How to Cultivate Trust: Always Remember 5 to 1

This is the season of building trust–or at least it should be. Whether you are a coach wanting to build trust with your coachees, or a principal hoping to cultivate trust amongst your staff, or you support teachers to build trust with their students, I want to offer an easy to remember strategy to guide this effort.

The key is this: Five to one–five positive or neutral interactions for every one corrective interaction. This means that whether in a conversation, or during a class, whomever intends to build trust (the teacher, coach, principal) needs to have five positive or neutral interactions with another person for every one corrective piece of feedback. That’s what it takes to build and maintain trust according to psychologists (see John Gottman’s work if you want more).

Yesterday I observed an 8th grade teacher on the first day of school. She is new to the school, but not to teaching. Often when I observe teachers, I use a simple tracking tool to capture data on positive/neutral to negative interactions. (Here’s the T-S Interaction Tracking Blank ).

Within the first 10 minutes, she’d had 18 negative interactions with her students, and two positive ones. She was frustrated at the way they entered class, she sent them out and insisted they walk in quietly (and had them do this several times). She told them they were acting like “little kids.” She said she was “really disappointed” in them. She said she “expected more.” At the end of class, I asked kids what they thought of her class. They groaned. “She’s mean,” they said.

In the next class that this cohort went to, I used the same data tracker. Within the first 10 minutes, this teacher had 36 positive/neutral interactions with her kids, and not a single negative one. They listened when she spoke. They followed her requests. They were respectful to each other. They left with big smiles, telling me, “She’s the best. She really gets us. I’m going to learn so much in her class.”

Can you guess which teacher is going to have an easier year?

Next time you observe a teacher, try capturing this kind of data. It can give you a starting point to open up a conversation about the importance of teacher to student relationships, and to the impact on learning of relationships in which the learners feel safe and respected. And use this same approach when coaching the teacher–figure out how you can have five positive/neutral interactions for every one piece of critical feedback.

The beginning of the year is the most important time for us to focus on building trust. We can’t learn from people we don’t trust–our brains just aren’t at their optimal states. Thinking about the 5-to-1 rule can help you focus on a high leverage way to build trust.