Becoming a Trust-Builder

If you’ve ever been to summer camp, completed a ropes course, or participated in a corporate team-building exercise, there’s a fair chance you’ve done a trust fall. You know the drill. You stand on top of something with your arms across your chest. Several people – friends, colleagues or people you don’t know at all — lock arms on the ground below you. You may even be blindfolded. And then the moment comes and you slowly fall backward into a net of human arms. If you haven’t been a jerk to those folks all week, chances are the arms will hold your weight and everyone will cheer wildly. If you have been a jerk, well . . . good luck, partner.

Trust is an interesting thing. People come into your world with varied capacities to trust. Some people trust easily and at times may trust too easily. For others, trust doesn’t come easily at all. Our individual capacity to trust is likely linked to our personality and especially to our past experiences. Every significant human interaction we have provides an opportunity to either build or destroy our capacity to trust, a bit at a time. This also means that every interaction you have with someone is a powerful opportunity for you to negatively or positively influence that person’s capacity to trust. This isn’t only about building their trust in you. More importantly, it’s about the role you play in their capacity to trust. If they lose trust in you, they will be less likely to trust the next person they meet. But if you’re trustworthy in your relationships, you in turn help the people in your life build healthy, trusting relationships with others.

This is tremendously important in all human interactions. Whether you’re a foster parent attempting to build trust with the children in your home, a social worker building trust with a family, or an administrator or manager building trust among your staff, the importance of building trust in your relationships cannot be overstated.

It can be particularly challenging to build trust when collaborating with other organizations, agencies and communities of faith to serve children and families in your community. Collaboration is absolutely essential to make the biggest impact possible in the foster care space. But collaboration comes with many challenges, and perhaps the most significant challenge you’ll face is in your attempt to build trust.

There are a few reasons trust can be difficult to build in collaborative relationships in this space. Some may sound familiar to you:

  1. You want to collaborate with other organizations, but you’re competing for the same government contracts, donors and community partners. If you help them win, it feels like you lose.
  2. You want to collaborate with others doing similar things, but you’re pretty sure you’re doing it better than they are. Why wouldn’t everyone just come to your organization since you’re clearly doing a better job?
  3. There are people in your community who would be good to collaborate with, but let’s be real, you just don’t like them that much. They can be annoying, overbearing or selfish.

All of these would be understandable reasons not to collaborate with others except for one very important thing: If you could find a way to build trust and work together, you’d help far more children and families than you ever will by doing your own thing. When we don’t collaborate, we duplicate efforts, miss opportunities, and lose out on information that could improve outcomes many times over. Put another, less positive, way: If we don’t work together, we hurt the very kids and families we could help.

And so, it starts with you. You can’t magically make everyone else a trust-builder. But you can be one. You can make deliberate commitments to help others build trust in you and build their capacity to in turn trust others. Here are some simple commitments you can make to achieve that:

1. When I’m confused about something you’ve said or done, I’ll choose to believe the best.

Sometimes things happen that are neither clearly wrong or blatantly hurtful. Maybe they’re just a little confusing. Maybe a meeting was called and you weren’t invited or a decision was made that didn’t take your feelings into consideration. Maybe you received an email that felt a little cold. Is there anything here to confront someone about? Maybe, but probably not. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that others have tons of things going on in their lives and in their heads, and nearly all of those things have nothing to do with you and were most likely not done maliciously. If there’s any way to make a decision to trust and believe the best, everyone will be better off. If you just can’t shake that feeling and think there’s something more to it, see #2.

2. When hard things happen between us, I’ll come directly to you.

It’s amazingly easy to talk to someone else about how you have been hurt or offended and yet incredibly difficult to talk directly to the person who is the source of that hurt. While it might not always go well, relationships and collaborations are very often saved and can be strengthened through gracious and direct conflict resolution. Rarely does talking to third parties about an offense strengthen a relationship. It also damages the trust you might have with the person(s) you are talking to. After all, if you’re talking negatively about someone else to me, who’s to say you aren’t talking negatively about me to others?

3. When you come directly to me, I will listen and take responsibility for mistakes I’ve made and commitments I have broken.

Nobody likes to be confronted. And rarely when confronted do we feel the accusations are 100% accurate. However, if we commit to listening well without immediately becoming defensive, we can make real progress. While you may not be 100% responsible for what you are being confronted about, look for any amount of truth in what’s being said. And when you see that truth, take responsibility for it. If we focus our attention on taking responsibility for the things which are true and resist the temptation to dwell on the things which aren’t true, everyone is better off. 

4. When others speak negatively about you, I will share your strengths with them and encourage them to go directly to you (see number two).

When someone comes to you talking about someone else, sometimes it is blatant mudslinging. But more often than not, it comes more subtly. It might start out with “I need to get your advice about working with (fill in the blank).” Or it could start with, “(Fill in the blank) is a great person –  l love them to death. It’s just that I am concerned that…” So what can we do when we see this coming? When I hear those words, one thing I’ve done is respond with something like, “That must be frustrating. But knowing (fill in the blank), I’d be surprised if they wouldn’t be willing to have a conversation with you about that. I’ve always found them to be super approachable.” By doing this, you have (1) validated the person talking to you without joining them in negative talk, (2) affirmed the person being discussed, and (3) redirected the person with whom you are speaking back to the person that can bring resolution to the situation.

5. When good things happen, I’ll share credit with you and others.

Regardless of what you might think about the egos of professional athletes, one thing I’ve found intriguing is how so many of them handle questions from the press. Have you ever noticed a well-respected athlete at a press conference? When asked about a great play they’ve made, they don’t allow the attention to stay on them, but will instead share the credit. For example they’ll respond to questions with, “I tell you what, my O-line fought so hard for that. When our backs were against the wall they showed so much heart.” When we share credit with others in front of donors, other organizations, and the press, it accomplishes two things. First, it is simply truth-telling. Nothing worth doing gets accomplished without some kind of help from others. You’re not making stuff up to make someone else feel good, but simply acknowledging that someone else’s contribution made winning possible. Second, when a community partner hears you’ve spoken positively about them in public, their trust in you grows exponentially. But of course, you don’t do it to make them trust you. You do it because it is the right thing to do.

Making these five commitments to the people in your life will significantly improve the strength of your relationships. You likely have more power than you know, including the power to significantly impact another’s capacity to trust in others either negatively or positively. If you choose to leverage your power to build trust with collaborative partners in your community, you will accumulate great friends. But most importantly, more children and families will get the help they need.

A version of this article first appeared in Jason Weber’s regular More Than Enough column of the Fostering Families Today magazine (May/June 2022 issue).  To learn more about how you or your organization can subscribe to this great resource, click here.