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Foundation of Trust

Updated: Aug 12, 2021

When we make friends with someone new, we get to know them. We spend some time finding out about their personal story, and get a vibe for them. Sooner or later, we figure out if that's a person who gets us, and whom we get too.

Something else happens when we're thrown together in a room with others. We might already know them from work, or they might be total strangers.

It's up to the facilitator to set the standards of behaviour, right up front. That's called "Foundation of Trust".

So, what is it, and why is it so important?

To illustrate, I'll give you some examples of poor behaviour.

A small group is discussing some fictional characters in a scenario. Some of the characters have degrees, but have been unable to find jobs for a few years. That's a devastating situation to be in, and plenty of people have thought about and even gone through with suicide, because they couldn't get employment. It takes guts to keep on looking and applying for work, when failure is all you find. Well, instead of considering these characters as courageous or resilient, some participants start degree-shaming them.

Another example is someone from another country, who speaks English as something other than their first language. This person needs a little extra time to process some new information in a workshop, and so they ask lots of questions. Other people start to jump in and talk over this person, pushing them out of the conversation and, effectively excluding them from the opportunity to learn something which interests them.

These, and so many other behaviours can make one person feel like they are not welcome. Well, a Foundation of Trust activity helps to avoid that from happening.

A Foundation of Trust activity allows participants to set their own standards of communication and behaviour. I like how this was done recently, using a fun application called Mentimeter live word cloud. Instead of calling out words, participants were invited to include as many as they liked, and all were as important as each other. The behaviours were discussed, so that participants could make some specific examples of what could and could not be acceptable. The resulting word cloud could be referred to whenever someone felt that others needed a reminder of the behaviour that all had signed up to.

The thing about that activity, though, is that participants can be quite general with their words to describe behaviours. One person's version of "speaking respectfully" could differ to another's. One person might see nothing wrong with swearing or blaspheming, while another might feel the need to run away when they hear those kinds of expressions (and say some prayers for the forgiveness of the blasphemer). One person might think it's okay to say bad things about a group of people based on a characteristic over which they have no control (like race, gender, age etc); while other people will be deeply offended by it.

You just never know, who will be in your group!

The trick, with a Foundation of Trust activity, is to not make anyone feel like they're an outsider. The trick is to make everyone feel "right", even when they hold views that can be divisive. Why? Because, if you get someone offside at the start, you have no chance of bringing them around at any point in the workshop, seminar, or class; and you need to remember why you're there.

The important thing, about Foundation of Trust, is actually to get each participant to feel safe in that space, at least for that time.

The facilitator's first priority is to help all participants to leave their unconscious bias at the door, and assist all to feel safe. Unconscious (or latent, or implicit) bias is something we all have, which makes us judge someone else as being less than ourselves. It's what causes racism, sexism, and other discriminations and prejudices. It's what causes people to think that their own freedom (of movement, of speech, whatever) is more important than the wellbeing of others or the community at large. It's what causes the us-versus-them mentality.

You might wonder why we wouldn't discuss why one way of thinking is wrong, while it's opposite is right. That's a fair call. When people come together for a seminar, workshop or class, they give up their time and all come together for one reason. They are united in one purpose, and that's common ground upon which the group can build appreciation and understanding. When you allow people to naturally absorb each other's wisdom regarding a common goal, something magical can happen - they can start to discover their commonalities and forget their differences. You can be impeded by group dynamics, or you can allow teamwork (through collaboration and healthy competition) help you to win the day!

A good facilitator, who thinks about the psychology of the group and understands group processes, will know how to establish that common ground. A part of that process, is to establish trust among the individuals in the group. It can include their own ideas of respect (like we saw in the Mentimeter word cloud), but the facilitator needs to set some specific standards in relation to what can and can't be said, and how people can (and cannot) express themselves. It's not a "nanny state", but it does make participants feel protected. If this part of the process is missed, then participants might feel vulnerable at some point.

It is especially important these days, because so many people have experienced trauma, or carry intergenerational trauma in the way they think, speak and behave.

One thing that I like to do, as part of my Foundation of Trust activity, is to give a reflection card to participants, so that two share a card between them. I'll invite some to look at the card from top or bottom, and some to look at it from left or right. Each perspective illustrates the card's character in a very different way. Participants then share what they think the character in the picture is doing. Each interpretation of the card is correct, so that everyone learns the first lesson (which is - just because one view is "right", doesn't mean other views are "wrong", so speak up respectfully and be heard). The second lesson is that you just might learn something amazing if you listen to someone else's point of view. The room fills with the murmurs of "a-ha!", as each participant gets the lessons of the card: a situation (and people) can be seen from different perspectives, and knowing that is truly empowering.

Thanks to Amy Zerner and Monte Farber for their kind permission to use their artwork in both my seminars/workshops, and in my posts. Here it is below - try meditating on it for a while, and let me know what you think!


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