Trust is not some “touchy feely” thing. It is a real dimension of human interaction that, if not present, keeps people from productive interaction, or any interaction at all. It’s actually something you can analyze and something you can work to build.
Trust is what affects your ability to get people in the room. It affects what information and thoughts people are willing to share. It affects participants’ commitment to the process and willingness to follow through. Essentially, it is the grease that helps the gears of dialogic or deliberative processes run smoothly. Overall it affects what you can realistically accomplish and in what time frame.
Trust is defined in various ways. According to the first definition in Webster’s New International Dictionary (1997) it is a “reliance on the integrity, veracity, or reliability of a person or thing.” Other definitions suggest other dimensions of trust – a “confident expectation;” hope in someone or something; the ability to depend on another to get something accomplished; the opportunity to confide in someone without fear of negative consequences, or a relationship that involves fiduciary duties of care and loyalty.
When engaging the public, building “trust” requires thinking about all of these dimensions– reliance, hope, productivity, care. When evaluating whether to engage or not, citizens ask themselves a wide range of questions about the process and the people involved: will I be able to share my thoughts without fear of ridicule or counter attack? is it worth my time? could it possibly make a difference? can I rely on the information I am given? will those in charge accurately translate back what they hear? does anyone present really care about me and what I care about?
Citizens have many choices about how to spend their time, and even if deeply concerned about an issue, many won’t engage unless they can rely on the convener to provide a safe space and fair process, contribute positively in some way to resolving the issue or concern presented, and connect with others in the community in positive ways.
Over the next few weeks we will consider how trust develops, ways in which elected leaders often erode trust (even if unintentionally), and resources that will help you analyze and build trust in your own engagement efforts.