Capital “T” Trust.
You know it when you feel it, but it’s hard to define. Let’s try, though, because as Social Workers, the ability of our clients to trust us will have a direct effect on the progress and outcome of our work together. If we can understand what trust means to us, we’ll do a better job of creating more trusting relationships in support of our clients as they advance toward their goals.
Toward that end, here’s a challenge I hope you’ll take. When you hit the end of this paragraph, don’t read another word until you can answer this deceptively simple question. As best you can. Write it out if that helps.
What does it mean to trust and be trusted?
Well? What’d you come up with?
Was it as easy to define as you thought it would be? Was it harder? I’ll tell you what I came up with in a minute, and we can compare notes.
There is little reason, based on everything our clients have lived right up to the moment we begin our work together, for them to think we’re any different than anyone else who’s ever lied to or betrayed them. Sure, we may be granted a small amount of de facto trust at the onset. After all, in most cases our clients have either come to us seeking help, or we’ve done outreach and offered help (the exception being those who are mandated for treatment). But this de facto trust doesn’t mean they trust you. Or me. Or anyone, for that matter. And rest assured, that trust will be short-lived if we present in such a way as to elicit unwarranted defensiveness (no pressure).
“I’ll start letting my guard down when people stop giving me reasons to keep it up.”
In the context of competent and compassionate social work practice, what does it mean for a client to trust you? To finally let their guard down, even a little? Let’s compare what we each came up with.
To be trusted means that the client sitting opposite you can, over time, consistently predict the manner in which you respond to the various issues and challenges that are the subject of your advocacy. Notice I said “the manner”—I’m talking about behavior. I didn’t say they will be able to guess what you are going to say, but they will know that what you say will be the truth.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary puts it this way. Trust is “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something.” Assured reliance meaning that the behavior that first elicits a feeling of trust in our client is one they feel can be relied upon (assuredly), i.e., one that they believe will happen again. Returning to the definition I expressed a moment ago, it is a behavior that is predictable.
More concretely, if you say that a housing interview has been arranged for Tuesday at 9am, it is because a housing interview has been arranged for Tuesday at 9am. If you say no, a recommended psychotherapist cannot see them until an opening comes available, it is because you have confirmed that is the case. If you say you do not know how long they will need to remain in treatment, it’s because you do not know. This last one is the hardest. Clients who are anxious, afraid, traumatized, what have you, often loathe hearing “I don’t know.” They want something concrete, something they can count on. They’ve been living “I don’t know” for way too long. But if “I don’t know” is the appropriate response, then that’s the one our clients need to hear—like you and me, they just want someone who’s going to give it to them straight. And it’s an excellent idea to share with clients what it is that needs to happen so that you do know. Let them know what they can do to change the “I don’t know” to something more concrete, let them know what you can do, and let them know what you need to do together. This level of ownership of your respective roles and abilities instills hope and gives shape and direction to the journey you take together toward the achievement of their goals.
Put another way, it’s expert customer service of a particular kind. When your clients come to experience you as someone who is competent, sincere, responsive, proactive, a truth-teller, you have sown the seeds of trust.
The subject of ‘Capital “T” Trust’ is one of enormous importance to effective, competent, and caring social work practice. I reflect on it often, and work hard to assure I am being clear and truthful, especially when at the end of a particularly long day or week I would rather say, “Don’t worry. Everything will be all right” and just go home. In fact, I did say that, early on in the foundation year of my grad school internship, to a distraught, heart-broken older gentleman who I was hoping would agree to come off the street and enter the shelter system. I said it because I made the mistake, which I’ve made before and since, of thinking this closing exchange we’d had was about me. I needed to wrap it up. I needed to feel good, as if something useful would come from our efforts by the sheer force of my will. I had unconsciously decided to instill hope at the possible expense of the truth, even if that meant risking my professional credibility. Of course, I didn’t realize all these dynamics were contained in that moment—but they were.
Well, I got some school that day, when my client looked up at me and said “Don’t tell me it’s gonna be all right, cause you don’t know if it’s gonna be all right. Just tell me we’ll work on it. Can you tell me that?”
Yes, I can.
And on that day, with that client, in that moment, capital “T” Trust was born.
NEXT WEEK: “I’d Like You To Meet Our New Program Manager”
Questions for Further Consideration
1) How do we use our knowledge, our instincts, our respect, our humanity, and our professionalism, to help the person in front of us even consider the possibility that they can trust us?
2) Do you trust yourself? What does it mean to trust yourself?
3) To what extent can someone trust you, if you do not trust yourself?
Favorite Quotes Relating to Trust
People ask me why it’s so hard to trust people,
and I ask them why is it so hard to keep a promise.
You see THAT girl, yeah her.
She seems so invincible right.
But just touch her & she’ll flinch.
She has secrets & she trusts no one.
She’s the perfect example of betrayal.
Cause everyone she trusted, broke her.
I’ll start letting my guard down when people stop giving me reasons to keep it up.
To be trusted is a greater compliment than to be loved.
– George MacDonald
Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair.
Trust is a very important subject. Many new social work students don’t realize the importance of building a trusting relationship with a client before any real work can begin. We expect clients to automatically “trust” and “believe” that we are there to help and not further antagonize their situations. During my internship, I had one client whom I felt I wasn’t helping because she wasn’t very expressive. I admit that I felt frustrated at times and even intimidated. It wasn’t until we began the termination process that she indicated how effective the therapeutic process was for her. I was truly humbled and at that moment really understood the importance of TRUST in the helping process.
Well said, Rosemary.
By virtue of whatever authority we possess given our position in the power hierarchy, a certain amount of proxy, or de facto trust is ours to squander. Fact of the matter is, we have the responsibility (and privilege) to earn the trust of our clients. And, as in the case you describe, it may not always be clear to us that we are, in fact, providing the help that they came to us to receive. First thing to notice about your work together is whether or not the client is keeping their appointments with you. If yes, that’s a good sign. It probably means they trust you—or trust you enough—to remain engaged in the process. I wonder if you felt comfortable enough to bring this feeling that you weren’t helping to supervision, and am curious about what your supervisor said. I don’t know the nature of your internship, but it sounds like it may have been a setting where goals and outcomes may not have been as concrete as they sometimes are, for a period of time. For example, this might be the case in a mental health clinic.
It must have been a wonderful feeling, perhaps a tad bittersweet, to have learned through the termination process that your client did trust you, and was helped. That feeling will come more frequently and more easily for all of us—the more we learn to trust ourselves.
Thanks for tuning in and taking the time to comment, Rosemary.
I enjoyed reading this and appreciate the topic as it reminds us of a simple concept with profound implications. I will check back often and will encourage my BSW students to follow you. Thank you Craig!
Thanks so much, Carolyn. I appreciate your support!
I’ve always equated trust to following through on what you say you are going to do, as well as being real about the client’s circumstances. A lot of times in my job a client will ask me “are you going to take my kids from me?” And the gut reaction I want to say is “no” but that is simply not the truth. I’ve come to find I have to say “I can’t tell the future, and I don’t want to make any promises I can’t keep.” I’ve come across multiple instances where I could lie to make things better in the moment, but would damage all future trust. I think being new and not knowing all the ins and outs of the profession can easily damage trust, as well. Clients ask all the time “what is going to happen next” and one naturally wants to be able to answer that. I’ve come to find I say “I don’t know, but when I do find out I will let you know” quite a bit.
I cannot imagine how difficult it must be doing the particular brand of social work you specialize in. What situation could be more charged, what person more anxious, than a parent who is facing the possibility that their child will be taken away from them? It must be especially challenging at times to get people to see that it is their very actions that may have contributed to the situation, and that they need to change (in some circumstances). It sounds like you are handling this aspect as well as it can be done—kudos! They are lucky to have you, although they may have… off-putting ways of showing it at times!
Thanks so much—glad you’ve enjoyed it!