As a mediator, trust is an important value that comes up in every single situation that I have been involved in. Not surprising really. Relationships matter to people. Trust brings us into a deeper connection with each other. The nature of my work as a mediator is that I’m showing up because there has been stress in an important relationship that people need help to resolve or to find a way to manage. And no matter what the degree of that stress, trust has been compromised in some way. Whether I am working with a couple divorcing, colleagues in dispute, a work team recovering from a traumatic event or a leader needing to improve their skills, the topic of trust will surface.
As predictable as it is that trust will come up as an issue, the impact of compromised trust plays out in ways that can be quite unique, but mostly hurts us. Many of us have felt the impact of damaged trust in our relationships. It is hard to operate at your best when you don’t feel you can trust others or that they trust you. At the same time, when we operate in a trusting environment, it helps us to be our best selves and nurtures our well-being. Trusting work teams experience higher morale, initiative and innovation; things that employers can’t get with just offering a paycheque!
How do we learn about trust? Many of us equate it with things like being predictable in our behaviour and having our words and actions be congruent. And these are important parts of developing trust. I know I was told various things about trust. The words of my mother come to me. She would tell me, “Eleanor, I trust you until proven otherwise”. Wow, what a burden I felt from that statement! I became more fearful of making a mistake than really understanding trust. The fact is, we all make mistakes where we can quite unintentionally compromise trust. And in relationships that are important, where there has been genuine trust, it can be rebuilt. You probably heard statements from people like: “Trust has to be earned”. But trust, like love, is not just a noun. It is also an action, one that we can choose to take. This may be surprising to consider.
Thinking about trust as something that we actively create, is very different. When considered this way, it means that in order to have trust flourish, we need to offer trust. Like so many other elements of leadership, it means we have to go first. And risk that our trust, like risking love, will mean that it can be broken.
This is a huge challenge to us in many ways. When we have been hurt by trust broken, it creates pain, or even feelings of humiliation and betrayal. This makes us pull away, and quite naturally want to protect ourselves. The difficulty with this protective act of disengagement is that it can put us in a box where we may feel safer, but can be restrictive. It can cut us off from our own creative potential. It puts us in danger of seeing things through a distrusting “lens” and can keep us stuck.
Often, disengagement doesn’t work over time, particularly when the relationship is important, or the workplace demands that we interact with each other.
There are situations where trust cannot be fostered, such as when there is continuing deception or abuse. But for the majority of situations, where there has been trust and the relationship matters, it can be rebuilt.
The following ideas for rebuilding trust do not make up an exhaustive list. In fact, we are only limited by our own imagination. But here are some ideas:
- Acknowledge the break in trust. If someone has broken your trust, acknowledge your own feelings. Are you hurt, angry, scared, sad? What will you do with these intense emotions? How will these feelings guide you into a healthy way to manage without creating more hurt for you or the other person? To move forward we need to work with these feelings. Holding on to them will not bring us closer to the future we want. What will you need to do for yourself to allow forgiveness or reparation? If you broke someone’s trust, how can you offer acknowledgement? An apology or showing remorse may not restore trust, but it often helps with recovery. Over time, it is consistent trustworthy behaviours that will be required.
- Own your part. We make mistakes and can unintentionally hurt others. We create opportunity to make reparation when we take responsibility for our part. Whether we caused the break in trust, perpetuated distrust or responded poorly when someone else broke trust, there is a piece in every relationship that we contribute. What can you own as your part?
- Check out your own beliefs. Our beliefs inform our actions and our ability to rebuild trust. Do you believe people can change? What do you need from the other person (More of? Less of?) to move forward? What do you think they need? What can you offer?
- Risk honest dialogue. Deal with misunderstandings quickly by trying to understand what happened, why it happened and how it “landed” on the other person. The longer the situation goes unaddressed, the harder it is to repair. Use good conflict resolution skills: state your intention (i.e.: having a good relationship is important to you), be open, listen actively, clarify intentions, withhold judgement, and use a non-defensive style. If you are concerned about being able to move this forward on your own, seek out a third party to help coach you through it or facilitate the conversation.
- Push for self-awareness. What is this situation teaching you about yourself? Are you operating out of your “best self”? Are you operating with personal integrity? How will others understand your actions? How you handle yourself when trust is compromised will challenge your leadership skills, regardless of whether you have broken trust or someone has compromised yours.
- Create trust. As hard as it is to do, when trust is broken and the relationship is important, someone has to go first. Trust takes time. Look for or create small opportunities to offer trust. Be patient and keep trying.
- Watch your storytelling. Make sure you are not contributing to a distrusting culture by telling or repeating stories of trust violations. Consider how to share stories of trust rebuilt or how misunderstandings were resolved.
Developing a trusting relationship takes commitment and integrity. Rebuilding trust takes commitment, integrity, and great courage.
Let me know your thoughts on trust and rebuilding trust. I have learned a lot from shared experiences, so please don’t hesitate to share yours!