In our past blog post we shared our model for getting trust right and discussed three stages of natural trust-erosion. You can read part two here. The good news is that no matter where you are in the model, no matter how bad the environment is, you can always do the work of building trust. In this blog post, we’re sharing the three stages of trust-building, and how you can navigate these stages with simple and consistent actions.
Stage One: Common Ground
The first stage of trust is finding common ground. This is a deliberate attempt to undo the “us-them” bias in our brains. We are always delighted when we realize that we have something in common with another person. If we don’t know them yet, we tend to automatically move them to the “us” category in our minds. But even with someone we already know and firmly dislike, finding common ground tends to have a positive effect. The brain assesses people based on how similar or different they are from us, so the more common ground you find, the harder it is to harbor ill will, and it paves the way to at least a little more willingness to get to know someone better.
There are several ways to facilitate this process in yourself and if you lead a group or team.
As an individual, the idea is to deliberately find people you don’t know well or you don’t feel comfortable with and look for something you have in common. The more you establish that you have something in common with others, the more trust you build around you. This increases the level of psychological safety you feel in the group, and you’ll find yourself engaging more and feeling less stressed. But even beyond yourself, you will also be increasing levels of trust in everyone you interact with. That influences the whole system.
If you manage a team or lead a group, there are questions you can ask or activities you can facilitate in meetings that are specifically designed to help people see that they have things in common. One example activity is to have people write a list of ten basic facts about themselves. You can have a list of examples to get the ball rolling: “I am a middle child”, “I grew up in the Midwest”, “I love the Cowboys”, “I played basketball in high school”, “I had the measles when I was young”. Then you can have people take turns sharing their list and seeing who has each item in common with them. You can also have people get into small groups of two or three to discuss something everyone has in common and share back with the larger group.
These activities are fun and often done in team building offsites, but it’s not enough to do them once a year or even once per quarter. You want to find some way to make the process consistent, such as a ritual that is part of a regular weekly or monthly meeting. Finding common ground once provides a few moments of pleasure, but finding common ground over and over again paves the way to curiosity and a desire for friendship.
That curiosity and desire to get to know someone more is what brings you to stage two.
Stage Two: Deliberate Understanding
Finding common ground is pleasant, but too superficial to provide a foundation of trust. In order to have a chance at building real trust, we need to get into each other’s heads and get to know how others think and feel, and this has to be done deliberately and consistently. It goes beyond “being a good listener” to deeply trying to understand what it feels like to be in another person’s shoes. We want to understand how they think and feel and be surprised and interested in the differences in how we perceive and experience the world.
This level of understanding takes a lot of effort and it will not happen naturally unless people are highly motivated to get to know each other well. If you think about the times you made your best friends, it may have been when you were in a situation where you needed to get to know new people well in order to thrive. This often happens with a group of incoming freshmen in a new school or program, or a large group of new trainees in an organization. It can happen if you’re on a trip by yourself with a group of other single travelers, or on a new project team at work when you have all been displaced from your regular teams. But these types of life situations are few and far between, and often have to be orchestrated. In most situations we get to know each other at a superficial level and then get involved in our tasks without doing the work of taking relationships to the next level.
However, if you are willing to commit to the trust-building process, the actual steps to take are not overly hard. They simply require intention and effort put towards relationship building. Again, you can influence the system you are in as an individual or as a leader.
As an individual, your job is to work consistently and deliberately at two things: (1) work to understand what it feels like to be in the shoes of another person, and (2) share with others what it feels like to be in your shoes. You do this by asking questions from a place of genuine curiosity and listening deeply to the response, always wondering – what is the experience like from their perspective? How do they think about it? How do they see it? Here are a few examples of questions: “How do you generally think through this type of problem?” “How do you normally make that decision?” “What is it that drives your passion around this project?” “What got you excited about going into this field?” “What do you like most about this book / this church / this group of people / this activity, this team, etc.” Keep in mind that understanding someone’s perspective in no way means that you agree with or endorse their position. You might. You might not. But that’s not the point. The only point is to understand it. When you think you understand it, tell them what you think you heard and let them tell you if you got it right. If you didn’t, have them explain again.
You also want to develop a practice of sharing your thinking process with others during your normal conversations – but without imposing your opinions on them. For example, if someone asks for your opinion on a project, instead of just saying, “sure I agree”, say “I agree because….” and add just a little bit of why it made sense to you. If you are sharing what you did over the weekend, instead of saying, “I went skiing”, say “I love skiing because it’s one time my mind goes completely still – and this resort was breathtaking”
If you manage a team, you can facilitate this type of deeper dialogue in facilitated meetings where you discuss issues or learn together. There are many methods you can use to make sure everyone feels fully heard and acknowledged, for example:
- You can have ground rules that everyone listens fully to each opinion and an expectation that this meeting may take a couple of hours or longer.
- During the meeting you may ask some people to share how they believe others in the room think or feel about the issue and reality check how close they got.
- You can also have people share how hearing from others gives them new ideas or has them making new connections, and work into a conversation where people build on each other’s ideas.
It’s not necessary to use this meeting to build consensus or put any pressure on people to come to a resolution. The point of these meetings is to get people in each other’s shoes, really deeply understanding issues from all of the different perspectives. If you want to make sure the time is productive, you can use it as a “discovery session” and follow up with a shorter more business-like meeting where a decision is made.
You might think this is too much work to be worth it. But this is the only way to get to a place of real trust and closeness and build the powerful foundation that is critical to top performance. Even if, and especially if, you are mostly a task-oriented person, doing this work will benefit you tenfold or more in terms of results.
Getting to know people can be really interesting, feel great, and help you build some great relationships. It can also make your family, workplace, or neighborhood a much happier place, but the kind of trust that fuels the highest performing teams comes at an even higher level.
Stage Three: Resolving Issues Together
The highest level of trust emerges when things go wrong – when people feel fearful, frustrated, awkward, miserable, or completely tapped out, and they learn who will stick by them. High stakes situations can bring stage two teams together in a powerful way, but you don’t have to create a catastrophe to get to stage three.
In stage three you are learning who to trust by using the assessment statement from our first article: “when things go wrong, can I trust that we’ll stick together to work things out?” And while you may not want to test this theory by manufacturing a big misunderstanding or a work crisis, you can use the same deliberate process we have used in the other two stages – to create consistent interactive practices that show people they can depend on each other.
The idea is to build confidence that issues can be discussed and worked through as they arise. Start small, and then grow to higher stakes discussions as you or your group is ready.
As an individual, practice talking to people about things that don’t really bother you much, but that require you to share an opinion that they might not agree with, or to share something about yourself that may feel awkward. It’s almost like taking your stage two conversations up a level. Maybe venture a question or an opinion about politics or religion – staying open all the while and making it safe for someone to feel differently. You can always start with something like, “you don’t have to answer me if you don’t feel comfortable, but I’m curious if you have an opinion about this health insurance bill. It seems like a lot of people are against it, but I thought it seemed really helpful”.
The point is to take your already strong relationships to the highest level possible by introducing respectful disagreements. You make it obviously safe for them to disagree with you, and you also make it safe for them to not discuss the topic. But if you already have a good relationship with someone, chances are these may be some of the richest conversations you have. And not only do they bring you closer, but you’ve created the highest level of trust by making it safe to disagree. You can also take relationships that are already strong into higher stress situations – for example, invite someone to take on a challenge with you, something that will surely involve moments of failure, and this builds a comfort level for when things go wrong.
If you manage a team, you likely will not have to hunt very far for issues, but your job in this case is to get your team to stage two and then start a practice of gently facilitating conversations about the elephant in the room. The books Crucial Conversations, Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and the Anatomy of Peace all offer concepts, exercises, and examples, and might also be good books for the team to read together. This sets the team on a path of co-creating a safe environment for themselves and takes you out of the driver’s seat.
If you are a leader, know that it’s highly unlikely that your team will “naturally” get to stage three of trust building and into the psychologically safe zone that our trust model shows. However, the model also simplifies the process. There are only three stages, and if you consciously integrate practices that naturally facilitate people through the stages of trust-building, you can build a powerful culture in as little as nine months.
If you don’t lead your team, you don’t have to wait around for your boss to take action. As an individual, you can integrate all of these practices into your interactions with your peers, and you will notice a difference, not just in your individual experience – but in that of the team as well. You may even emerge as a leader within your organization.
You can also use these same techniques to bring your family closer, improve your relationship with your spouse, or develop an inner circle of close friends. Every person is a significant variable within the system. You affect every system you are in.
So, the real question is, how do you want to participate in the people systems you are a part of? Do you want to be an agent of trust? Or, by default, do you want to be a part of the erosion?