time, it can substantially alter the way each party views the underlying reasons for the other party behaving the way they are.

Strategy #2: Use attributional retraining with Sally

The mediator could meet with Sally alone and begin unpacking the assumptions and attributions Sally has made. This would be done by asking Sally some of the following questions, all of which uncover and gently challenge the assumptions she has made:

  • You feel that Bob is behaving this way because he wants to frustrate you to the point you'll either promote him, or rerun the competition again, is that it? (Sally: Yes, he's doing this just to make my life difficult!) In general, how good a job had Bob been doing before all of this? (Well, he did a good job here for a long time before I arrived.) What if the reason he's behaving badly is because he really cares about his job and needs some contact with you to feel that he's in the loop and doing a good job? How would you feel about helping him? (I'm willing to help, but he has to stop being such a problem.) If he were willing to change his behavior, what contact could you offer so he felt important and included? (I'd certainly consider any suggestions, if that's really the problem!)
  • You think that Bob hasn't recognized that he lacks a number of skills. (That's right. He's too proud to see that.) When has Bob ever refused to go on training that was offered to him? (Well, he hasn't refused with me, but I haven't offered anything.) How would it change your thinking if you offered him some skills training, and he accepted it? (It would show me he was interested in improving his work.)

In both cases, this would start the process of changing the underlying attributions and assumptions that were blocking and preventing any trust from building between the parties.

Next, let's look at how procedural trust and confidence-building measures might help.

Strategy #1: Focus on procedural trust

After shifting some of the hardline attributions between Sally and Bob, the parties looked at what steps could be taken to start improving things. They focused on two areas, communication and skills improvement.


After the attributional retraining step, Sally started to accept that Bob wanted to communicate with her to continue to feel that he was important and was doing a good job. Bob started to accept that Sally wanted communications to go through Diane to help free up her time for management-type work. Bob then suggested that Sally copy him with all communications that went to Diane; this would keep him in the loop and cost Sally no additional time. Sally agreed (a confidence-building measure), and asked that any communication back from Bob go first through Diane and that Bob contact Sally only if there was something that Diane couldn't help with. Bob agreed (another confidence-building measure) but asked that once in a while he be able to speak with Sally about the workplace in general and that he feel comfortable in doing this. Sally agreed, as long as “once in a while” meant about once per month. Bob agreed.

Both Sally and Bob agreed to run things this way for two months, keep track of how many times Bob and Sally interacted, and assess how Bob felt working with Diane. At that point, Bob and Sally would meet to discuss how it was working and what needed changing. By structuring it as a pilot process, one that was open to change later, this was seen as lower risk for Bob in that he wasn't accepting this solution regardless of how it worked for him. Sally saw it as a way of making sure the changes didn't eat up too much of her time. For both, this pilot phase was seen as a way to build confidence in their decisions.

In essence, by making the changes a pilot process, Sally and Bob were jointly engaged in verifying that this approach would work. This was a process both of them could place trust in, indicating that this step was an effective use of procedural trust.

Skills improvement

After the attributional retraining, Sally started to see Bob as having some ambition to improve his skills, and interested in applying for other promotions. Bob started to see Sally as perhaps wanting him to do well in his job and willing to help and support him in that.

Bob identified which skills he wanted to focus on, and Sally added one or two to that list. Sally committed to finding some training in the company that Bob could take, along with the budget for it. Both agreed to sit down with Diane after the training to create an assessment process to see if the training had helped; both agreed to log improvements to Bob's skills and performance. This made Bob feel that he was supported and helped in the workplace instead of targeted for attack; Sally felt this would show her that Bob did, in fact, care about doing a good job. They even began to talk about what Sally could do to support Bob when he applied for other promotions.

In this case, the process of jointly building the skills improvement list and sending Bob on training were seen as confidence-building measures by both Sally and Bob. The assessment process was seen as the trust-monitoring process for Sally, and the training budget was seen as the trust-monitoring process for Bob. In both cases, this allowed each of them to verify that the other person was doing what they said they would do.


The Dynamics of Trust model is one of the most important models in conflict resolution work, because trust is foundational to human relationships.

Diagnostically, the Trust model goes to the heart of understanding where breaches of trust come from and what magnifies or exaggerates them in conflict settings. Attribution theory has long been researched and used to explain human behavior. The Trust model applies it specifically to conflict settings by illuminating how the dynamic of self-serving bias plays a major role in sustaining and fueling conflict. Finally, because the model gives practitioners a framework for understanding how parties perceive the conflict and make sense of the situation, it becomes a powerful tool for diagnosing complex situations. The model rates very high on the diagnostic scale.

Strategically, the model also gives clear and strong direction for working with damaging attributions. By identifying opportunities for attributional retraining (another form of reality testing) and focusing on procedural trust in conjunction with confidence-building measures, it gives practitioners clear direction on how best to work with trust issues in conflict.


  1. Diagnosis: Identify the type of attributions each party is making in the situation:
Party A Party B
Situation Attributions: What is Party A attributing to circumstances beyond the control of Party B? Situation Attributions: What is Party B attributing to circumstances beyond the control of Party A?
Intrinsic Nature Attributions:
What is Party A attributing to Party B's nature or disposition?
Intrinsic Nature Attributions:
What is Party B attributing to Party A's nature or disposition?
Intentional or Hostile Attributions:
What does Party A believe Party B has done to cause intentional harm?
Intentional or Hostile Attributions:
What does Party B believe Party A has done to cause intentional harm?

    1. 1a. What situation or intrinsic attributions are being missed by either party?
    2. 1b. What attributional retraining can be done to bring forward this information?
  1. What procedural trust and confidence-building measures would help each party start to rebuild trust?
What CBMs from Party B would have impact with Party A?

What CBMs from Party A would have impact with Party B?

Who could be an effective “monitor” between Party A and Party B in the short term?

What would need to be monitored or verified so both parties felt that the process was safe and fair?


Case Study: Coworker's Dilemma

This situation involved two coworkers, Jean and Anna. Jean had been in the department for about 5 years; Anna had been there about 15 years. Initially, when Jean joined the department, they had gotten along reasonably well. About 3 years prior, Jean was given an “acting supervisor” appointment in the department and had to supervise Anna, along with two other employees, for about three months. Anna resented Jean's style of supervising, and the working relationship began to deteriorate.

About six weeks into her new role, Jean approached the manager, Sheri, saying that Anna's work quality was very poor and Jean's work was suffering as a result. Jean relied on Anna (as well as two other staff) to supply reports and data to her. Sheri asked her to gather some information on “what was going on in the area” so she could address any problems. Jean took this to mean that she was to track Anna's work quality, and to do this she built an Excel spreadsheet detailing the dates on which requests were made to Anna, when the data were delivered, when scheduled reports were completed, and the quality of the work overall. In addition, she had included a “Comments” section that had the occasional comment such as “Late again!!” or “Quality?!” as a reflection of her frustration with Anna's work. It also included the odd comment about good quality work that Anna had done. She filled out this spreadsheet for about two months on a network drive that she thought Anna did not have access to.

At about the two-month mark, and before Jean could share this information with Sheri, Anna found the file on the network drive. She stormed into Sheri's office with the file and demanded to know what was going on. Sheri told her that the file Jean had created was unacceptable and that she would address it with Jean. Anna stormed out, angrily yelled something at Jean, and threatened to file a harassment complaint against Jean unless she was disciplined. Jean, in Anna's mind, had been out to “get” her for a while now, and this was evidence of Jean trying to get her fired.

Jean was upset as well. She felt that she had just done what Sheri had asked her to do and was not trying to “get” Anna. All she had wanted was for Anna's work to improve so she could do her job properly. Jean took great pride in doing more than was expected of her, but workloads had been increasing and she was falling behind due to Anna. When she approached Anna for information on reports, Anna had ignored her or had become angry. Jean didn't really accept that the comments on her spreadsheet were inappropriate, but she did realize that leaving the document on the network drive was a poor choice, because it wasn't private.

Relations in the workplace plummeted. Anna went off on sick leave for a month (her second extended leave in the past year) and upon her return didn't appear to feel any differently. She would not speak with Jean and refused to sit down with Sheri and Jean in the same room. Coworkers began to complain about the workplace, particularly about Anna's moods, and work fell way behind across the board. Anna refused to have any contact with Jean, still convinced that Jean was out to get her. In addition, because Sheri had clearly not disciplined Jean, Anna began to feel that Sheri was taking Jean's side. She began talking to the union about filing a complaint or a grievance.

Trust model diagnosis and worksheet: Coworker's Dilemma

Anna Jean
Situation Attributions: What is Anna attributing to circumstances beyond the control of Jean?
  • Nothing. Anna attributes everything to Jean personally.
Situation Attributions: What is Jean attributing to circumstances beyond the control of Anna?
  • Nothing. Jean attributes most of the problem to Anna's lack of competence and her personality.
Intrinsic Nature Attributions:
What is Anna attributing to Jean's nature or disposition?
Intrinsic Nature Attributions:
What is Jean attributing to Anna's nature or disposition?
  • Anna sees Jean as a workaholic with standards that are way too high.
  • Jean thinks there is something mentally wrong with Anna beyond simple job stress. She thinks that Anna is a bit unbalanced.
Intentional or Hostile Attributions:
What does Anna believe Jean has done to intentionally harm her?
Intentional or Hostile Attributions:
What does Jean believe Anna has done to intentionally harm her?
  • Anna believes that Jean is out to get her, to have her fired, and to humiliate her in the workplace. She believes Jean wrote that report and intended for others in the workplace to read it, to turn the rest of the department against her.
  • Jean believes that for some reason, Anna is blaming her for all her problems, that she wants to make Jean the bad guy, and to publicly humiliate Jean.

Clearly, from the analysis, both parties have attributed the causes of the problem primarily to hostile and harmful intentions on each other's part, with a little bit of negative intrinsic attribution. This assessment was reflected in how emotionally hot the conflict was for both parties.

Trust model strategic direction: Coworker's Dilemma

What situation or intrinsic attributions are being missed by either party?


  • Anna is not seeing the workload issues Jean is facing and is not recognizing how much Jean relies on her work. (Situation)
  • Anna hasn't clearly understood that Jean was asked to compile information on the work in her area and didn't undertake this on her own. (Situation)
  • Anna is not recognizing that Jean has high standards and demands a lot of herself and that this, in general, is not a bad thing in the workplace. (Intrinsic)
  • Anna is not recognizing that Jean's frustration is with not getting what she needs, and not directly with Anna personally. (Situation)
  • Anna is not including the information that Jean had helped her quite a bit in the past. (Intrinsic)


  • Jean is not seeing that Anna may have a medical condition, given her numerous sick leaves, and that this may be affecting her emotionally. (Intrinsic)
  • Jean is not recognizing that Anna simply has a different work ethic than Jean does but still has a work ethic that is in the range of acceptable in the workplace. (Intrinsic)
  • Jean is not recognizing that it isn't her job or role to manage or judge Anna's work; it's her role to go to management if she's not getting what she needs to do her job well. (Situation)
  • Jean is not recognizing that the comments were clearly inappropriate. (Situation)

What attributional retraining can be done to bring forward this information?

Questions for Anna:

  • How clear are you that Sheri asked Jean to gather information about deadlines and workflows? That Jean, to a large degree, was doing what was asked of her?
  • How much of the frustration you read in Jean's spreadsheet is because she felt frustrated in her own job and not necessarily with you?
  • If Jean is just out to get you, why would she have offered and acted to help you in the past?
  • How much of this problem is because of the long hours and high standards Jean seems to impose on herself?

Questions for Jean:

  • Anna has been off a few times in the past year-how much information do you have on that? (Assume none, because it's private information.) What else might be going on in Anna's life outside of work, given these extended leaves?
  • When you feel frustrated that you're not getting reports or information you need, who is responsible for fixing that? If the answer is “management,” what's the reason you're frustrated with Anna, when indeed it's management's responsibility to help you?
  • How clear are you that Sheri believes the comments in your spreadsheet were inappropriate?
  • You set high standards for quality of work, don't you? How appropriate or realistic is it to apply those standards to everyone in the workplace? Whose job is it to set standards for acceptable work for staff? How much of Anna's anger at you is because she feels you've been judging her work rather than letting management do it?

Procedural Trust Focus: What confidence-building measures would help each party start to rebuild?

What CBMs from Jean would have an impact with Anna?

  • Jean apologizing for the comments in the report.
  • Jean providing verification that the report had been deleted and all copies destroyed.
  • Jean's commitment to never gather information without Anna knowing (this CBM also needs to come from Sheri, as well as from Jean).

What CBMs from Anna would have impact with Jean?

  • Anna committing to behaving in civil, respectful ways whenever she interacted with Jean in the workplace.
  • Anna agreeing to not file a harassment complaint if they reach a resolution.

Who could be an effective “monitor” between Jean and Anna in the short term?

  • It was agreed that there needed to be a buffer or monitor between Jean and Anna, at least for a while. Sheri was far too busy and acknowledged having neglected this department because of time pressure. Sheri decided to assign a supervisor to take over running the area, and it was agreed that the supervisor would be the buffer and monitor for the foreseeable future.

What would need to be monitored so that both parties would feel that the process is safe and fair?

  • The parties agreed to meet with the supervisor and establish “ground rules” that the supervisor would then monitor and hold both Jean and Anna accountable for. The stated goal was to have this monitoring only as a short-term process, after which Jean and Anna would manage their interactions themselves.

Epilogue of the case study

After initial meetings with Anna and Jean, the practitioner met with Sheri and arranged for Sheri to meet with Anna and Jean individually. This was to clearly articulate the following: To Anna, she affirmed that it had been Sheri who had asked for the report and not Jean choosing to do it on her own. Sheri apologized to Anna for not telling her about it and took responsibility for this misstep. To Jean, Sheri made it clear that the comments in the spreadsheet were, in her view, inappropriate. After some discussion, Jean admitted she could see that they “didn't look good” to anyone else reading them.

The practitioner then met with Anna, who denied that she had been disrespectful in the past, but committed to behaving respectfully in the future. Anna agreed that it had to be respectful as defined by both Jean and the supervisor. Anna also agreed that if Jean apologized for the report, she would not file a harassment complaint. During the attributional retraining portion, she admitted that although she didn't like Jean, she recognized that Jean was probably just insensitive and showing bad judgment, rather than trying to get her fired. (This is a movement from intentional/hostile attribution to an intrinsic one, which is lower on the scale.)

The practitioner then met with Jean, who initially refused to apologize for anything. After discussing Sheri's view of the comments, Jean acknowledged that the comments could be seen as inappropriate and agreed to apologize for writing them. She also wanted it to be made clear that she wasn't trying to harm Anna but only trying to improve her work.

The practitioner brought Anna and Jean together. Jean apologized for the comments, and Anna committed to civil and respectful interactions, along with not filing a formal complaint. Both agreed to meet with the supervisor and build ground rules, which they would ask the supervisor to monitor. Based on this, both agreed to go back to working together on a professional basis.

In an individual debrief with the practitioner, Anna stated that she didn't feel that Jean really understood how this had hurt her, but felt Jean had acknowledged enough for her to let it go and move forward. Jean, in her debrief, stated that she still felt Anna didn't like her, but if there was a reasonable and professional working relationship, that was enough for her to move forward.


  1. 1.  Daryl Landau is a Toronto-based mediator and trainer in the field of conflict resolution.
  2. 2.  A more complete definition would include not only motives and intentions but also the other person's capability or competency. Because competency is a relatively objective measure (compared to measuring a person's motives), and because competency is addressed in attribution theory, we'll work with motives and intentions here.
  3. 3.  Chapter 9, the Loss Aversion Bias demonstrates that we weight potential losses twice as much as potential gains, strongly skewing us against taking risks or trusting others easily.
  4. 4.  In some cases, if the intrinsic quality is extreme, such as deep racism, there will be no trust at all, in spite of an intrinsic attribution tending to be less trust-breaking than an intentional attribution.
  5. 5.  For an in-depth look at how data contribute to conflict, refer to Chapter 6, the Circle of Conflict model and the data slice.
  6. 6.  In the language of the Triangle of Satisfaction, this is a shift away from result interests to focus on process and psychological interests.
  7. 7.  CBMs are directly linked to the Law of Reciprocity, Chapter 8.
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