I first got involved in healthcare improvement in my community about 10 years ago when I was asked to be part of a small team working to create more person-centered care in my children’s pediatrics clinic. As a parent of a child with complex health needs, I was flattered and excited for the opportunity.

So when we sat around the conference room table over the following weeks and months, I was surprised to notice that excitement turn into frustration and fear. The pace of the meetings was often rushed; there seemed to be unspoken hierarchies in the team that I couldn’t figure out. Many of the others’ improvement ideas didn’t always seem relevant to me. And I got the sense that my ideas seemed unrealistic and outside the clinic’s area of responsibility. Worried that I would be perceived as critical or difficult, I remember telling myself to hold back. Sometimes my frustration spilled out.

Looking back, I can see that the others were probably frustrated and afraid, too. It was their first time working in a multi-disciplinary improvement team. Acknowledging that there were areas of their work that needed improving in front of each other and parents must have been scary for them. And the things we were being asked to improve — equity, quality, safety and cost — were daunting and complex. 

Several months into that process, I joined a different team with a similar purpose. This time, I felt welcome and at ease. People were friendly in simple ways, like bringing coffee for everyone instead of just their own cup. We gave each other a moment to think before opening up big questions for discussion, and took the time to make sure that everyone who wanted to had a chance to speak. Though the task at hand was challenging, I felt safe enough to speak up when things felt like they were going off course.

One of the things that helped this team create trust was a guiding framework called Touchstones, which some of the team members had used before as a way to help create safe space. They were designed specifically for a kind of gathering called a Circle of Trust, but they can be adapted to define how people work together in organizations, communities or networks with integrity and trust — inviting the best of each person to show up and contribute. 

Touchstones help groups hold tension and engage in meaningful, honest conversation about difficult subjects with both courage and kindness. They can create the conditions that enable creativity, engagement and courage. 

Ten years on and I now work professionally as a facilitator of patient-professional partnership in healthcare transformation. I am also a facilitator-in-preparation with the Center for Courage & Renewal, the organization that developed these Touchstones with great care.

These Touchstones have enriched my work and so I thought I’d share them with you. How and where are you experiencing safety and trust? Where in your collaborations and relationships might you need a little more?

Circle of Trust® Touchstones for Safe and Trustworthy Space

Give and receive welcome. People learn best in hospitable spaces. In this circle we support each other’s learning by giving and receiving hospitality.

Be present as fully as possible. Be here with your doubts, fears and failings as well as your convictions, joys and successes, your listening as well as your speaking.

What is offered in the circle is by invitation, not demand. This is not a “share or die” event! Do whatever your soul calls for, and know that you do it with our support. Your soul knows your needs better than we do.

Speak your truth in ways that respect other people’s truth. Our views of reality may differ, but speaking one’s truth in a circle of trust does not mean interpreting, correcting or debating what others say. Speak from your center to the center of the circle, using “I” statements, trusting people to do their own sifting and winnowing.

No fixing, saving, advising or correcting each other. This is one of the hardest guidelines for those of us who like to “help.” But it is vital to welcoming the soul, to making space for the inner teacher.

Learn to respond to others with honest, open questions. Do not respond with counsel or corrections. Using honest, open questions helps us “hear each other into deeper speech.”

When the going gets rough, turn to wonder. Turn from reaction and judgment to wonder and compassionate inquiry. Ask yourself, “I wonder why they feel/think this way?” or “I wonder what my reaction teaches me about myself?” Set aside judgment to listen to others—and to yourself—more deeply.

Attend to your own inner teacher. We learn from others, of course. But as we explore poems, stories, questions and silence in a circle of trust, we have a special opportunity to learn from within. So pay close attention to your own reactions and responses, to your most important teacher.

Trust and learn from the silence. Silence is a gift in our noisy world, and a way of knowing in itself. Treat silence as a member of the group. After someone has spoken, take time to reflect without immediately filling the space with words.

Observe deep confidentiality. Safety is built when we can trust that our words and stories will remain with the people with whom we choose to share, and are not repeated to others without our permission.

Know that it’s possible to leave the circle with whatever it was that you needed when you arrived, and that the seeds planted here can keep growing in the days ahead.

© Center for Courage & Renewal, founded by Parker J. Palmer.

Here is a version of the touchstones that the Courage community uses in our circles: Download the mini-poster.

If you want to explore these Touchstones together with others, please join us on Friday, May 7, 2021, 3-4pm at our next Centering Circle where we’ll be focusing on the Touchstones as a way to create trustworthy spaces.

Published by Cristin Lind

Facilitator, consultant, speaker for better health and care through patient-professional partnership. Passionate about helping change agents build courage and agency. She/her.

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