One of the most overused phrases I hear consultants say is: “Trust me.” The concept of trust is, to me, a complex and tricky one: let me elaborate.
I’m sitting in an airport lounge after an exhausting week, reflecting on the previous week’s events, as I like to do. A group of colleagues and I have just wrapped up an intense month-long set of workshops for a client and the presentation at the end of it went incredibly well; it was heartwarming and emotional to see our clients, who a month previously had seemed somewhat quiet and somewhat trepidatious, stand in front of one another and their superiors and present confidently, laughter and empathy for one another filling the room. It was, to use an odd word, joyous. I always make sure we ask for feedback, to refine and retune the next phase of activities, and in our ensuing conversations one senior guy spoke up: “We pretty quickly learned that we could trust you guys, you were on our side.”
There is a somewhat clichéd exercise that trainee actors go through called the “Trust Fall,” in which a person deliberately allows themselves to fall backwards with their eyes closed and arms folded across their chest, relying on the other members of the group to catch them. The value is twofold: obviously it teaches you the value of relying on others, but it is also teaches empathy, letting you know that when it is your time to catch, you know how they feel at that split second when gravity releases and they start falling backwards. Corny as it may be, it is a pretty powerful tool for team building, to understand both roles – that of “fall-er” and that of catcher.
One of the things we always do in our client workshops is straddle the line between teacher and pupil, making sure that we reassure the clients quickly, standing if you like at the “front” of the room and demonstrating that we have expertise and are proven in doing what we do successfully, but almost immediately, we absorb ourselves into their group, making sure we are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them in the “middle” of the room, and often, stepping back altogether and allowing them to lead us, putting ourselves at the “back” of the room. This behavior of modally mixing teacher and pupil is actually quite natural to us – we are curious by nature and not particularly ego-driven so moving fluidly between knowing and not-knowing actually comes very easily, but I think it is the act of vulnerability embedded in the latter that ironically engenders trust – learning or discovering together is actually a much more powerful way to create a safe space for each to trust the other, putting you at eye-level and establishing a deep sense of equality. Nothing is more powerful in our work than creating a safe space in which to fail, to not know, to explore new ideas without caring if they feel foolish and to “defer judgment,” a phrase we have printed on the walls of our conference rooms.
What we are in essence creating is in itself a “Trust Fall:” a place to fall backwards with your eyes closed and your arms folded and know that everyone is going to work hard to catch you.
Why am I telling you this? I come across a lot of people in my travels who feel that their extensive expertise, tenure, vast knowledge or simply, in many cases, the volume of their voice, somehow puts them in the position of being a guaranteed “trusted advisor.” I beg to differ. Trust doesn’t come from knowing, trust is born from safely not knowing. Trust doesn’t come from brash confidence, it comes from the quiet confidence of being vulnerable. Trust is not given, it is earned, and it is not earned through volume, but ironically through quiet.
The famous American journalist Eric Sevareid once said: “Better to trust a man who is frequently in error than one who is never in doubt,” and I firmly stand by this. By metaphorically moving between the front, the middle and the back of the room, we foster one of the most important behaviors we can apply both to business and to life – by being simultaneously teacher, peer and pupil, we are simultaneously leading, sharing and following, earning both the trust of each other and the confidence to be truly ourselves.