Trust building – does the theory work in family settings?

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” ― Ernest Hemingway

The last blog focussed on expert recommendations for increasing trust between family members.  Today we showcase a variety of practical suggestions for trust building, which were road tested in our families.

Relationship expert and author of ‘The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples’, Dr John Gottman, maintains that intimate conversations are key to building trust.  He believes attunement is the basis of trust, and offers the following acronym to guide these conversations:

Turning toward
Non-defensive responding

He recommends we learn to put our feelings into words, ask open-ended questions, and follow up, in order to deepen connections. So, he encourages us to learn adjectives, practice asking questions, see if we can keep conversations going. Trust is built as we express compassion and empathy for one another’s feelings.

The ATTUNE acronym is an excellent reminder of the automatic responses and reactivity we unwittingly bring to many conversations with those closest to us. Tired, overwhelmed, distracted, or simply assuming that we know what the other person is going to say; we are often unaware of triggers and habits of responding which can damage relationships. Fully executed (with training and practice), there is no doubt this framework would build connection and trust.

Although aimed at couples, the ATTUNE framework could greatly assist families, by giving parents a solid base to build family relationships on. Many of our group were completely overwhelmed with the model and wondered how ‘during a conversation’ anyone could remember, let alone apply the ATTUNE framework. It was agreed that either reading the book and thoroughly working through the exercises; or, completing the couples workshop, was a must to truly test this method. Constrained by various limited resources, as a group we decided we could not undertake a full trial of this framework.

Nevertheless, after gaining a basic understand of the concepts, some of the parents in our group wanted to try ideas from the ATTUNE framework. Those who regularly practiced mindfulness and other ‘inner work’, embraced attributes of the ATTUNE model. Eventually, they recommended that parents new to the model simply focus on ‘turning toward’ and ‘non-defensive responding’ when approaching conversations. Later, this was simplified to the helpful prompt ‘curiosity’, which itself was surprisingly effective in changing patterns of communication.

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families, Stephen R Covey suggests that we all hold an “Emotional Bank Account” with each member of our family. Every interaction we have with another family member is either a deposit in, or, withdrawal from, this account.  What constitutes a deposit or withdrawal varies for individuals and over time.  Covey offers the following example of a couple consciously working with the “Emotional Bank Account”:

One wife said this:  The seven habits have made us a lot more teachable, more humble.  They are a part of everything we do every day.  If I say something unkind to my husband, he’ll just remind me that it was a withdrawal, not a deposit.  Those words are part of our conversation, and so we can acknowledge it.  We don’t get into a fight about it or suffer in silence with hurt feelings over it.  It’s a way to put things that isn’t hostile or volatile.  It’s subtle and kind.

The “Emotional Bank Account” concept is easy to understand, and most people in our group quickly identified with it. With increased awareness and practice, deposits and withdrawals could be readily identified. Eventually, with practice, you are able to intentionally make deposits, and to rectify withdrawals quickly (as in the above example of the husband and wife).

The hardest part of this system was agreeing on terms to identify the withdrawals and deposits. Suggestions included the words ‘deposits/withdrawals’ (as per the above example), ‘plus/minus’, ‘good/bad’, ‘George/Marsha’, ‘on/off’, ‘D/W’ and A/B; with limited, to no, success. The majority of teenagers (and adults) found most terms too ‘cheesy’ and didn’t feel comfortable using them. Family members whose relationships were strained found that using the terms often inflamed the conversations. A thumbs up/thumbs down system had some appeal, but suffered the same fate as the others when used in a ‘heated’ situation.

Basically, attempts at labelling the deposits and withdrawals felt fake and forced. When trialled, they often met with eye-rolling, shaking heads, sarcasm or outright hostility. This was a major hurdle, but all involved believed it was a great concept which had merit – if a system could be agreed upon and honoured. It appeared that in many of our families we needed to build trust first, then introduce the ‘Emotional Bank Account’ framework to continue to strengthen the relationships.

Many insights were gained whilst trialling ideas from the ‘ATTUNE’ system and the ‘Emotional Bank Account’ concept. Both methods have merit, and they provided us with increased awareness of the impact of each and every conversation. They led us in an unexpected direction, which will be outlined in a future blog :-).

“To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.” George MacDonald

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