Encouraging new ways of thinking about trust

Trust between humans always has both history and context. Even when we first meet somebody, context plays a part. We may already have heard something about them, or we may be influenced by their status or job title – e.g. we probably respond differently to a nurse, a businessman, a teacher or a homeless person. So in my view, if we want to understand how trust works, abstract definitions have limited value. Perhaps what St Augustin said about time could also be said about trust:

“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”

If we can’t define trust satisfactorily, can we at least begin to understand how it develops between people – and between people and institutions – over time? That is what Rob Warwick and I explored in a recent workshop in Brighton, by using stories, group conversations and writing to stimulate our thinking (Writing, Conversation and Trust: a day of exploration by the seaside: the AMED writers’ annual workshop, 20 May 2016).

The day stimulated me to think about how human relationships, and trust in particular, ebb and flow. If you think back to how one of your relationships has developed over time, you may recall some striking or memorable moments along the way. Perhaps something happened to unsettle or even destroy the trust between you. Maybe you managed to rebuild it. Maybe you didn’t.

Not surprisingly, I noticed the ebb and flow during the workshop. For example, I tended to feel warmer towards people who smiled or responded constructively to something I said. In contrast, when someone spoke in a complaining tone (as if they were a consumer who had bought a faulty product), or in an I-know-better-than-you manner, my trust sagged.

At the end of the day, I came away wondering again whether it isn’t a bit strange to focus solely on this “thing” called trust, when trust is only one of several aspects of human relating. What about fear, sadness, irritation, enthusiasm, love, disappointment, exclusion, rivalry or anger? Surely these all deserve our attention.

For example, I recall one day an old friend expressing what felt like vicious anger towards me. His words felt pretty much out of the blue. I notice that that memory has lingered in my mind ever since. I would still trust him in most things, but in that moment something precious was lost. So trust and (expressed) anger can be intimately connected.

One person in the workshop wondered whether trusting someone could be understood as “anticipating that they won’t do harm to us”. I suspect we just need to feel safe enough with other people to be able to “go on together”.

Alison Donaldson

Related reading

Alison Donaldson & Rob Warwick: The emergence of trusting relationships: Stories and Reflections. Report for Roffey Park, 2016.

Alison Donaldson & Rob Warwick: Trust and the emotional bank account: using stories to prompt learning. Strategic Briefing for Croner Publications, 2016.

The original research was funded by Roffey Park.

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