Too often, I see people at work trying to avoid feelings of discomfort or pain, or showing others that they don’t feel difficult emotions. I believe this is a critical mistake. Our emotions – including pain – allow us to become vulnerable and build trust with each other.
Our office recently gathered for a session on reconciliation, prompted by our desire to take part in the ongoing Truth and Reconciliation process happening in Canada. We invited one of our trainers, Noela, to lead the session. As an Indigenous person who grew up in Canada, she shared her family’s story with us; how she was the first child in four generations not to be taken away to a residential school before the age of six. I couldn’t help but think about my own children – my own six-year-old – and how devastating it would be for her and our family if she were forcibly removed from our home, taken off to boarding school, and made to speak a different language. I imagined what it would be like to not see her or even communicate with her for months at a time. I felt that pain, and I was deeply moved. I’m still deeply moved.
Noela also told us stories of strength, healing, resilience, and hope. And then each person who was there had the opportunity to respond to what we heard, to situate our own stories into the greater narrative.
I see several things happening as a result of our experience together.
We trust each other more. I trust my colleagues more because I have seen and experienced more of their humanity – their hurt and their hope. We can relate to each other’s experiences. This allows us to communicate more openly and directly with one another, which means we can work more effectively as a team.
Our emotions – including pain – allow us to build trust with each other.
We also understand the role of our work more clearly as it relates to reconciliation. We examined the principles of reconciliation that were laid out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and how they might relate to our organization’s work. Although to some this may seem daunting, this was far from a threatening process and actually helped us think more clearly in order to see how we can contribute to a better future both in our individual roles, and collectively.
The process of experiencing difficult emotions together helped us choose action. We have committed to seeking and building relationships with our Indigenous colleagues, neighbors, and communities that are respectful and mutually beneficial.
I believe that one of the reasons we avoid discussing and feeling hard emotions in our workplaces is that we have not made it safe enough to do so. People do not want to be vulnerable or share in what’s difficult when they are worried about their reputation, gossip, or a lack of confidentiality. No one wants to be judged.
Here are four simple ways to build a culture of trust:
Leaders go first.
Although in some settings it’s not always best for a leader to speak first, when it comes to vulnerability, they should always be the first to say something. By demonstrating that they are willing to be humble, honest, and moved, they make it safer for everyone else to do the same.
Commit to honoring each other’s stories.
This means that the story belongs to the storyteller. Each person can share in the lessons of the story, but unless we have permission, we don’t share or gossip about the details with others.
Sit with the pain for a while.
If someone shares something that is hard, it is more honoring to sit with the story and feel it with them than it is to try and fix it. Listening and simply being together creates safety.
Ask what it means.
When we experience difficult emotions or experiences, one of the most helpful things we can do together is ask what it means for us. Humans need to make sense of things and find meaning. Sometimes that meaning leads us to acceptance, sometimes it prompts us to act. From a workplace perspective, we can ask what the experience means to us in terms of our purpose or mission. This helps focus the team on actions that relate to our organization’s work.
I do not believe that we should go and intentionally seek painful or difficult experiences. Instead, we should focus on accepting that they will arise and then build safety so that we can experience them, make meaning, and move to action. In doing so, we create a culture of trust that strengthens our work.
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