Monday, September 20, 2010

Building Trust

I recently got this email from a friend who went through my two-year facilitation training and is testing her wings working for other groups in her region:

I'm still on board to facilitate a community meeting at Nirvana [name modified whimsically to obscure the identity but not the intent] on the topic of trust. I had originally been slated to go in August and had developed what I thought was a good start with a couple of well-placed community members who are familiar with what I can do and what the community needs. The plenary was postponed however, due to not having had enough publicity to be sure that it would be well attended, and to give the folks in charge of setting up meetings time to fire up some interest in the topic as well as to do more spade work ahead of time. I got an email today suggesting that rather than looking baldly at trust, that the meeting focus instead on issues of governance and questions about how they could work more effectively together. I'm going to be meeting with a different set of folks to discuss the agenda based on this new idea, but I'm curious... why not focus baldly on trust? Is this more effective focusing, to get at trust via how we work together? Or, is this a diversion from looking at the underlying issues?

It could be both! In my experience, people view trust in a variety of ways. While almost everyone will report that they want more of it, the path there is not the same for everyone. I imagine you'll get mixed responses about whether it's better to work it directly or to work it through example. In general, trust is built when people are able to fully disclose authentically and this leads to an enhanced sense of connection and greater insight about what to do together. Trust is also built by people doing what they agreed to do. Trust is eroded when people have the experience that vital information is withheld or distorted, when agreements have been blown off, or when the vulnerability associated with deep sharing has been used as ammunition rather than as an olive branch.

From where I sit, nothing builds trust (or a sense of group cohesion) as surely as successfully working through non-trivial tensions and disagreements with one another. You see a version of this when people pull together in a crisis, shedding their outer veneer of aloofness and the stripping away the everyday trivia that clogs our psychic arteries—getting real under pressure. It stands out because it's not the normal way people operate and is precious because of its rarity.

Given that Nirvana is a good sized group (50+), there are certain to be folks there who will see a direct discussion about trust as navel gazing, I suspect your best bet is to work with the topic of governance (or whatever hot topic will get good engagement), and look diligently for how to make your points about trust out of the specific. This has the power to please everyone (those who need problem solving as the output of meetings, and those who see relationship building as the prize in the meeting crackerjack), though it requires you to multiple track, so that you can see the openings for aha! generalizing. That is, you need to look for the moments when you can pull the group out of the specific conversation about governance, to make a general observation about trust. It's an advanced facilitative skill, being able to track the different levels of the conversation and knowing which is the most potent to focus on in the moment—never mind the skill needed to make it clear to the group which floor the elevator has stopped at before people start responding (people on different floors don't tend to hear each other very well)!

As a process consultant it's common for a group to hire me both to better understand a skill set (consensus, facilitation, conflict management, delegation, power dynamics, etc.) and to help solve a particular sticky problem that showcases their ambiguity about the skill set (participation, pet policy, safety, children in common spaces, etc.). I've found over the years that it typically works better if I start with the specific and work toward the general. If we begin with theory, at least half the group zones out and has Glazed Eyeball Syndrome within 90 minutes. By launching immediately into a hot topic however, everyone is better engaged. Then, when I lay out afterward the principles that I was employing in working the issue, it's much more tangible—they have a live application right in front of them to root their understanding. What looks like magic turns out to be a replicable approach, and everyone goes away feeling like they got what they came for.

Circling back to the question of trust, different people key off of different things. Words (authentic statements of commitment, and heartfelt reporting of feelings) can be pivotal for some; for others statements count for little until and unless backed by actions. Sometimes there's a great shift in trust (either up or down) based on how a person responds under pressure. Some go through life starting with the premise that everyone is trustworthy until they prove otherwise; some do the reverse, trusting no one until they've earned it.

The point of laying out this complexity is to stress the importance of asking the individuals involved what trust looks like to them, so that you don't fall into the trap of inadvertently assuming others see trust the way you do (which will only occasionally be right, mostly by accident).

1 comment:

Unknown said...


Just ran into Marty who said that he felt it was a successful weekend in terms of skill building and he enjoyed being at and learning about Heathcote.

Switching gears, I wanted to comment on your piece in the recent Communities Mag on "3 Essential Agreements of Effective Groups" and focus on the first one, "Working w. Emotional Input". Most groups I've worked in and been a part of HAVE to deal with emotion whether they want to or not. To generalize in a sexist sort of way, men express anger turning the group away and women cry turning the group towards them. Both actions in my experience can lead to bad decisions or at the very least postponed ones.

Having an agreement in place (we work w. emotional input) doesn't unfortunately rule in or out emotional outbursts.

I agree emotions are an important consideration for the reasons you list. However I think more important than having such an agreement is having the group skill set to deal with the emotions in such a way that doesn't devalue the person and still honors (for lack of a better word) the group meeting process.

Charlie at Shannon