Trust Me! One Mediator’s Search for the Key to Building Client Trust

By Joe Murphey

“No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care”


The above quote is attributed to Teddy Roosevelt [TR]. Even aside from having the pleasing, lyrical flourish of a phrase well turned, this statement succinctly expresses a profound truth about how we come to place our trust in others. Put another way: the pathway to trust begins with our intentions (how much we care) not our competence (how much we know). As a mediator, I meet clients every morning I will be asking to place trust in me – both in my skills and my intentions – by late afternoon as they are confronted with conflicting options and agonizing choices. From the first time I heard the TR quote above, it has been a guiding light to me; the key to earning and holding the trust of clients. Only recently have I taken a deeper dive into the concept embodied by this quote, to see what’s really under the hood.  Is there more than just clever wordplay at work here? Turns out there is a lot of research, much of it scholarly, on point. TR was really onto something.


The Science Behind Trust in Human Interactions

If you Google the phrase “Why do people trust in others?” or “What is the basis of trust?” you’ll tap into a geyser of information. The questions of why, how, and when trust forms in human interactions have been given much thought and deliberation. If you’re looking for a one-stop-shop where the notion of “trust” has been analyzed across multiple disciplines – psychological, philosophical, societal, economic, and more – I found just the place for you to click:  Trust Project Videos. The Trust Project at Northwestern, per the home page, “features scholars and executives exploring trust in videos that cover theory, research and practice.” (Rabbit-Hole Warning:  These videos are fascinating, extensive, searchable and they scroll real-time written transcripts as you watch. The transcripts are also “clickable” for even deeper dives into the extensive research behind every assertion made. You can spend a lot of time in there if you’re not careful. I wasn’t careful.)


But after I finally surfaced from the depths of the Trust Project website, I was only more convinced of the truth of the TR quote above. Teddy really summed up in one sentence what it took NWU researchers a lot more time and space to elaborate upon and prove through rigorous study. That is not to say these researchers and scholars wasted their time.  Knowing why trust begins first with intentions and only secondarily relies upon competence, is very enlightening.  And to a mediator, a person for whom building trust with strangers is a daily requirement, it is beyond fascinating – it’s El Dorado. Let’s explore some of what the Trust Project researchers tell us, and then riff on these concepts with scenarios of our own.


The Three Elements of Trust in Business Transactions

Kent Grayson, NWU Professor of Marketing, isolates three elements of trust in business transactions. (I’m focusing for this article on trust in business transactions. Trust in long-term, personal relationships involves complexities that are far beyond the scope of our inquiry.) The three elements of trust in business transactions are:  competency, honesty, and benevolence. The latter two are somewhat overlapping.  Competency means essentially that you know what you’re doing. Honesty means you can be believed.  Benevolence means your intentions are good and respectful of the needs of the other person(s) in the transaction. Most honest people are perceived as benevolent, and visa-versa, thus the link between those two elements. Teddy Roosevelt, and most of the researchers at NWU, agree that when it comes to trust, the honesty/benevolence part is more important than the competency part. I concur, and a couple of simple thought exercises will drive this point home.


Thought Experiments in Building Trust

Let’s say you develop acute appendicitis while on a trip abroad and require emergency surgery.  You’re rushed to the hospital where you learn there are two surgeons available to perform the operation. The first is highly skilled and widely regarded as the most gifted surgeon in the entire country. However, this doctor has also been known to conduct bizarre experiments on patients during operations.  The second doctor finished last in his class at medical school, but through hard work and experience has learned to be a reasonably competent surgeon. This doctor is also beloved by the community for being kind and well-intentioned in all respects. There are no other options. Who do you want operating?


Another scenario: You are stranded in a remote location and use your ride-share app to arrange a pick-up. You are given a choice: Driver one has an impeccable driving history with no reported accidents across thousands of trips. However, she is prone to taking passengers to places they don’t want to go. Driver two, on the other hand, has had a driver’s license for only a few months and has been involved a couple of minor accidents in that short time. But Driver two faithfully takes passengers to their chosen destination and offers mints and bottled water as well.


It’s easy to see in these examples that competency, while important, is secondary to honesty and benevolence. A brilliant doctor, who is also a mad scientist, is not the better option.  A skilled driver who won’t take you where you need to go, is not the better option. But you can also see from these examples, that skill is not entirely irrelevant. If the “nice doctor” in scenario one wasn’t even a doctor, but just a well-intentioned person posing as a doctor, that’s also not an option. If the “nice driver” in scenario two was a child whose feet can’t reach the pedals, that’s also not an option. The ideal person for the job, of course, is one with high competency matched with high levels of honesty/benevolence. My question is, for a mediator, which of these do we lead with when forming the bonds of trust with a stranger. President Roosevelt and most of the NWU experts say it’s the honesty/benevolence part. But how do we do it?


How Does a Mediator Build Trust?

Now to relate these findings to mediation and negotiation. We’ve learned that a neutral’s skill and experience (“I’ve mediated thousands of cases with an impressive success rate.”) is probably less important to clients than the perception the mediator will take care and lead them somewhere they actually want to go (“Before we begin, let me make sure I know what it is you want out of today’s session.”). But we all make the mistake of opening with our qualifications, not our intentions, when meeting clients for the first time. It’s human nature to lead with one’s credentials. (“Humble brags” comprise about 85% of what comes across my LinkedIn feed.  When was the last time you saw a L.I. post that said, “Hey, I learned something today by caring and actively listening to what someone else had to say”?)


Now that we know it’s important to start with projecting our good intentions in building trust, how exactly do we do that?  Introducing yourself by saying, “Hi, I’m your mediator. I’m very honest and benevolent” would probably have an opposite effect of that intended. Among the various experts who contributed to The Trust Project, the economists may provide the best answer to this dilemma. Professor Niko Matouschek, an economist at the NWU Kellogg School of Management, says “trust is an issue that most people don’t associate with economics, yet economists care a great deal about trust.” In the absence of trust, important economic transactions simply cannot take place. The buyer, in the absence of experience with a particular seller, needs to know the seller is “virtuous”; i.e., is acting in good faith and with benevolence.  Professor Matouschek refers to the assertion that Quakers, per many economic historians, were so impactful on the British economy of the 18th century because they, as a group, were known to be trustworthy.


Associating with the Right People

To bring this lesson home – how a neutral can gain trust at mediation – you might begin by associating yourself with groups known for trustworthiness. Many ADR firms, like Miles Mediation & Arbitration with whom I am associated, have impeccable institutional integrity.  They have a reputation for honesty and fair dealing. Also, there are many reputable professional groups and associations for neutrals, such as the National Academy of Distinguished Neutrals.  Such organizations typically boast very particular standards for membership (experience, reputation, integrity) and require peer sponsorship and recommendations, all of which can give you credibility by association. On a more local level, there are the ADR programs associated with the county and regional Court systems, many of which also have high standards for skill and reputation for inclusion on their approved lists.


Longevity as an Indicator of Virtuosity

Per Professor Matouschek, another way “virtuous sellers” establish themselves in the marketplace is by the natural long-term advantage they have over less scrupulous actors. To extrapolate to the field of mediation, a neutral who routinely cuts corners with honesty and fairness, for the purpose of getting a particular settlement, won’t be around for long.  Bad reputations travel much more quickly than good ones.  I was planning a trip to Paris a while ago and asked a friend — who had been there many times — for restaurant recommendations.  She said, “If a restaurant in Paris is in business, then it’s a fantastic restaurant.” Apparently, Parisians are very picky about their food and the bad restaurants don’t stick around.  In summary, the mere fact you have developed a thriving mediation practice will signal to prospective clients that you are “virtuous” as well as competent. But what if you are just getting started with your career in ADR?


Other Tools to Get Your Reputation for Benevolence Known

For those just starting out as neutrals, you can’t yet rely on an established reputation as a neutral.  But you can get out your message, nonetheless. First, if you’ve come to ADR after a long career as an attorney, judge, or other professional, then you need to find a way to market that longstanding good reputation to prospective ADR clients. Websites, blogs, and social media posts provide an excellent platform for you to showcase your virtuosity. Unlike the “humble brag” (which I derisively mocked above) actual client testimonials are a great way to put the trumpet that heralds you in the hands of others. Even a fledgling mediator has some satisfied clients. And, as you approach these clients about giving testimonials, perhaps you focus on those who were most impressed with your kindness, benevolence, sensitivity, ability to actively listen, etc. Again, the concept here with testimonials is to lead with “how much you care”. That’s not to say a smidge of “how much you know” in a testimonial would hurt, of course.


In the End, You Really DO Need to Care

Professor Matouschek speaks of the non-virtuous seller who, realizing the economic value of being perceived as virtuous, will imitate the actions of the virtuous seller initially (to gain trust) but will then exploit that trust later for pure economic gain. That scenario reminds me of the quote (attributed to Groucho Marx, George Burns, and a host of others) that “In Hollywood, sincerity is everything; Once you can fake that, you’re in.” That’s amusing, but the truth is this: The “imposter” virtuous seller will not enjoy long-term success. In the fullness of time, they will be exposed for what they are.


And, in the end, long-term success for the practicing neutral comes not from merely projecting the image that you care. You really need to care about the clients who are trusting you with their important matters. I’ve always said there is no skill necessary to being a successful mediator that cannot be learned. But the temperament for being a successful mediator probably cannot be learned. It is innate. And it is specifically the temperament of caring about others and putting service of others above yourself and your own material gains.  (“Service Above Self” happens to be the motto of Rotary International. Rotarians, in my experience, make great mediators.)


We have all known brilliant and accomplished litigators who enjoyed very little success when they tried their hand at being neutrals. Their failure to catch on as mediators had nothing to do with their skill or experience with legal disputes, which they had in abundance. Their reputations in the legal community were known far and wide.  But like the very experienced Uber driver from our scenarios, these folks could not convince potential clients of their benevolence and good intentions. There may be a variety of reasons one fails to obtain success in the field of ADR.  But there is one constant for all who have succeeded in that endeavor – they really do care about others.


If you really do care, and you also take the time to develop the skills of mediation as well, you will succeed as a neutral.


Trust me.



Joe Murphey

Since 2005, Joe Murphey has mediated nearly 3,000 cases at Miles Mediation with a success rate of over 80%.  Joe graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1986 (Magna Cum Laude) and from Emory University Law School in 1989. Joe has been a member of the Georgia Bar Association since 1989. He is also a member of the Georgia Academy of Mediators and Arbitrators and the National Academy of Distinguished Neutrals. When he’s not mediating, volunteering in the community, or spending time with his family, Joe is usually playing his drums and/or harmonicas with several local bands.