Building Trust between learner and the facilitator by Geoff Cox

There are a great number of activities that a facilitator can build into an intervention with the purpose of building trust between participants. However, there’s a different, and potentially more important, interpersonal trust relationship that exists in the training room, and ought to be given priority in opening any programme of learning. This is the trust that needs to exist between the facilitator and every one of the learners, and it needs to exist on both an individual and collective level. Ignore this relationship at your peril!

So why is it important?

How do I establish and maintain it?

How do I know that it is robustly in place?

Trust is a little like leadership, it’s hard to define exactly what it is, but it’s very obvious when you see and hear it in action, more particularly, it’s obvious when it isn’t there. As a facilitator of learning you need a bond of trust between you and every learner because it is trust that allows the development of a climate of emotional security, and without this climate, learning is much more difficult. Importantly you don’t get a lot of time to begin to establish this trust. On meeting your learners there’s a short window of opportunity during which time you need to let them know that they can trust you, or at least that you’re not a threat. I put more thought into planning and ‘being there’ for the first 5 minutes of an intervention than all the rest of the time with the group put together, it’s that important to establish a good working relationship. Good planning helps avoid the mistakes that can and will erode trust at this sensitive time.

This is also what makes icebreaker activities important. Too often the choice of an icebreaker is justified with phrases like “it will get the group working” or “it allows me to see the group in action”. Few people think about how the choice of the first activity, and how it is delivered, will impact the development of trust between the facilitator and the learners. It’s worth thinking about what could go wrong: if the icebreaker is seen as pointless, or embarrassing, or impossible to achieve successfully, or favouring some in the group over others, then that’s how the whole intervention will be viewed, with a corresponding doubt about how much the group can trust you.

Choosing the right icebreaker is very important, and it’s not an easy choice. You have to be confident in your choice, and you have to have a really intimate knowledge of the activity so that, if you need to intervene in the process, you know how to craft that intervention to get a positive result. This means either using a relatively simple-to-administer, low-risk activity e.g. Getting Acquainted

Or something that needs more from you as a facilitator, is higher-risk, but, when successful, will establish a robust climate of trust between you and the learners. For this reason I will often use an activity first-up that involves blindfolding the group: I use Colourblind a lot as an icebreaker as it massively accelerates the development of trust, but I am extremely careful about making the run-in to the activity an exercise in laying the foundations for that trust to happen.

An alternative approach to opening an intervention in a way that is focused on developing a bond of trust is to get the learners talking about what is important to them in the learning that’s available from your programme. RSVP Design’s Images series of card based activities allows me to choose a tool, and a question for the group, that will open this conversation in a learner-focused way. So I might use cartoons from e.g. Images of Organisations with a question such as “When are we at our best, or at our worst, when we’re working?” or a photograph from e.g. expresspack and a question such as “Which image best describes your feelings about the changes that are being suggested here?” then ask individuals to share their choices and thoughts with the rest of the group. This bolsters the trust in the room by demonstrating that I’m interested in what’s going on for them as learners, and also that I’m not going to be judgmental about their views.

Having established a climate of mutual trust in the training room, I continually test and monitor its strength. Trust is a very powerful force in a learning environment so I want to make sure that I’m using it to its maximum in moving towards my learning objectives. One of the things I’m looking to gradually introduce throughout my intervention is for the learners to be coaching / teaching / feeding back to one another. Learners often find this both unfamiliar and challenging, so giving them a support tool is often very beneficial. The kind of thing I’m thinking of here is  The Feedback Game , Teamwork & Teamplay cards  .   

These offer the learners a way of accessing the right questions to ask to promote learning, and avoid the early embarassment of asking what might be considered to be sensitive or personal questions.

I hope that this short introduction has made you think about the way that you approach developing a climate of trust between you and your learners. It’s potentially the most important consideration in planning how you are going to achieve your desired learning outcomes in that, without this trust, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to facilitate the group to realise their potential. It’s worth thinking about, and it’s worth gathering the right tools to make it happen. 

Dr Geoff Cox (Design director at RSVP Design)

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