The quickest test is your gut intuition: Do I like them? Do they like me?

But that’s too quick. The stakes are high. Most of us have had the crushing experience of trusting someone untrustworthy simply because there seemed to be mutual rapport. And the only experience as crushing, is not trusting someone who turns out to be trustworthy.

There’s no perfect test but you do want to make the best bets possible, so you need more than intuition.

It’s one thing to get along when compatibility is high. It’s quite another when compatibility flags and you fall into conflict. Compatibility is nice but compatibility in negotiating the incompatibilities is at least as important.

I’ve noticed that many of us–me included–have a Dr. Jekyll, Father Hyde thing going. When the going gets tough, it’s tough not to regress to the fighting style of the dominant authority figure from your childhood. In my case, my father–when I feel threatened I become my father at his most stern.

I’ve seen others do the same. I knew this one woman who was about as hippy new age as you could get. Under pressure, though, she would instantly transform into Mother Superior. I know a liberal who, when push came to even the littlest shove, became a lot like his Arch-Conservative father. In most of us, the lurch toward one’s developmental home page when beset by stress is both natural and a wonder to behold. Want to meet the parents? Just tick the person off and you’ll at least meet the parent’s ghosts.

So even if you’ve got the sweetest of friendships, I don’t think it’s really tested until it’s stress tested.

And even if you haven’t hit a conflict yet, you can get a kind of stress test by proxy, if you’ve got empathic intelligence. Shoe jumping skills-the ability to flexibly imagine yourself in anyone’s shoes. The motto for empathic intelligence is this: “If I were you, I would be doing exactly what you’re doing.” To develop your shoe jumping skills’ cultivate the ability to take anyone’s position, make anyone’s argument-even and especially if you don’t agree with it. It’s the ability to play lawyer for anyone-at least in your mind–at the drop of a hat.

The stress test by proxy then is simply this. Listen to how they talk about other people they’re in conflict with. Their attitude about those other people is probably a good indicator of what their attitude will be about you when you enter conflict. Don’t assume you’re exempt.

It’s easiest to see this stress test by proxy when applying in the dating world. You may have even heard this advice applied there: However they talk about their ex-, that’s how they’ll talk about you if they ever enter conflict with you. I know it’s more fun to feel like their hero, so obviously a better person that they’re willing to confide in you about their ex’s evils. But don’t believe it. In the land of conflict, we are all equally demonizable.

And of course in most relationships of longer duration you get beyond the stress test by proxy. You enter real conflict and, then you can just watch their reaction. And here there’s one caveat I’d add. I’ll call it the five-minute rule. You know the three-second rule about food: any food that falls on the ground is still edible if you pick it up in less than three seconds. The five-minute rule is like that applied to nastiness under stress.

Since the stakes are so high on the question of trust, we all tend to be a little hair trigger. Combine that with the Dr. Jekyll, Father Hyde tendency and you can expect people to get a little weird at the onset of conflict. But so long as it doesn’t last, you don’t have take the first skirmish too seriously. Yes, everyone should be nice during the first five minutes of conflict, but often we just aren’t.

Any of us might throw a friendship on the ground and crush it into the dirt the second a conflict starts. Indeed the stronger the bond, the higher the stakes so the more potential for rashness. That’s the proverbial thin line between love and hate. My gal and I have said nasty things to each other in that first flash moment, but so long as we’re able to lighten up and recover a more balanced attitude toward the conflict-not resolution necessarily but receptivity–then the gritty first few minutes of the big bang can be ignored.

With the three-second rule, a pick up in time saves grime. With the five-minute rule, a save in time stitches nine. A simple apology-a clean one-can save from consequences as many as nine un-kindnesses. Maybe not ten, but as many as nine.

Be careful about trusting those who are super sweet when there’s compatibility but get, and stay nasty in conflict. You can trust someone who is nice when things are going well, nasty at the beginning of conflict but fairly quick to regain conscientiousness.

So that’s my minimal true test. There are three parts really:
Cruising groove: Your gut affinity. When the going is good, is it good?
Stress test: Compatibility in negotiating the incompatibilities: When the going is bad, is it good enough?
Five minute rule: How fast do they restore receptivity after stress shuts them down? Do they save in time to stitch nine?

A rule about my rules: They’re not really rules. They’re guesses at what will work. And they’re not moral principles either, true because I believe the universe or God endorses them. They’re bets on how to make better bets. You’ll notice that us pontificators declare our opinions in the form of Rules, in bold with titles and catchy slogans in italics. That’s our trade and if we’re good at it, we gain brain Velcro by means of our rhetorical trickery. But don’t believe a word of it at face value. Just because it has a fancy or clever name in bold, or is pronounced as if from on high, it doesn’t mean its true.

The only real rule I have is The Pragmatist’s Rule: “Always do today what worked tomorrow.”

And speaking of tomorrow, I’ve been experimenting with a new way of resolving any escalating conflict that has worked remarkably well lately. It’s no sure thing but I’ll share it.

Tomorrow.