by Charlie Jones & Brigid Russell
What about trust?
All around us we see growing concern about a perceived ‘crisis of trust’ in our institutions, alongside increasing polarisation of views across society. Yet we know that trust is an essential foundation for effective relationships, and for working together well.
We tend to assume that it takes a lot of time to nurture and build trust. However, our experience in participating in many ‘spaces for listening’ [i] throughout the pandemic is that we can establish just enough trust in a short space of time with a group of relative strangers.
What can we learn from these experiences about how we might work with just enough trust in the spaces between us, and collaborate in more effective, meaningful ways?
Why does trust matter, and what does it take?
When we feel there is little or no trust between us, our interactions can seem incomplete, superficial, and fraught. Living and working without trust uses so much nervous energy — it’s exhausting.
Perhaps we hold ourselves back from saying what we really think and feel, for fear of ridicule. We second-guess each other, it can feel like we’re in a game. There might be tension, suspicion, and a sense of threat — we find ourselves questioning each other’s intentions. We end up with excessively complicated processes, designed to monitor and control our behaviours, in place of fundamentally trusting each other’s good intentions.
So if we were to Google “how to build trust”, what might the inevitable ‘ten top tips’ be??
The thing is trust can’t be put in place by learning a few strategies from the trust experts. It needs to be relational, and it’s about our perceptions of truth and integrity. Dare we even use a word like… authenticity? (knowing that this is another of those words that’s become a bit de-valued…).
Let’s be honest, trust is far from straightforward, or easily found. Building and maintaining trust takes ongoing care and commitment. It is not a fixed or linear concept which, once achieved, can be seen as done and dusted, or taken for granted. It is alive between us — a meaningful and dynamic platform underpinning our interactions.
How can we face up to the difficulties of trust?
We talk about the erosion of trust in society, a casual disregard by some for the cornerstones of trust — integrity, telling the truth, and behaving with respect towards each other. The risk is that trust becomes increasingly unstable with every throw-away populist sound-bite and half-truth.
Mistrust in our institutions is a cause for concern, of course. But what’s the contribution we each make to building or eroding trust? We’re talking here about our day to day interactions in our local organisations and communities. Our sense is that what we need is just enough trust, psychological safety, and risk-taking, such that we can have frank and meaningful conversations, from our diverse perspectives, about what’s going on, and what needs to be done by all of us.
Populist commentators grab some headlines with sensationalised content. In contrast, the substance of trust is in the process. Trust needs to start somewhere, we each have a contribution to make. We need enough trust to get alongside and to understand each other. And then we need to stick with it when the going gets a bit tough — so that we can say what we really think and feel, disagree with each other respectfully, say “I don’t know”, if that’s the truth.
When we talk about trust, we need to be much more transparent about power. We start at different places, with differing levels of readiness to be open to tell the truth, and listen. Many of us have experience of invalidation and oppression, of putting trust in institutions and being let down by people in positions of power time and time again.
We need to appreciate the power differentials and privilege which lurk in the interactions between us, even if we don’t intend it. We need to be trauma-informed, both alert to what might be going on below the surface for others, and also aware of our own triggers and familiar patterns of reaction. We can only start from where we are, and it’d seem a stretch to just start from a place of 100% assumed trust.
Yet, how can we begin to speak freely and openly with each other without having a sense of trust between us?
It’s too easy to say things like “you’ve just got to be yourself” and “speak your truth”. But this often needs some kind of ‘structure’ or ‘container’ to make it feel safe and supportive enough.
So, what can we do?
What’s listening got to do with building trust?
Time and again in #SpacesForListening we have found trust in the space between us. In the light structure of three listening rounds, the equality of listening, being listened to without interruption, and in meeting each other as people (not as roles in a hierarchy). We trust that being alongside each other is just enough. Our presence and the concentrated quality of our attention is just enough. The process is just enough. We realise that we can support each other by just listening, and letting go of the need to jump in with a ‘fix’ to each other’s problems.
In less than an hour, we can feel a depth of connection and trust with 8 strangers that we do not often experience in our local organisations. We can look people in the eye (on a computer screen, at least) and recognise the humanity in all of us.
How do these spaces compare with our day-to-day experiences in our teams and organisation cultures, and what might we learn from them?
So is just enough trust… enough?
When we have just enough trust in the space between us, we are able to question and challenge each other. Trust is not a comfort blanket. It is about treating each other as equals and making conscious choices about how to live and take responsibility. As soon as we treat each other in a patronising or paternalistic way, or with disrespect, trust is lost.
We believe that trust needs to feel edgy, and sometimes uncomfortable. If we are going to understand and appreciate each other’s differences, then we need to be able to trust the space between us. It is not exactly a leap of faith, but sometimes we need to let ourselves trust just enough — stay with the discomfort, resist the instinct to respond to difference with a knee-jerk reaction.
It is not about creating cosy safe spaces in which we all seem to agree, and reach false harmony. This is about spaces in which we can really hear each other, stick with the discomfort, and then find new clumsy answers together. It is about valuing our lived experience alongside our professional expertise with equal respect and curiosity.
So what do you reckon?
What do you think about creating spaces which feel trusting enough, where we can share our commonalities, and air our differences openly?
How can we treasure each other’s contributions, stay open to and truly value each other’s differing views, and find ‘solutions’ together?
How can we be open to our assumptions and privilege, be willing to engage with some discomfort, and commit to meeting each other in a more equitable place?
How can we offer ourselves and each other the love and forgiveness for getting stuff wrong, and staying open to learning along the way?
We’d love to hear what you think…
You can find us on Twitter @charlie_psych and @brigidrussell51
See more about experiences of spaces for listening in participants’ own words by searching the hashtag #SpacesForListening on Twitter.