Balint: The anatomy of trust

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Whenever I'm invited to speak to a class about my life in politics, I tell the students that I knew at the age of 17 what I wanted to do: run for higher office and serve the public. But it took me 30 years to take the plunge.

I was class president in first grade (although I do not recall my platform), the student council president in middle school, and the student body president in high school. Leadership roles came easily, and I enjoyed helping groups achieve a common goal. It should have been fairly easy for me to decide to jump into politics upon graduating from college, but it wasn't. As a gay woman, there were few role models I could point to as mentors for a life in public service. I was also not yet ready to embrace the self-trust needed to take on a project that requires both bravery and vulnerability.

I've written before of the work of University of Houston researcher and bestselling writer Brene Brown. I use her research to frame my work, whether as a politician, a colleague, or a parent. Her research on courage, vulnerability and authenticity has been a touchstone for me and a source of strength when I can't easily decipher the way forward in a particular situation. It was delightful to discover that a new friend and colleague in state government also uses Brown's research in her work.

We met to discuss challenges in our respective work situations and how trust issues either underpin or undermine the work we do. She recently used Brown's video, "The Anatomy of Trust," in a training session with employees in her division; she knew it was a critical conversation they needed to have. She hoped it could improve relationships between colleagues and also with the clients they serve. We both agreed that understanding how trust works provides a critical scaffold to all our complex relationships. It also offers insight into the challenges of my work in the Senate. Unfortunately, there can be quite a bit of mistrust among legislative colleagues.

Brown references the work of University of Washington professor emeritus of psychology John Gottman and asserts that deep, lasting trust is built in very small moments. Gottman gives the example of when you see someone in need and you to take the opportunity to build trust instead of the opportunity to betray. When your spouse is upset and wants to talk, and you just want to finish reading your book, do you turn away or do you engage? It is these moments of trust that highlight our valor and our compassion, and over time they signal to our friends and family members that we are trustworthy.

After articulating how we almost imperceptibly construct trust moment by moment, Brown provides a definition of trust that she borrows from Charles Fertman, author of the book, "The Thin Book of Trust." She starts from this place: Trust is choosing to make something important to you vulnerable to the actions of others. This is something we do all the time in the Legislature. We advocate for issues of great importance to us personally or to our constituents, and we do it in a fishbowl.

We must trust ourselves that we can fulfill this weighty, critical role and then trust others that they will try to respect our position, even if they don't agree. Of course, we must all continue to earn that trust. But as Booker T. Washington said, "Few things can help an individual more than to place responsibility on him, and to let him know you trust him."

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as a state senator from Windham County.


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