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.

A dynamic way of thinking about trust

51NhfzZgauL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_As part of our research, we are creating narrative accounts of how specific people have experienced the development (or demise) of trusting relationships.  We undertook to record the experience of just three people, which on the face of it might seem a very limited “sample”. Yet, to us, this approach makes complete sense, given that (i) stories enable us to describe and explore the complex, emergent nature of trust, and (ii) what we want are stories and vignettes that can be used in management education.

Our thinking is strongly informed by the writings of Ralph Stacey and colleagues, but it is always enlightening and reassuring to find additional underpinning for one’s chosen research method. I have just finished Henri Bortoft’s book Taking Appearance Seriously, which is a rich source of different thinking about experience and meaning. Three themes seem particularly pertinent for our work:

  1. A different approach to wholeness. Referring to the “hermeneutic circle”, Bortoft explains: “In order to understand the whole we must understand the parts, but in order to understand the parts we must understand the whole.” This gave me much food for thought regarding the case studies. What I take from it is that an individual’s experience is not just a subjective take on trust. Individuals are not completely separate beings. Rather, we are all connected. As Bortoft writes, “each person in their role in an organisation is in fact an expression of the organisation as a whole, so that we could say the whole organisation comes to expression, to some degree, through the role of each person in that organisation”. (For “organisation” perhaps one can also read “society”.)
  2. Phenomenology. Bortoft draws on traditions of scholarly thinking that invite us to take appearance (and experience) seriously. These include Goethe’s writing, as well as the phenomenological thinking that emerged in the 20th century (e.g. Heidegger and Gadamer). Bortoft also looks back to the history of western science to trace how we came to consider our sensory perception as unreliable and inferior, whereas mathematics and theoretical explanation came to be viewed as superior forms of knowledge. While theory-based scientific explanation has been extremely successful, it has had the effect of “shifting attention away from the phenomenon”, notes Bortoft.
  3. The importance of looking upstream. This means “shifting our attention away from what is experienced into the experiencing of it” (my italics). This seems extremely a propos for our research: we are thinking of trust not as a finished product of human relating but as a process. Like Bortoft, we are trying to shift our attention away from the thing called trust into the upstream process of how trust developed. How did trust evolve for the people we are speaking to? And what became possible after a sense of trust established itself – or what were the repercussions when a sense of trust evaporated.

Bortoft refers to the shift in attention (away from outcomes towards the process that got us to where we are) as the “dynamic way of thinking”. This fits well with our intention to focus on people’s experience of developing trusting relationships. We are not looking for abstract statements about trust, nor do we intend to make our results generalizable or repeatable, or even to create a general theory of trust.  Instead, we listen carefully to people relating their lived experience, and we hope that the resulting narrative accounts will inspire others to reflect on their own experience.

Alison Donaldson

Related reading

Henri Bortoft (2012). Taking appearance seriously: the dynamic way of seeing in Goethe and European thought, Floris Books.

Ralph Stacey (2012). Tools and Techniques of leadership and Management: meeting the challenge of complexity, Routledge.

Thinking about case studies and our narrative approach

In this project we have created three case studies, in which we explore with the selected individuals their experience of building trust in their working relationships. A conversation with colleagues, one of whom was John Shotter, gave us some new food for thought about our narrative approach. Many of John’s phrases stayed with me — for example:

  • “Narrative material can be illuminating not representative… Small details can be very illuminating.”
  • “Close observations are extremely informative.”
  • “Countless showings up of trust combine into a holistic [sense of trusting].”

I particularly like the last sentence, as it expresses so well the notion of trust being an emergent phenomenon — the outcome of many specific interactions.

On the selection of people for the case studies, Rob and I agreed that it would be best to choose people who were at one remove from me — i.e. not personal friends or colleagues, but people introduced to me by somebody I already know.

One of the people we selected was R (she asked for her stories to be anonymous). I reflected on my own experience of developing trust as I became acquainted with her. She and I had previously arranged to meet up one day at my house in Hove to talk about another topic of mutual interest: blogging. A few days before, I emailed her to ask if she would be willing to have a conversation about trust and be the subject of one of our case studies. She agreed, but as our meeting approached I began to feel that I would prefer to spend our few hours together getting to know one another (as well as talking about blogging, as planned). So when I met her at the station, I suggested we make a separate date to talk about trust. I noticed afterwards that I felt much more comfortable about my future interview-conversation with her. And by taking the opportunity to get to know one another at our first meeting, I think the level of trust between us was higher when we subsequently met up at her house for the trust interview.

Alison Donaldson

Our focus on specific relationships and interactions

For this project, we undertook three in-depth case studies. What we wanted to explore with people were some of their specific experiences of trust emerging (or collapsing). We were not looking for big generalisations about trust in society. Instead we were curious to see if we could identify some moments where there was a movement in a person’s sense of trusting another (or being trusted by another). In other words, we wanted to encourage interviewees to notice the specific human interactions and incidents in which trust or distrust emerged.  Continue reading Our focus on specific relationships and interactions