“None of us knows what might happen even the next minute, yet still we go forward. Because we trust. Because we have Faith.”
Paul Coelho, Brida
Trust is the essential ingredient for effective ‘helping’ relationships, whether the helper is an education or healthcare professional, a mentor, coach or volunteer befriender. A relationship with minimal or no trust makes the prospect of successful behaviour change less likely, or at least much harder to achieve. A simple test is to think of a helping relationship you might have experienced and where you felt trust was low, or even absent. What was the affect on your motivation to change, your openness to share, your belief in your capability to change? Understanding how trust works, and how to build it effectively is an essential competence for anyone involved in supporting or helping others.
What do we mean by trust?
Building trust intertwines emotional and logical aspects. Deciding to trust someone, like all decisions, involves taking a calculated risk, for the outcome isn’t guaranteed. Logically we assess probabilities of gain and loss; we weigh up options and calculate the chance of achieving desired outcomes. But we also feel when we can trust someone.
Trust is not easily given and developing a trusting relationship takes time, especially for clients lacking in confidence or self esteem. Clients need to feel reassured and confident in their helper if they are to share some of their innermost thoughts, vulnerabilities, behaviours and associated emotions. This openness is directly related to the level of trust the client feels and the quality of the relationship that the helper has managed to build.
Trust in decision making
People seek support when encountering problems or challenges: they may face losing their job, or conversely want to succeed in a new role; they may face a career direction decision; or need help with a difficult personal or domestic situation. All are situations involving an element of personal risk attached in some way. Our nervous systems are programmed to send us warning systems to beware risky situations, so trust helps create an environment where we feel safer and more able to consider taking decisions and actions that we might have avoided.
How trust builds in a helping relationship
Deciding to trust a helper begins to some extent before the first client/helper conversation – through word of mouth recommendations, the helper’s track record working with other clients, their training and qualifications. All play a part in reassuring clients that the helper has the right credibility and experience to help them. Reputation also sets up expectations which the helper needs to meet consistently every step along the way.
Relational skills and attributes
Building trust lies in the skilful application of relational skills from the outset. From the first point of contact the helper needs to be able to establish rapport and make a connection that feels authentic.
Skilled helpers attune to their clients quickly – whether it’s by noticing body language, speed and tone of voice, language markers, noticing personal preferences and drivers. Attentive listening and enquiry skills establish a collaborative feel to the relationship which in itself helps develop the client’s trust in the helper that they are there for them. Operating from a mindset of openness and positive intent further demonstrates to the client that the helper is not there to judge, which again helps to build trust, defuse any feelings of suspicion and encourages the client to share more.
At the initial meeting the helper should spend time explaining how the relationship will work. They establish the boundaries and frameworks within which conversations will take place. This includes the focus and outcomes of the conversation, mutual roles and responsibilities, and degrees of confidentiality. As well as being professional good practice, this phase conveys reassurance to the client that they are in safe hands and creates the conditions for trust to build. In effect, this acts as a ‘psychological contract’ reinforcing the safety and security of the helping conversations and relationship.
Don’t take trust for granted
It takes care and attention to establish, nurture and maintain trust. It’s important that helpers are consistent in what they do and how they do it, that they don’t do anything to undermine the trust they have built with their client. Once shaken, trust is hard to re-build, despite the best intention and effort from the helper. There will always remain a reluctance on the client’s side to engage in the relationship in the same way, and the potential that the helping relationship initially offered may not be fully realised.