The Trust Menu: A constructive response to broken trust and damaged relationships

Sometimes, you come across opposing politicians exhibiting civil constructive dialogue and you go, wow – I didn’t know that was possible. From a recent exchange in Canada’s parliament, involving members Charlie Angus and Sean Fraser (Minister of Housing), on the topic of funding for homeless:

Now, if we could get the same level of civil discourse between government and opposition leaders, what might happen? Expand the context to family, business, community, organization, internationally? There are so many opportunities, to increase civil discourse, de-escalate conflict, and promote positive change.

At the heart of my optimism, is our capacity to rebuild trust, when distrust and animosity is high. Assuming there is will, having the right tool can help with the task. The ‘trust menu’ is such a tool.

The Trust Menu

In William Ury’s book, Possible: How We Survive (and Thrive) in an Age of Conflict, he refers to ‘trust menu’ as a strategic tool for rebuilding trust and fostering constructive relationships between parties in conflict or with a history of division.

Ury was co-author of Getting to Yes, the original bible for win-win negotiations. He’s still going strong, 40+ years on. Possible is a memoir of sorts, encapsulating many of the high-profile strategic negotiations and mediations that Ury has been part of, around the world.

“A trust menu serves as a roadmap for rebuilding trust through small, tangible actions and commitments, gradually transforming the relationship between parties from one of distrust and animosity to one of cooperation and collaboration.”

What signals could the other side send and what signals could you send in response?  What might small, tangible actions look like? In a conflict between a community group and a local government-appointed board, one that I’m attuned to, the beginnings of a trust menu might include signals along the following lines:

Community group’s list of signals (for sending) Governing board’s list of signals (for sending)
  • Refrain from personal attacks on social media
  • Stop publicly insulting your organization and calling it an industry shill
  • Publicly acknowledge the challenges your organization faces
  • Identify a person with decision-making authority as a candidate to join your finance committee
  • Take down the information you requested from our website
  • Etc.
  • Publicly broadcast the importance of involving your group as part of the solution
  • Share with you the financials you requested access to
  • Invite you to assign a community member to sit on our finance committee
  • Send our chair to your next community meeting and have them available for q&a
  • Submit an op-ed to the news media, indicating how we will improve relations with your group
  • Etc.

Contexts for applying a trust menu

Here are a few contexts where a trust menu can help:

  • Business Negotiations: In business negotiations, especially in long-term partnerships or mergers, where trust may have been compromised due to past disagreements or misunderstandings, a trust menu can help rebuild trust incrementally.
  • Community Conflict Resolution: In community settings where there are deep-seated tensions or divisions, such as disputes over resources, land, or cultural differences, a trust menu can serve as a framework for reconciliation and collaboration.
  • Family Disputes: Within families, conflicts can arise over inheritance, parenting decisions, or unresolved grievances. A trust menu approach can help family members navigate these conflicts and rebuild trust over time.
  • Organizational Conflict Resolution: In workplaces where there is friction between teams, departments, or individuals, a trust menu can be used by leaders or HR professionals to facilitate communication and foster a more positive working environment.
  • Legal Disputes: In legal proceedings, particularly in cases involving mediation or arbitration, a trust menu can help parties find common ground and reach mutually acceptable resolutions outside of the courtroom.
  • Political Negotiations: In politically polarized environments, where trust between opposing parties is low, a trust menu can provide a structured framework for dialogue and negotiation, leading to more constructive outcomes.
  • Peacebuilding Initiatives: In post-conflict societies or regions experiencing ongoing tensions, a trust menu can be part of a broader peacebuilding strategy aimed at fostering reconciliation and long-term stability.
  • International Diplomacy: Diplomatic relations between nations can often be strained due to historical conflicts or geopolitical differences. A trust menu can be employed to facilitate dialogue and build trust between governments or diplomatic envoys.

And, let us not forget the digital trust landscape. A neutral 3rd party trust verifier (e.g., PlaceSpeak) could potentially be a valuable collaborator in the trust menu development process.

For the conflict management practitioner

As mediator, facilitator, consultant… through brainstorming, caucusing, and open conversations, come up with as many possible signals, for each side. Winnow down to a practical, manageable list. Support the parties as they release their signals to the other. Help manage expectations. Repair and restore of broken trust and damaged relationships requires frequent and consistent constructive action.

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