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How do we get to trust?

How do we get to trust?

by Moyra Mackie on April 23, 2016

“I don’t trust you”, she said.

A colleague and I were working with a group to understand more about their responses to an employee engagement survey.  We’d been hired by the management team because we had coached them and they, well yes, trusted us.

So how would you respond?

When it comes to trust words don’t work

I could recite the code of ethics I sign up to as an Accredited Coach.  Or I could point out that we wouldn’t last very long in this business if we couldn’t keep what we were told confidential.

I begin with the truth.

“Thank you.  That must have taken  a bit of courage to say that to us and in front of the group”

Don’t get me wrong, as she had said those words, I feel a sharp pain in my stomach, as if she’s physically punched me.  I’m aware my chest is tight and my palms are sweaty.

This person, who I will call Verity, had struck at the heart of who I believed myself to be.  As a coach, building and maintaining trust are essential for my work.

Yet feedback is always a gift.

What gets left unsaid is more toxic than what is brought into the open. Raising tough issues, especially about negative feelings, takes courage.

As I say those words of thanks I can feel my stress reducing.  I now process the thought that something about how we are as coaches and how the group is, has allowed Verity to take a risk and speak out.

Trust requires personal risk

How trust developsI think of it like rock climbing.  You reach up and out to find a firm foundation.  You’re careful to choose your spot and test it out, but ultimately the only way to know for sure is to let that spot take your weight.  If it does – if you’ve got support – you’re ready to take another risk.

Acknowledge risk and courage with transparency

After I thanked Verity I also told her how I was feeling.  I didn’t say I was hurt or offended.  That would have made it about me and we would then be competing on feelings.  I just described the physical impact.

You can’t get trust without mutual vulnerability

Verity was vulnerable in that moment as she did the difficult thing.  There had been some sharp intakes of breath at her openness.  I needed to share that vulnerable space with her.  I was human, I’d been knocked, but I also supported her.

The real truth was that I admired her

I knew that I would not have had the courage to do what she did in those circumstances.

The trust equation

David Maister, a lawyer by profession, in what I consider to be one of the best leadership books ever, identifies four elements:

David Maister's Trust EquationCredibility

What you know and what you say.


Do you do what you say you’re going to do?


How in touch are you with your emotions and the emotions of those around you?


What’s your real intention and motivation?  Do you care about the interests, emotions and goals of others?

As Maister says:

“The most effective, as well as the most common, sources of trustworthiness come from intimacy and self-orientation.  Both of these are relatively scarce, compared to credibility and reliability. People trust those with whom they are willing to talk about difficult agendas (intimacy), and those who demonstrate that they care (low self-orientation).”     – David Maister “The Trusted Advisor”

Many people, teams and organisations like to pretend that this emotional territory doesn’t exist at work, which is why we have an epidemic of disengagement.  For what else is employee engagement but a rather bloodless expression that really means trust?

Trust is a process that might require outside support

Months passed and our work with the organisation continued.  Until an off-site, where I was aware that Verity was at the core of a group of people who were unhappy with the direction of the department.   The challenge my colleague and I had as relational coaches and facilitators was to create the kind of supportive environment that would allow these feelings to emerge, yet safely contain the emotions of the group:

“The concept of containing is based on Jung’s (1946) idea that the therapy process can be likened to an alchemical container in which the ‘chemicals’ are the thoughts and feelings of both patient and analyst which have to be held safely. None of us are immune to losing our capacity to cope emotionally where our usual coping mechanisms (e.g. avoidance, suppression) are not up to the task.”  – Linda Finlay,  Relational Integrative Psychotherapy

We built the resilience of the group through collaborative exercises and strengthened their own coaching skills so that they could have high quality conversations with each other about personal experiences that had shaped them and the values that they held dear. We also watched Amanda Palmer’s emotionally raw TED talk about asking, being vulnerable and saying “thank you.”

On day two Verity stepped forward again

She had the courage to introduce what wasn’t being said by the group to the management team.  This time she did it having acknowledged that she had seen us as coaches provide her with consistent support and acceptance.

She felt safe enough to take a bigger risk and speak truth to power

This time it was the management team who stepped up, listened and occupied the vulnerable space with Verity.

Considerable progress was made that afternoon, as mutual understanding grew, distrust reduced and concrete commitments were made.  In closing, I asked people to volunteer what they were grateful for and many people gave thanks to Verity. They also thanked us as coaches for helping them to arrive at a more trustful space.


We ended with a lot of hugging and tears.  I’m now considering ending off-sites with white flowers (see the Amanda Palmer video for why) as well as developing a line of Mackie Consulting branded tissues.


Moyra Mackie

Moyra Mackie helps leaders and teams to work with courage, compassion and creativity. She is an executive coach and consultant and the founder of Mackie Consulting.

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