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.

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