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.

Feeling excluded – detrimental for trust?

The other day I was in conversation with the author of a paper on the subject of trust, which included a number of case studies. I noticed that, as people talked about how their sense of trust in someone had changed, they often seemed to be pointing to feelings of inclusion or exclusion.  When I put this point to the author, after a slight delay he said “I don’t quite understand what you mean.” This made me realise that I needed to do a bit more explaining.

I personally first started to notice that feelings of exclusion and inclusion were a constant feature of human relating when I was studying organisational change with Ralph Stacey in the early 2000s. I learned that the sociologist Norbert Elias had conducted a whole study on the subject, which was published in his book “The established and the outsiders”.

As I was talking to the author of the paper on trust, I noticed that my theoretical explanation wasn’t helping much, so I decided to give some examples from his own case studies. That helped. It also prompted me to go back to our own case studies, developed for Roffey Park, to see just how often a sense of exclusion or inclusion shows up in them. Sure enough, the threat of being excluded, even when not mentioned explicitly, had clearly influenced people’s sense of trusting and being trusted.  For example, people spoke of trust collapsing in the context of: “not feeling recognised”; “feeling judged”; and “realising x talks about me behind my back”. More positively, a sense of inclusion seemed apparent when people said things like: “y respected my opinion”; “z would back me up in front of others”; and “transparency builds trust”.

What strikes me now is that, even if a person does not mention a particular word (such as “belonging” or “exclusion”), the phenomenon may be very present in the stories they tell. In terms of research methods, this makes me wonder about “thematic analysis” of interview transcripts. Presumably such analysis has to be strictly confined to the words actually used by interviewees. So could it be that this means there is a risk of missing something important that interviewees are pointing to but not spelling out?

I find it entirely understandable that we might lose trust in anyone who talks behind our backs, refuses to recognise us as human beings or otherwise prevents us from taking part in something that matters to us.

A propos all this, John Shotter pointed me to a paper he published some years ago called “Becoming someone: identity and belonging”. In it he wrote (among other things) that, to be able to play a proper part in society (or in an organisation or a group), “one must feel able to speak without having to struggle to have one’s voice heard”.

“Having a voice” seems to be essential if trust is to develop and survive.

Alison Donaldson

Norbert Elias. The established and the outsiders. Sage Publications, 1994.

John Shotter. Becoming someone: identity and belonging. In N. Coupland and J. Nussbaum (Eds.) Discourse and Lifespan Development. Sage, 1993, pp.5-27.