The 7 Elements of Community Trust
7 min read

The 7 Elements of Community Trust

How to encourage tiny trust-building moments and avoid the belonging-busting ones.
The 7 Elements of Community Trust

In our society trust feels like a huge thing that results in grand gestures like 30-year mortgages, marriages and multi-year contracts. Those are events that require trust — institutional, relational and professional — but they’re not how trust is built. Trust is a mountain that we build up one tiny pebble at a time.

John Gottman calls each tiny trust pebble a “sliding door moment.” They happen every day with the people in our lives. He says there are small moments in our relationships when “there is the opportunity to build trust and there is the opportunity to betray.” These are moments like when you meet up with a colleague for lunch who you know is having a hard time with a boss and instead of ignoring it and asking about the specials, you check in and ask about the work situation. Or when a close friend doesn’t call you on your birthday, instead of writing them off and assuming they don't care, you reach out and share how you’re feeling.

Trust builds connection and is key to building healthy community.

This idea of trust being about small moments really resonates for me in a community context because I’ve seen how fragile belonging can be. It is tiny moments that make people feel excluded and disconnected. And it is in those moments that members can decide to spend their time elsewhere.

Brené Brown and her team have found 7 elements of trust in their research. After reading about them, I started thinking about how to apply each to a community context.

The idea is to find ways to encourage tiny trust-building moments and avoid the belonging-busting ones.

The acronym of Brené Brown’s 7 elements is BRAVING: Boundaries, Reliability, Accountability, Vault, Integrity, Non-judgment and Generosity. You can read more about them here.

Below are these 7 elements of trust with reflections on how each might apply in online communities.

Boundaries

Setting boundaries is about making clear what’s okay, what’s not okay and why. Boundaries are a super important skill for anyone building community to practice for themselves and communicate to members. The more you make clear what’s okay and what’s not, the more members feel comfortable asking for what they need and honoring their own boundaries.

How you can model this behavior

  • Before communicating and enforcing boundaries with others, it’s important to know what you’re able and willing to do as a community leader and then consistently honor your own boundaries.
  • How can you be well-resourced in order to show up for the community? Do you have a team, mentors and/or a peer network you can count on?
  • What if anything is making you resentful? Whenever we feel resentment, there’s an opportunity to add or enforce a boundary.

Communicating this element in the community

  • “I usually answer DMs within x time period during the week and very rarely on the weekends.”
  • “It’s okay for you to not show up here for a few weeks when you’re busy.”
  • “It’s okay to not have your camera on sometimes, it’s not okay to never participate.”
  • “When you DM someone new and they don’t respond right away, it’s okay to follow up once. After that, leave it up to them to connect if they’re interested”

Reliability

Reliability is about consistently delivering on commitments. Communities feel safer and cozier when they’re reliable. This doesn’t mean doing everything for everyone. It’s about taking on the right commitments and following through on those promises.

How you can model this behavior

  • Communicate changes to the rhythm of the community in advance. For example, if you’re going on vacation or if summer will be a slower period than usual.
  • Start events on time.
  • Don’t announce new initiatives and community experiences and then later cancel or change the details. If something is a work-in-progress, be transparent about it.

Encouraging this in the community

  • “When you join this community, we expect you to check in at least a couple of times a month.”
  • “When you RSVP for an event, we are counting on you being there!”
  • “Not showing up in your accountability group can disappoint other group members who were counting on your support. It’s not okay to not attend your scheduled meetings without letting them know.”

Accountability

Accountability is about how we address mistakes, apologize and make amends. In communities, this is about dealing with conflict. This can happen when there’s tension between 2 members, between a member and leadership or between a member and the values or structure of the community.

How you can model this behavior

  • Directly address when things don’t go as you planned. Don’t try to wallpaper over mistakes.
  • Set goals that you stick to and/or learn from. Don’t move your own goal posts.
  • When needed, apologize to individual members privately first, then publicly when appropriate.

Encouraging this in the community

  • “Friction is a part of connection so we may not always get along. Here’s how we address disagreements here…”
  • “Here’s how to apologize effectively…”
  • “When something doesn’t go the way you intended, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, it means you’ve made a mistake.”

Vault

Vault is about confidentiality. It means that when something is shared with you, you’ll hold in confidence and that you won’t tell us information that’s not yours to share. In communities this usually means holding sacred conversations that happen within the group. It also means avoiding “common enemy intimacy” which is about disparaging other groups as a way to seek connection.

How you can model this behavior

  • Re-iterating the confidentiality boundaries at events and meetings.
  • When something that is usually private is shared with a broader group, get permission, then explain you’re sharing with permission.
  • Research and make explicit the data privacy rules of the community platform and other online tools you’re using.

Encouraging this in the community

  • “Here’s what you can and can’t share with others outside this group…”
  • “In groups of 3 or fewer members, by default we don’t record meetings unless everyone has agreed”
  • “Everything you learn about in this community is for your own learning, please don’t share any materials with others, even if they’re on your team.”

Integrity

Integrity is about “choosing courage over comfort, choosing what’s right over what’s fun, fast or easy, and practicing your values”. In community, I believe this starts with defining values. Integrity is a good measure of whether you’re just putting those values on your website or whether you’re actually seeing them as guides for making hard decisions within the community.

How you can model this behavior

  • You’re in the best place to interpret your values so it’s your job to make the big decisions that determine the direction of the community. Don’t leave it all up to the group as a way to avoid responsibility. (This is a hard but important one!)
  • Make your values clear. Brainstorm when it might be hardest to uphold them. What’s the plan when that happens?
  • When there’s pushback to your decisions, listen and use your values to explain your decision-making process.

Encouraging this in the community

  • “How do this community’s values intersect with your own?”
  • “If you see something happening in the community that feels off, here’s how you can help us correct it… “
  • “Here’s how decisions are made in this community…”

Non-judgement

Non-judgement means that everyone can talk about what they need without being judged. It also means we don’t judge ourselves when we need help. It’s an honest and vulnerable way to approach helping others and giving others the opportunity to help you.

How you can model this behavior

  • Know that as a community leader you deserve help too. Don’t judge yourself when you can’t handle everything alone.
  • Ask for help from the community and in the process, find ways to scale leadership.
  • Don’t make everything too perfect. Let others see the cracks.

Encouraging this in the community

  • “Here we encourage you to ask for the help you need. We can’t guarantee we can help, but we won’t judge you for asking.”
  • “Last week X person helped Y person do Z! Thank you Y! And kudos to X for asking for what you need.”
  • “As you're going through this community, there may be things that are unclear or hard to understand. Sometimes it can feel like everyone else knows what they're doing and you're the only one behind the curve. I assure you that's not the case! We’re here for you.”

Generosity

This last element of trust is about making the most generous possible assumptions about others’ behavior. And about extending that generosity to yourself.

How you can model this behavior

  • Extend the benefit of the doubt towards yourself, especially when everything is not perfect or things aren’t going as planned.
  • When conflict needs to be addressed, Brené recommends phrasing it as “the story I’m making up about this is…” as a way to separate strong feelings from the facts of the situation.
  • Remember that perfection is an enemy of connection, your imperfection is necessary!

Encouraging this in the community

  • “We all have different perspectives and backgrounds here which means that sometimes we can accidentally hurt or annoy each other by using the wrong language. We encourage you to make generous assumptions about others’ intentions.”
  • “Whenever you disagree with someone, please lead with curiosity and ask questions first.”
  • “If something said in the community makes you want to take a step back, we encourage you to first communicate it to our team or to a person directly. We are here to listen and to help make amends.”

When I asked about trust on Twitter, I was recommended many interesting resources, which I’m working on reading and incorporating into the above and in how I approach building communities. Thank you to those who sent ideas and resources!

I invite you to use everything shared here as a guide to rethink trust in the communities you’re building. If you decide to use the exact phrases I give as examples here, you must give credit and link to this page. ❤️

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