I recently had the privilege of visiting the remote islands of St Kilda. We travelled there from North Uist on an inflatable dinghy. In doing so, we placed our lives in the hands of our helmsman, who had vast experience of the seas. We trusted him absolutely.
In exploring this theme of trust, I reflect on my own journey from the adversarial processes of the courtroom where I practised for many years, to the world of mediation which I now inhabit. In a sense, the court system with its win/lose paradigm is founded on the loss or absence of trust, at least between the warring parties. As a mediator in over 200 disputes and differences across the public and private sectors, in boardrooms and contracts, HR and teams , I know that trust is critical: in me as mediator, in the process, in the outcome achieved and, as negotiations take place, among the parties involved. Trust is the central issue: building, regaining and maintaining trust is the glue which leads people to a resolution of their difficulties.
Loss of trust is the cause of much conflict, increased cost, decreased profitability, staff turnover, loss of morale, stress and anxiety. Why does trust break down? It’s a complex mix. Careless language – just one word – can trigger serious disputes; perceptions we have formed are often misplaced – 90% of errors of thinking are due to errors in perception, according to the lateral thinking guru, Edward de Bono; we jump to conclusions quickly (in a "blink" according to author Malcolm Gladwell) and these are often wrong, based on incorrect assumptions about others; fear of losing face is a key driver for many of us; and different cultures and diverse values can cause further difficulties. The American commentator, Meg Wheatley, once said that "it’s not our differences which separate us but our judgments about each other".
So, how do we regain trust which, once broken, is hard to recover, but which is essential to resolution of conflicts, restoration of relationships, renewal of confidence and rebuilding of contracts?
To take an example, in a recent mediation, two senior business figures were able to look each other in the eye at the end and say "I trust you", after a lengthy history of animosity. What were the keys to this change? The opportunity to speak and be heard is vital. "I found my voice" is a remark I heard some time ago in a difficult workplace situation; the absence of effective communication leads, they say, to 80% of business breakdowns.
Allied to this is the ability to discover, understand and address underlying concerns, hopes, aspirations and fears. Separating people from the problem is important, always showing respect to the former and being rigorous on the latter – rather than personalising the issues as so often happens. Remembering to keep in mind the Big Picture, focussing on the overall objective and leaving crumbs on the table for others. Taking real care in the use of language, choosing words carefully. Developing a protocol or guidelines for future conduct and decision-making. All of these seem simple but are not easy in practice. This is where the structure of mediation, with the involvement of an impartial third party helping to provide benchmarks, can be so effective.
I believe that trust is built on competence, which in turn depends on the acquisition of skills which can be learned. This may require training for individuals, installation of systems in organisations, early warning procedures and dispute resolution protocols.
What does all this mean in the context of building teams, embarking on joint ventures and enhancing boardroom performance? How can we build trust in the first place? Here are some suggestions:
Communication: "I am not sure you understand that what you heard is not what I meant": a familiar refrain which can be avoided by listening, really listening to other people; being clear and specific in what you say – and about your objectives; showing courtesy and respect towards others; and asking questions throughout: "the more questions I ask, the more I find out", as Einstein reportedly said.
Collaboration and Cooperation: rather than adopting antagonistic or positional poses. Co-opetition is a phrase used by de Bono to characterise building on the arguments of others – rather than knocking them down, in the familiar Western Aristotelian tradition, so wasteful and unproductive, says de Bono.
Convergence and Common Ground: there is more which unites us than ever separates us, whether at home, in business or in politics, but our whole culture is dependent on looking for division and difference. We need to seek out what we share, where our interests intersect.
Consistency and Congruence: Do as you say and avoid uncertainty, ambiguity and arbitrariness. This needs to be aligned with the keeping of commitments, and integrity is essential: "Be the change you want to see in the world" said Gandhi, whose life was "an indivisible whole".
Compassion and Concern: we need to care and show that we care. Indifference, detachment and apparent lack of interest are all so easy to feel when we are busy: it is hard work to be really interested.
Courage: "the first of the human qualities", said Churchill. Doing what it takes to build trust is not risk free: you may need to give something in order to gain more. Anwar Sadat, then President of Egypt, said: "He who cannot change the very fabric of his thought will never be able to change reality and will never therefore make any progress."
Confidence: showing and having confidence in yourself and others, rather than self-doubt and suspicion. In the words of Jim Meehan, a British psychologist and poet, quoted in the excellent book The Speed of Trust by Stephen M.R. Covey: "Having spent many years trying to define the essentials of trust, I arrived at the position that if two people could say two things to each other and mean them, then there was the basis for real trust. The two things were ‘I mean you no harm’ and ‘I seek your greatest good’."