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Building Trust in the Collaborative World

By Bernie Bolger
Collaborative Coach, FDRP, counsellor, mediator
Member of CPNSW

In a study done about seven years ago, a group of professionals and clients were asked what they thought made for a successful relationship. Not surprisingly the professionals overwhelmingly thought that clients chose them on the basis of their technical expertise. However this was totally at odds with the answers given by their clients. What must be remembered is that clients are not lawyers and therefore cannot assess the quality of the legal advice. So instead they assess the lawyers. They assess the likelihood that the lawyer will deliver good quality advice based on a series of very complex, experiential clues, the most important of which is trust.


It is the presence or absence of trust which, in my experience as a Collaborative Coach, is the number one predictor of whether the matter will succeed or fail.

New research backs this up and suggests that people respond more positively to someone who comes across as trustworthy rather than confident. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy of Harvard Business School is studying how we evaluate people we meet. It turns out that when we meet individuals or groups for the first time, we mostly evaluate two metrics: trustworthiness and confidence. And the best part is that once you understand this, you can learn to make a better first impression. Perhaps a strong handshake and an assertive greeting is not the way to go…

According to Cuddy, when we form a first impression of another person it’s not really a single impression. We’re really forming two. We’re judging how warm and trustworthy the person is, and that’s trying to answer the question, “What are this person’s intentions toward me?” And we’re also asking ourselves, “How strong and competent is this person?” That’s really about whether or not they’re capable of enacting their intentions. Research shows that these two trait dimensions account for 80 to 90 percent of an overall first impression, and that holds true across cultures. So the two questions that people are asking when they meet you are: ‘Can I trust this person?’ and ‘Can I respect this person?’

‘From an evolutionary perspective,’ Cuddy says, ‘it is more crucial to our survival to know whether a person deserves our trust.’

‘If someone you’re trying to influence doesn’t trust you, you’re not going to get very far; in fact, you might even elicit suspicion, because you come across as manipulative,’ Cuddy says. ‘A warm, trustworthy person who is also strong, elicits admiration; but it is only after you’ve established trust does your strength become a gift rather than a threat.’

For collaborative professionals, building trust with their clients is only one very small part of the Interdisciplinary Collaborative Practice conundrum. Not only do they have to build trust with their own clients, they also have to build trust within the professional team and with their client’s ex-partner. And it is the presence or absence of trust which, in my experience as a Collaborative Coach, is the number one predictor of whether the matter will succeed or fail.

Collaborative Professionals also have to be mindful of all the times in the Collaborative journey where this trust building process needs to be nurtured:

  • Initial client intake meeting
  • Initial letter sent to other client or their lawyer
  • Correspondence between professional team members
  • First five-way (or six-way) collaboration meeting
  • Correspondence throughout process – to team and clients
  • Communication Black Holes – the time in between meetings when the professionals may be working very hard but don’t keep their clients abreast of progress.

Each member of the professional team is responsible for ensuring that trust remains front and central to the process. Be it in the conversations that are had with their own clients, respectful communication with other 3 members of the team and always when addressing their client’s ex-partner.

Again according to Cuddy, in order to enable your clients to make an accurate assessment of you, they need to be themselves. They need to feel comfortable and be relaxed. So if you try to be the more dominant participant in an interaction, it is going to make it harder for them to get accurate information about you, because it’s going to shut them down. They’re going to feel defensive or threatened; they’re going to try and out-alpha you. It’s not going to be any sort of natural interaction. If you are trusting, if you are authentic, if you project trust, people are more likely to trust you.


Natural smiles are contagious, almost like yawns: when you see one, it’s hard to resist smiling.

So from a practical point of view, the following are the seven most important steps we can take to build trust in the Collaborative World?

1. Authenticity and Duchenne Smiles – where the muscles around your eyes contract. (An aside – be kind to your crow’s feet, because they help you build relationships and make friends.) Natural smiles are contagious, almost like yawns: when you see one, it’s hard to resist smiling. And they’re also self-reinforcing: when you smile, your mood actually improves, making it easier to keep smiling. As with power posing, it’s great to get yourself into a warm and trusting state of mind before you go into an interaction. How do you do that? The strategy that is most similar to preparatory power posing is to force yourself to smile by holding a pen or pencil horizontally between your teeth. It actually forces the contraction of the muscles around both the mouth and the eyes. And if you do that, as I mentioned earlier, it improves your mood. Social psychologists call this facial feedback; facial feedback was the first real evidence that not only do nonverbals reflect our feelings, but nonverbals also change our feelings.

2. Listen and get to know your team – let the other person speak first. You can do this by simply asking a question – the most important one being: “What is it you want to achieve and how can I help you get there?” In therapy there is a modality known as Solution Focussed Therapy. There is one question from which all others come. It is known as the Miracle Question and is used by main stream marketers the world over today. “Imagine when you go to sleep one night a miracle happens, and the problems we’ve been talking about disappear. As you were asleep, you didn’t know that a miracle had happened. When you woke up, what would be the first signs for you that a miracle had happened?” or “if I were to wave a magic wand…?” The beauty of this question is that it focusses your client’s mind immediately and gets them to own their solution. It is then up to you to guide them towards that solution. There is no point in you solving their problem with your solution. Understanding must precede advice. And it is only when a person feels understood, that they will they trust you. It is incredibly disarming and your client will be more inclined to follow your advice.

3. Empathise – You must understand the people you’re trying to influence or lead. You must be able to show them that you understand them – and, better yet, that you can relate to them. By doing that, you’re laying the groundwork for trust. And it’s only then that they can really hear you and be open to your ideas. Trust is the conduit for influence; it’s the medium through which ideas travel. If they don’t trust you, your ideas are just dead in the water. If they trust you, they will be open to hearing what you’re offering. Having the best idea is worth nothing if people don’t trust you.

4. Be interested. You can also establish trust by collecting information about the other person’s interests — get them to share things about themselves. Just making small talk helps enormously. Research proves that five minutes of chit-chat before a negotiation increases the amount of value that’s created in the negotiation. What’s funny about all this is that the things that you do to increase trust are often seen as a waste of time. People say, “Oh, I don’t have time for small talk.” Well, they should make the time for small talk, because it will really help.

5. Body Language – Open, comfortable postures or “power stances” can help – draw your shoulders back so your chest is open, hands by your sides, on your hips or with fingers spread wide. Arms crossed in front of your body, covering your mouth and hunching are all examples of “low power” poses. Pay attention to your body all the time, not just when you are in a situation where you need to feel powerful in yourself. For example, hunching over constantly to text is bad practice. Good, open postures reduce anxiety and increase performance. If you are really serious about building trust – watch some videos of yourself when you are interacting with clients and ask yourself “Would I trust this person?”

6. Make eye contact, without staring. Maintain that contact for a count of three or five seconds. Any longer and you risk making them uncomfortable or threatening them. While you’re talking, it is better to keep your eye contact a touch on the shorter side and look around as you speak. When listening, it is more beneficial to maintain slightly longer periods of contact, indicating your (hopefully sincere) interest. 7. Communicate collaboratively. It is very important that the language in your follow-up correspondence with the other lawyer on the team takes on a friendlier tone. If you know the lawyer, pick up the phone. At the very beginning of the process, ask your client to prepare their ex-partner for the letter or email of invitation to the collaboration. It is much harder to rebuild trust after it has been broken by a ‘normal’ legal letter.