A brief follow-up on the theme of safety and trust I discussed last week: Very rarely (if ever) do we establish these qualities in a relationship in a single dramatic act. Much more often safety and trust are established over a series of interactions through countless tiny gestures. These gestures take the form of one person making some effort to connect--an emotional bid--and another person responding in any way that acknowledges that effort. Examples include:
- I disclose something about myself, and you express interest or reciprocate.
- I express curiosity about you, and you share something about yourself.
- I display emotion in any way, and you acknowledge it.
- I make a joke, and you laugh or smile.
- I make small talk, and you respond.
Note that embedded in each exchange is the potential to "up the ante"--to respond to the small risk taken by the person who initially made the bid by taking a slightly larger risk in return. For example, in disclosing something about myself, I take a small risk, and you can simply acknowledge that risk by expressing interest, or you can meet that risk by disclosing something similar about yourself, or you can take a slightly larger risk by disclosing something more personal. Our mutual level of risk-taking determines the cumulative impact of these tiny gestures over time.
As these tiny gestures accumulate--as we put out emotional bids and they're met with a response--we build the trust that allows us to take greater risks. Having acknowledged each other, we become more candid and forthcoming. This involves greater candor in affirmation, self-disclosure and feedback (which is really just another form of self-disclosure.)
The next stage allows greater freedom to challenge and confront each other, as we feel sufficiently safe and trusting to express negative feelings and openly engage in conflict. But the process then folds back on itself, as the increased levels of safety and trust that come through conflict allow for even more meaningful expressions of appreciation, care and love.
These larger, more complex interactions don't necessarily occur because of the many tiny gestures that preceded them, but they couldn't happen without them either.
Photo by Danielle deLeon. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.