Trust in Uncertain Times

(and times might always be uncertain)
Photo by
Elsa Henderson
May 12, 2020
8 min

By Elsa Henderson & Carri Munn

Anytime groups of people come together to work under a common purpose, trusting relationships are at the heart of what makes it all work. We are now experiencing a large-scale moment of coming together as friends, neighbors and organizations. In order to respond effectively to the COVID-19 crisis, we need each other more than ever, and consequently we need to build trusting relationships more than ever too. Yet it is often especially challenging to build trust in such uncertain and volatile times as these. Particularly when our culture’s common form of trust is transactional (between you and me) rather than generative (you and me with the greater whole in mind).

How do we cultivate trust when we are being called to adapt to rapid shifts on our teams, in our communities and in the world at large?

In working with learning and action networks, the practitioners at Converge, invest in building trust among participants as the basis of fruitful collaboration. The principle we promote is Trust, Not Control. We consistently get questions about why we dedicate almost as much time to becoming connected as to taking action. Our response is that building trust is central to the work of cultivating networks. We don’t mean trust that’s based on liking or agreement. To work together, people don’t need to like each other, and they shouldn’t agree with each other on every issue. When we talk about trust, we mean trust for action — what we call trust for impact. The type of trusting relationships that can hold the tension through difficult conversations, engage in generative conflict, find a slice of common ground, and make collaboration a reality, not just an aspiration.

Let’s explore and contrast different kinds of trust and why cultivating trust is essential for collaborative action.

We are being called to adapt. What if our response is incompatible with adaptation?

In the face of global pandemic alongside economic and environmental crises, we are awash in uncertainty. We in dominant western culture have a way of working that privileges rationality over other forms of knowing. Collectively, we manage risks based on our capacity to accurately predict the future. Westerners tend to have a strong narrative of separation and fear that to be wrong risks a kind of exclusion that threatens people’s sense of wellbeing. And so we tend to choose control over trust.

When we relate this way, leading with certainty, there are things that we lose in our knowing. We lose our capacities to collaborate, to play, to co-create, and cultivate a sense of belonging. The effect is a default to urgency that collapses space for exploration. At a time when we are seeking to adapt to the changing circumstances to evolve our practices and our systems there isn’t room for newness and not knowing.

What if our inclinations toward certainty limit possibility and innovation?

What we see now are people clutching to control, imposing their power to order and define actions they believe will lead to outcomes they want. This posture allows people to make sense of and navigate situations with many moving parts. They do this by naming things, creating objectives, determining actions, and defining roles. Essentially planning and sequencing as many steps as possible. These actions are understandable given that control may feel stable when situations are complex and uncertain. A desire for evidence and over-reliance on best practices, can lead to a “cut and paste” approach where the past is applied to the future. This is unlikely to work in most cases and is especially ironic when the intended outcome is innovation. Yet what is lost in this translation?

In this context of control, people see trust as static and transactional. Transactional trust is viewed as quantifiable. It’s often employed as a strategy for ensuring other people’s behavior can be counted on in ways that reinforce our perception of control. We see this in hierarchical organizations where employment is used as a means of exchanging money for compliance. The arrangement has the effect of saying, “I trust you to play your role in executing the plan as we agreed. I trust you to stay in the box we created for you.” In this way trust is a proxy for loyalty to a power structure and a plan.

The fundamental challenge with transactional trust based on loyalty is that the world is changing. If your trust is predicated on me following a predetermined path, and new information or circumstances arise, I have no way to adapt while maintaining trust. This form of trust is not compatible with adaptation. So what kind of trust supports adaptation?

If change is a given, how can we build trust with the elasticity to withstand change?

Octavia Butler said, “Change is the one unavoidable, irresistible, ongoing reality of the universe.” If the world is always changing, we are seeking a deeper trust, beyond my belief in you, your word, or our plan. What makes it possible for me to trust you to respond to a shifting context and stay in connection with me? Our belief is that it’s a trust in the nature of life itself, a trust in change to be the only constant in our shared reality.

We recognize three dimensions of trust: Worldview, Sensing Capacity, and Discernment and Action. Worldview is your orientation to life as fundamentally interconnected. This is basic trust. Sensing Capacity refers to the inner awareness of the impulse of life unfolding in a moment by moment dance. This is trust of attuning to the emergent nature of life. Discernment and Action reflect how we respond at any given moment in service to creating conditions that generate life. This is trust that you will choose to act in service to the whole.

Trust our Worldview — Basic Trust

In her book Evolutionary Relationships, Patricia Albere describes basic trust as operating from a deeper reality that recognizes the underlying unity of the universe, or what in quantum physics is called the unified field. When we live from an awareness of the essential goodness and intrinsic oneness with the essence of life, we can choose to accept basic trust as a way of being. We understand that simply by being alive we belong to the web of life. When we view life as trustworthy, we don’t have to do anything to earn trust and acceptance.

To cultivate basic trust consider the following questions. Do you relate to yourself as part of the web of life? How do you experience awareness of vitality within the living systems you are a part of? How can you open your doors of perception to qualitative aspects of the system? For example, strength of relationships, harmony, diversity, creativity, and tensions. What conversations could you open to cultivate, catalyze and nurture connectivity within your ecosystem?

Immersive experiences in nature and practices like Heart Coherence can be useful in cultivating basic trust. These practices reflect back interconnection and the embodied experience of non-separation — something our ancestors have always known and most indigenous people continue to practice. In the Western world we are beginning to remember:

We have the choice between turning away and shutting down or turning toward and opening up.” Otto Scharmer

Trust our Capacity to Sense — Responsive Trust

With the backdrop of the worldview, we move into presence. Awareness of connection in ourselves and others creates a palpable presence. When we are functioning from wholeness others experience us as relaxed, receptive, and calm. There is a noticeable absence of urgency, reactivity, and sharpness in the way we relate to ourselves and each other. With Responsive Trust, I trust you to remember to tap in to the place where we are all connected. I trust you to stay in touch with the dimension we all have access to and use that awareness to inform your response in the physical world.

To begin to invite our capacity to sense we can ask the following questions. Do I trust my attunement to change? Can I sense where life is moving and allow myself to follow this impulse? The next question is, do I trust your attunement? Do I experience you as relating to change? Can we be open, in this flow together and engage with reality as it is?

Turning toward and opening takes less energy than turning away. Going against the flow of life requires resistance. The fight consumes precious energy and resources. Think about standing knee deep in the ocean as the waves arrive, or imagine swimming upstream. Moving with the current makes energy available, resisting the current takes energy. Basic trust is about being willing to move with the current and swim together. Maintaining trust while we’re swimming requires that we stay responsive, sensing into and following the current while maintaining communication and sharing our perspective on how we’re moving.

Trust our Discernment and Action — Generative Trust

With Generative Trust, I trust you to choose to act with the greater whole in mind. In a network, the common purpose is the orientation by which the members navigate change together and create shared meaning. Purpose is the bright star guiding our shared intention. There’s a felt sense of purpose between us which in turn deepens our connection. Our connections rely on our collective awareness and willingness to act with this larger purpose in mind. When we strike out on our own, taking steps that include only our self-interest, trust can easily be broken. Without awareness of shared interest it’s easy for us to engage in actions that work against the purpose and take away from the network’s capacity to thrive.

To cultivate our capacity for generative trust, we can consider the following. Can we stay in connection and adapt together without attempting to control a creative force that’s bigger than both of us? How can we share our inner perceptions of what we are sensing and responding to? Are we committed to the common purpose? Are we willing to slow down enough for us to align our perceptions and discern the way forward together?

As with jazz, there is a commitment in this way of co-creating to not play anything that is off key. To create something that harmonizes all unique notes and honors each musician by including them. In this collaboration, each individual is invited to engage and contribute. This highlights the importance of agency. Each individual has a choice in orienting toward the whole. In uncertain times, our trust in each other may be the most we can rely on. Our sense of being in this together provides shared meaning and may be our primary source of energy for creating the better world our hearts know is possible.

The world doesn’t change one person at a time. It changes when networks of relationships form among people who share a common cause and vision of what’s possible. Rather than worry about critical mass, our work is to foster critical connections-Margaret Wheatley

To sum it up, we trust each other to remember that we are all connected, to tune in to what is wanting to emerge, and to choose based on what serves the whole.

To put trust into action, use the questions above as a compass to orient collaborators and create a context of possibility. We recommend holding the questions together as a means of cultivating capacity for basic, responsive, and generative trust. The ongoing process of engaging with the questions is a way of being and relating that invites wholeness. It is the wholeness itself that is generative. Through engaging the three levels of trust we create positive feedback loops that reinforce trust throughout networks of actors working together on a common purpose.

We wrote this article by tuning in to the field, sensing together what was meaningful and inspiring in service to a deeper understanding of what it takes to generate trust.

Elsa Henderson

I move between the roles of facilitator, coach, and researcher. In each role, my focus is on supporting individuals to learn, broaden their sense of what’s possible, and connect with a deeper sense of purpose. For the past 13 years I have worked with groups around the world to learn across differences and engage in collaborative action. Based in Victoria, BC, I am currently pursuing my PhD at the Bristol Business School in England, my research focuses on how individuals can access expanded capacities for sensemaking in times of dynamic complexity.