This has been an interesting past couple weeks. I have spent much of my time with people experiencing serious conflict in both their personal and professional lives. Now you might be thinking, “ Well yeah, that’s what you do. That’s the business you are in. What’s different about now?” I think the difference is the fact that it seems to be showing up everywhere I turn, not just in my work.
Another observation is that all of these conflicts are fundamentally about unmet or violated expectations. This is also not surprising because this is the case in the majority of the conflicts in which I have intervened over the years. A final observation is that in all cases trust has been broken or seriously called into question.
At times, I have found myself in moments of overwhelm regarding the pain of these situations. I find myself questioning whether it is ever possible to really trust anyone. Issues of broken trust just seem to be showing up everywhere.
This is, in fact, a critical question for me as the topic of trust is at the forefront of my thinking and reflection these days. Broken trust, the absence of trust, doubts about trust are central to so many of my conversations. This is no surprise for those of you engaged in the work of conflict engagement.
Much of my work recently has been in the context of trust in teams and in the context of collaborative initiatives. I have been primarily focused on how we individually and collectively build and sustain trust. I have considered the role of leadership in this critical task. I have written about how to structure conversations in teams about this topic. I have explored option for intervening if trust is broken.
This recent couple of weeks has had me rethinking a fundamental question. I have shifted from asking what can be done if trust is broken to what can be done when trust is broken. Now you may be thinking, “C’mon Greg. That’s a bit cynical.” And my response would be, “No, not cynical, just realistic”. Let’s continue to talk this through.
It has been my experience that everyone with whom I have had a relationship over the years has at sometime not met or lived up to my expectations. At some time in the relationship they did something, said something, or showed up in a way that was not in alignment with how I thought things should be. In many cases these events were insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and while a bit surprising at the time, quickly forgotten. At other times a pattern of unmet expectations began to emerge and while individually insignificant, these events collectively were a bit more problematic. In the back of my consciousness I was aware of an emerging question of trust.
Finally, there were those times when my expectations were seriously violated, I was deeply hurt and found myself struggling with anger and resentment. I moved quickly to protect myself.
In two of my examples the question of trust has now entered my awareness and has become an element in my story about a person, the group, or the situation. I become cautious as I continue to assess the level of trust and become much less likely to be open or vulnerable to individuals and the group. My tendency is to retreat within myself. From this place I begin to look for evidence in support of my hypothesis that the person, the group or the situation is untrustworthy. This evidence will be somewhat easy to find as I become hypersensitive to not just what is said but how it is said. When what is said is open to interpretation, I am more likely to misinterpret. This has been referred to as “looking for evidence of my story”.
At some point in this process, my hunch that trust may be an issue moves to becoming a fact. You are untrustworthy. The team is no longer to be trusted. The situation in which I find myself lacks trust and therefore I am at risk.
I now find myself experiencing the full effects of conflict, a perception of incompatible difference or threat between myself, the other, the team, and/or the situation. This has now become for me, the primary characteristic of the relationship and will tend to overshadow all other characteristics. The relationship is now defined by a lack of trust.
The decisions we make in this context will have a significant impact on our future health and quality of life.
Some will interpret this as the end of the relationship. The pain and frustration is just too great and they have no idea how to fix the situation. While in some cases this may be true and based on a desire to end the relationship, in other cases it seems to be the only option available. We have been hurt. We need the other person to acknowledge this. We need them to change the way they are. We need to know that it will not happen again. And yet it does not appear that this is going to happen. We find ourselves in what we have referred to as a stuck or conflict story.
A number of years ago I participated in coach certification program. A concept that we were taught was called completion. In reviewing my notes I am reminded that:
Completion is about leaving burdensome energy behind, learning what there was to learn from an event/situation/relationship, and being able to move into the next moment from a clear, neutral, non-reactive place. Completion is ultimately an act of declaration that is based on forgiveness.
Completion is ultimately an act of declaration that is based on forgiveness
“Forgiveness? Really? Are you kidding me?”
In a two words, “No, I am not kidding and Yes, forgiveness”
To be continued . . .