Building and Maintaining Trust
I worked with a student recently who I will call Al. Al did not trust me and he had reason not to. He had been hurt by many people in his life and he was wary of putting his trust into another. In our first session together I noticed him watching me whenever I wrote a note. About half way into our session I asked him if he would like to read what I was writing. I was honest with him and shared what I had written and why. Al’s next statement of mistrust was to ask me, “What is your strategy here?”
“Great question,” I replied! I answered him honestly that I wanted to understand his feelings, thoughts, and experiences and then to help him more fully understand himself through those same feelings, thoughts, and experiences. “You have the answers,” I said. “I’m just here to listen to you as you figure them out.” It took time, but Al and I eventually built a relationship built on trust and Al was able to uncover many things about himself and begin to rebuild his life in a way that he wanted to live it.
So, imagine you are a 16-year-old boy who does not trust his teachers, authorities, or his parents. Then imagine you are sent to a wilderness therapy program against your will. Finally, imagine being asked to trust your new therapist in this strange environment that you are in unwillingly. Would you be ready to fully trust your therapist with your overwhelming emotions of anger, fear, sadness, and confusion?
Here is a sample of questions and statements I often get during my first few sessions with a new student:
• “How do I get out of here?”
• “When can I talk to my parents to convince them to get me out of here?”
• “Will I have to go to another program after this?”
• “I’m not going to quit smoking weed so what’s the point?”
• “If my parents think this will fix our relationship, they are crazy.”
Building trust with a teenager is a challenge and that is why I love it!
I start by telling them that I will never lie to them. There will be times when I will say, “I’m not going to answer that,” but I will never lie. Then I tell them about myself and why I love the wilderness. I also tell them that I’m not here to change their beliefs, their behaviors, or to fix their relationship with their parents, and that I don’t have all of the answers. I explain I am here to listen, to try to understand, and to help them understand themselves in a deeper and more meaningful way.
These statements are only the beginning. I continue to show up in this way in each session and in each moment I spend in the group with the other boys. I role-model telling the truth. I share from my life about the healing power of therapy and of the wilderness. By joining them in their day-to-day I show them my own “abnormality” and let them see that it’s ok and that we don’t need to be “fixed.” Throughout this process I will try to understand them and in so doing allow them to understand themselves. I am not perfect at this. I make mistakes. And this is when I get to utilize one of the most important factors towards building trust; I apologize. When I make a mistake with a student, with staff, or with the group, I apologize. By showing these boys that I am not perfect, that I am doing my best and still make mistakes, and that I am willing to apologize, they can begin to trust me with their feelings and trust that I have their best interests at heart.
Building trust is a process and takes time. Re-building trust can take even longer. The more we practice integrity with our words, showing up with our actions, and apologizing when we make mistakes, trust can be built and can be the most important aspect in any relationship.
Or as Kendrick Lamar said, “Keep it one hundred, I’d rather you trust me than love me.”