Why does trust matter?
I want to explore how trust is especially relevant to coaching – making it possible in the first place, and also different from many traditional ways of thinking.
It seems to me that trust is what makes living possible – in every sense. We don’t set foot outside unless we trust that the path we tread on is not some form of holographic image hiding a bottomless crevasse. So it is with all of living.
In my coaching practice trust is the most important result, or outcome, to establish first, because coaching involves important uncertainties for the Coachee. For example, Coaching is about:
- Enabling someone to find the confidence, and curiosity, to take on further learning – open up to what they don’t know
- Speaking to opportunities people have, rather than problems.
- Enabling someone to take risks – disclosing to themselves, let alone another person – matters that they have not found the right space to consider elsewhere.
Coaching also is starting to challenge many fundamental structures we have in society. Quite rightly we aim to form structures that recognise and give authority to people who have the best information and ability to make sense of it to know what is best to do.
However in Coaching, the customer is king. Because they have the best knowledge about what matters to them. We are not dealing with remedial issues, e.g. where someone has patterns of behaviour categorised by society as dysfunctional. There are many treatments that are appropriate for these other still important, and even urgent, matters.
Coaching is different.
We are approaching people as functional, i.e. able to live normally, and successfully, already, and who are interested in becoming more functional in what they already successfully achieve in life and/or work.
The work of coaching starts with having to build the trust that the coach has something to bring to the Coachee’s world. And the Coachee alone is the authority who will decide this.
This raises some important questions about the sort of process which is appropriate to this. It seems to me there is something in the idea of trust that is central to this process.
Exploring what trust means
Simple definition: The word is reported as first deriving from old Norse and used in the sense of being strong. Today, a more common definition is simply – Firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something .
Moving on to more studied definitions: Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson suggested that the development of basic trust is the first state of psychosocial development occurring, or failing, during the first two years of life. It is an essential foundation for life. However, Erikson also stressed his work was a tool to think with rather than a factual analysis. Its purpose then is to provide a framework within which development can be considered further, rather than accurate and complete understanding .
Psychology sets out to achieve this rigour of complete understanding, however there is the inclination to see trust as more of the nature of an emotion – not necessarily a rational process. It is a state of perception – expectation - which can bring positive feelings. How it is achieved and why it is sought is still difficult to study/research.
Trust or lack of it isn’t produced through rational thought processes but are processed according to a mental script we may not even know we follow unless we have been in therapy or have come to a real understanding of how our childhood experiences have affected us. Even so, in the moment, we may not recognize the patterns. 
This suggests that trust is still somewhat difficult to measure by traditional methods – such as those used by formal Psychology. However, the need, and demand, for understanding people has seen much other work elsewhere. They can also inform more about understanding trust.
Other approaches that might inform how to give attention to what is involved in creating trust appropriate to Coaching.
There are many, many, different schools, or approaches, to understanding people in the broader context of their lives.
A useful overview and short summary, of how this idea of functional attention to another person has developed, particularly in counselling, which has some important similarities to coaching, is offered as:
- Psychodynamic, refers to the invisible and changeable nature of living. Sometimes we make choices (of feelings); sometimes feelings escalate to become emotions and are dominant, described as:
… unconscious (hidden/not admitted or disclosed) – where (early) hidden trauma can lurk thro life. And hence reference to these hidden drivers of behaviour, such as id ego and superego. As with most things it is easier/ more urgent to start with – crisis’.
- Humanistic starts from the uniqueness of a person’s entity due to their unique perception and experience; whilst also taking a positive view - starting with the opportunity compared with other concerns of starting with the problem.
Humanistic starts from looking for opportunities rather than the problems a person faces. [hence coaching’s big big difference]. Humanistic starts with the search for the interest and capability to learn – when the circumstances fit the equation.
- Behavioural is born out of what (little) can be subjected to schematic research and evidence. This results nevertheless in some important expert lead approaches to important issues.
Diagnostic (according to best known to date) frameworks leads to a directive approach – where the expert knows best what is missing or present in achieving (current views about what is) normal standards of behaviour and directs attention from this external framework – ignoring internal frameworks on the assumption that people have very limited internal learning awareness and need direction.
Each of these perspectives are often seen as three different ‘schools’ – or separate lenses - by which to help people.
Psychoanalytic and Behavioural schools often create more of a framework of conventional authority for the practitioner to work to, and they are also more involved where there is a form of accepted dysfunction that enables more authoritative control and direction of the interpersonal process to be exercised.
There may be real value in trusting an external authority. For much of medicine, we have such trust. However, there are also limitations to how all knowing medicine can be. As well as a need for strict rules – that can be trusted - about straying from what is known. Some approaches may make the issue of trusting the experience another person, as an expert, wants to bring to be quite different from the traditional models of how expertise is based. How to deal with a patient who is the best expert in themselves is such a challenge.
Coaching deals with people who exercise choice about what is serving their needs. The contracting process becomes quite different, as the expertise needed can be quite different, which is where establishing trust becomes essential.
Towards a Framework that Integrates
The framework that has most informed me about how I understand the importance of developing trust, in practice, is best summarised by R Carkhuff. Carkhuff’s framework, summarised below, was a work aiming to bring together the various approaches, mentioned earlier, into a more integrative approach. This can also inform the issue of creating trust more appropriate to the circumstances of Coaching
The framework is still lacking reference to explicit behaviour, which still defies our comprehensive understanding. It is laid out as a progressive pattern. Albeit a simplification of principles, that can be different in detail of events, but which are still a stable pattern in the process overall.
3.1 Key principle
The most important part of the framework is the focus on working from the behaviour of the other person – i.e. not the coach.
- Carkhuff’s work uses the term Self Exploration which is defined as the extent of willingness by the Coachee to engage in sharing personally relevant awareness in the context of the relationship.
- In effect this is an identification of the process of trust developing. As the person concerned builds their confidence in the space, and conditions, being created for them.
3.2 Key behaviours, by the Coach, that have most influence on this trust factor
It’s also about the effect of coach behaviours, NOT the intention. Observed effects - the verbal and behavioural expressions, by the coach ….
- Empathy: attend to and add to the verbal expressions of the other; as evidenced by the reaction that accepts and builds further their appreciation of where they are.
- Respect: effective at getting across valuing, caring and interest in the other person.
- Genuineness: effective at getting across being fully themselves, with consistency and spontaneity (not rehearsed.)
- Self-disclosure: effective at getting across similar levels of intimate sharing appropriate to the increasing levels of disclosure by the other person – compared with the politenesses of casual exchanges.
- Specificity: effective at getting across the value of the other person by increasingly identifying what matters in practical terms.
- Confrontation: effective at getting the other person to want to engage effectively with possible discrepancies that arise in the picture presented by the other person.
- Immediacy: effective at getting attention and focus to the immediate and or wider picture of interaction between both parties.
3.3 The need to match the behaviours provided by Self exploration
The important skill, here, is for the Coach to choose behaviours that respond to, and match the level of self-exploration offered.
The order of these behaviours normally goes through stages where important psychological contracting/trust building behaviours (facilitative) come before more direct problem solving / learning type behaviours (action oriented).
Empathy, respect and genuineness are considered to be the key facilitative behaviours. These three facilitative behaviours are central to the stage of building trust between the Coach and Coachee.
In my terms, I often practice this as a form of sincere interest and listening – repeatedly – to what the other person is saying. Once I show I understand and accept what is often initial testing of me, in the initial stages, the coachee then moves on to deeper levels of self exploration and expression that starts more explicit exploration of the agenda that interests them.
I am often surprised by the way the agenda opens up more and more according to the trust that I can establish through these behaviours.
Comparing an integrated framework with these three contrasting approaches:
Much of Psychodynamics, and the behavioural approach, rely a lot on the direction of creating the conditions for action. For experts working in these professions, the equivalent of facilitative is ‘diagnosis’ that then moves into prescribing expert with derived solutions as the next ‘action phase’.
I can certainly appreciate the challenge of dealing with the invisible drivers that the psychodynamic approach attempts to work with. However, there is still too much emphasis on ‘negative’ drivers in much of the approach.
Elements of the Psychoanalytical approach, such as appreciating drivers that are less visible, and the Behavioural approach, focussing on real change in behaviour as an outcome are also relevant to Coaching.
Other practical outcomes, than just creating Trust, are also essential. However, Trust is an essential part of generating concentration, and orientation by the coachee, which are essential to the more action oriented, or problem solving approach.
Some demonstrable, and effective learning has to result – either in the form of sudden insight, or in the form of an action plan for continuing to progressively learn about something.
The learning involved is often measured by needing to be a visible outcome to others.
However, unless trust is established first, it is unlikely the dialogue will progress to this learning by just carrying out a simple problem solving type of conversation.
The trust building process is the feature that I consider the humanistic school emphasises. This emphasis, however, can result in this approach being seen as less concerned with a focus on that end result.
How does this work for me in practice
I have found the use of more facilitative behaviours, central to the trust building process, important in practice to a wide range of opportunities.
The context of Organisations
I have found, in practice, the most important, and valued, opportunities for bringing these important conditions for creating trust are best evident in organisations.
Organisations are a classic form of collaborative enterprise. However, the way collaboration is – organised – does sometimes result in a simplification of the challenges involved.
Providing the standard of facilitative conditions necessary to establish connections that people trust can still be a challenge for those involved. Simpler methods of direction are preferred – even with the risks, and costs, they can bring.
Increasingly, the greatest challenge for leaders, and leadership, is more about getting people to make a free choice to follow them, rather than rely on knowing the answer they want and exercising various threats to enforce following, and obedience.
Likewise, many other classic methods of bringing learning into organisational behaviour can benefit from a facilitative, also combined with the action oriented approach.
A coaching approach to training
Ramamurthy Krishna’s blog on a coaching approach to training is a theme that I find myself using in practice.
The learning that training is after, often requires enabling each person to find their own path to the learning involved. One path fits all is not necessarily the best approach to learning.
Team Coaching is an important example of how the use of a coaching approach can achieve significant results.
This can also result in the extension of the facilitative/coaching approach to what is in effect a form of mediation.
A coaching approach, with a group or team can enable the individuals involved to better understand themselves, and how they may be perceived by others. This can then significantly raise the level of live feedback from all involved. Similar perspectives from different people can then be important validation of feedback; and a practical opportunity to practice adjustment.
Peer group facilitation
A growing form of team coaching where the typical structure of authority (as present with teams in organisations) is deliberately neutralised.
The 360 approach
At the individual level, use of a 360 approach can also bring important clarity through the use of a more coaching approach – e.g. using a more qualitative approach to generating and interpreting data than a statistically based model. Facilitating the expression, and interpretation of feedback is important.
The Development Centre rather than the Assessment Centre approach
The same is true of how a development centre for individuals can be also powerful when using this approach, and the data is for their personal use. Those involved may then disclose the data to the organisation with more assurance than just the external objectivity of the assessment centre.
The growth – albeit cautiously – of Internal Coaching’ is another example of how support of the use of a coaching/facilitative/trust building approach can bring significant benefits. The voluntary nature of much Internal Coaching demonstrates an important resource in how people want to contribute in ways that are typically still outside the narrow job description.
Conclusions and next steps
- Trust is an important lens for appreciating how Coaching really can work: Exploring, and expressing, the way that trust is an important lens for understanding Coaching – through the facilitative approach - has been very helpful, for myself.
It is important to build awareness of the factors that the ambitions for coaching, held by many people, are more soundly based on.
- It is important to appreciate what is involved in getting trust to work: As with many things, what can be complex can be seen as taking too much time and trouble, for some, especially when there are pressures on observable results. Likewise, when you have the skill to do something right, it can take no time at all, by comparison.
- The evidence I can also observe in fellow practitioners is powerful: I am always impressed by the levels of – albeit – still intuitive skills that many highly successful fellow practitioners bring to their use of these facilitative, and trust building, practices and skills. The real results that are then achieved when the ‘trust contract’ is well established are also really appreciated by those involved.
- More detailed learning about what is involved in building how trust can add value is still needed: There is also obviously a lot more to be done to identify the sorts of behaviours that operate across the dynamic of any dialogue; for example, non-verbal signals are often much more potent and meaningful than verbal signals. Much communication is also often in the form of ‘code’ more than explicit.
- Towards a more integrative approach that appreciates the place of, and importance of building trust: There is much of value in each and all of the various schools or systems of thought, about what might be involved in Coaching. However it is important to work more towards the appreciation of how this all works within a bigger, more integrative picture, rather than to promote one particular school as the answer.
My question to you:
- Do you take notice of how trust is developing in dialogue you are having?
- How would you describe what factors you are using to track it?
 Carkhuff R.R. (1969), Helping and Human Relations (Vols 1 & 2). New York, NY: Holt, Rhinehart, & Winston.