There is single moment, after these five words are spoken with genuineness, in which trust and closeness either grow or shrink. If the receiver of this message opens themselves to its inherent vulnerability, accepts it with authenticity, and sees it as a present or future opportunity to also share their own challenges or weaknesses – trust grows and the relationship grows.
Harvard professor Jeff Polzer calls this moment a ‘vulnerability loop’:
- Person A sends a message of vulnerability – an apology or shares a shortcoming.
- Person B detects and accepts this message.
- Person B sends their own message of vulnerability.
- Person A detects and accepts this message.
- A new norm is created with closeness and trust enhanced.
What evolves from this type of interaction is a relationship in which it is okay to be wrong, to be imperfect and to need help sometimes. Vulnerability loops are linked to our sense of safety – they help create a human bond.
It takes courage to share our faults. And for some people, being seen to be right is more important than being seen. But the truth is, we are all flawed and we all need other people. A shared, respected sense of vulnerability simply gives us permission to tell the truth and to grow together.
The 2019 World Happiness Report has just been released. This is the 7th annual edition of the report – based on data from the Gallup World Poll.
This year, the top 10 happiest countries are, in order: Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada and Austria. Australia ranks 11th, the UK 15th, USA 19th, the UAE 21st, and China 93rd.
Interestingly, the six key variables used in the report to explain differences in average life evaluations are:
- GDP per capita;
- social support;
- healthy life expectancy;
- absence of corruption.
These variables have been found in the overall research literature to be important in contributing to general differences in evaluations of happiness. All of this makes sense at a population level, but I wonder what the equivalent six key variables would be for student happiness in schools?
Here’s my list:
- safety (Do I feel safe at school?)
- belongingness (Do I feel like I belong?)
- hope (Do I see a bright future and have the ‘will’ and know the ‘way’ to get there?)
- autonomy (Do I feel a sense of volition and control over my schooling?)
- purposefulness (Do I feel that my learning make sense and that it matters?)
- trust (Do I feel that I can trust my peers and teachers, and do I feel trusted?)
There is no World Student Happiness Report. (The PISA Students’ Wellbeing Report is the closest research we have.) But if there was, the above six factors would contribute significantly. These factors are the foundation of a child’s school experience. Nothing matters more.
“To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.”
Every educator knows the importance of trust. Trust is the foundation upon which relationships are built – and relationships are the foundation of teaching and learning.
All good teachers have an intuitive sense of how to develop trust in the classroom, which is great. But the problem is, when we rely only on intuition, there’s a chance that we’re missing opportunities to develop and leverage trust more effectively.
Referencing decades of psychological research, The Trust Project at Northwestern University, in Illinois has identified three dimensions of trust: competence, honesty, and benevolence.
Competence relates to the perception of a person being able to do a job – to teach the Year 8 Science curriculum, for example. Honesty relates to the perception that the teacher keeps their promises and is authentic. Benevolence relates to the belief that the teacher genuinely has the students’ best interests at heart.
When any one of these components is overemphasised at the expense of another, trust is harmed. I’m sure we can all think of educators who are so desperate to prove their level of competence that they fail to be fully open and honest about their limitations.
There’s no shortcut to building real trust – it takes time. But it is a simple recipe:
- Be competent. Prepare, plan, work harder than your students.
- Be honest. Make promises and keep them. Be consistent. Be professional.
- Be benevolent. Care. And let students know you care. Keep an open heart.
And listen to your intuition. Not always, but often – it will guide you towards a constructive balance of the three components of trust.
It can be a weird, sometimes unsettling, sometimes enlightening experience to read or hear something that makes you realise that you’ve been wrong your whole life.
We all know how important relationships are. And we know how dependent relationships are on trust. And we know that a willingness to be open and vulnerable with those we trust helps to build closeness.
But I had always thought that the the process worked like this:
meet someone » get to know them well » earn trust » be vulnerable (knowing that you won’t be hurt) » develop closeness
But then I read Daniel Coyle’s book The Culture Code and realised that I had been thinking about this incorrectly since I was a child. Coyle’s research into some of the world’s most successful individuals and organisations highlighted that being willing to be vulnerable and take a risk with another person is how you build trust. Deep trust forms when we take a risk, expose ourselves emotionally to someone and they don’t hurt us. So the process of developing trust really looks like this:
meet someone » be vulnerable (even though you might get hurt) » share experience » develop deep trust
It is particularly when two people go through an experience from a state of shared vulnerability, of not knowing, that real trust emerges. It is, obviously, much riskier and takes more courage to be open with people before you know them well. But the upside is the opportunity to accelerate the development of deeper, more trusting and more meaningful relationships.