The Key to Creating Trust in Group Talks

by Laura Murphy, Co-Founder of ADAPT and optiMize Social Innovation Challenge Fellow 2015


This week I was part of the first Engineering Education Research (EER) group session of 2016. It was a combination of University of Michigan professors, faculty, PhD candidates, grad students, and undergrads all with an interest in the new and growing field of engineering education. It’s a small community on campus, so the purpose of the session was to meet other people working towards this really special purpose of improving engineering education! The plan was to discuss EER readings and provide feedback on each other’s work. There will be several more sessions throughout the rest of the summer.

I was looking forward to this session. Besides the free lunch (ayooo we got Pizza House) I was hoping to meet people open to discussing the not-so-great experience I’ve had as an mechanical engineering student. I have a lot to say about how engineering education needs to improve — more on that in a separate post.

I was disappointed. I left the room feeling a bit frustrated and that sentiment only grew throughout the day as I reflected on what happened. There were some small things like not everybody read the article for the session. I mean, come on guys. It was actually agreat reading! But more importantly, I didn’t feel as if there was a sense of mutual respect and integrity between everyone in the room.

I realized, I’m spoiled. I’m spoiled by optiMize, a social innovation organization at the University of Michigan. I’ve been a part of the optiMize community for two years and it plays a huge role every day in shaping who I am. Every Monday evening, optiMize hosts a share-out session where anyone in the community can come and take part in supporting the project teams working full time on their ventures this summer. This includes everyone from undergrads to faculty to professionals in Ann Arbor. optiMondays, as we fondly call them, are hands down the best night of the week.

So, I just had a discussion with a bunch of people in engineering who are doing awesome engineering education research, but I was so uncomfortable. Even though we had good topics of discussion, I didn’t feel like it was a safe space. I didn’t feel like I could share my opinion without judgment, especially since I was one of only a few undergrads there. My favorite part of optiMondays is that everyone has taken the time to agree to a set of expectations of respect, and everybody is coming from a place of love and care.

I want to share this simple yet powerful list that guides all discussions between optiMizers:


  1. I will never kill your dreams or make you feel stupid.
  2. I will “sit next to you” and put problems in front of us rather than between us.
  3. I will find the good first.
  4. I will ask for you to clarify any important idea that isn’t clear to me.
  5. I will challenge you only after I have made it clear that I have listened to you and I care about you.
  6. I will ask good questions to challenge you on key areas for consideration.
  7. I will acknowledge that I still might not fully understand the issue.
  8. I will help you understand your strengths and how to use them to address your challenges.
  9. I will tell stories from my own experience to illustrate potential lessons, but I will NOT give specific directions to you — not all of my lessons apply to your experience and this is YOUR business, not mine.
  10. I will work with you to create clear expectations of what must be completed (if anything) before we meet again.

*This list draws from Brene Brown’s Engaged Feedback Checklist as well as input from optiMize mentors.

This list is not only for mentors, but for anybody looking to be a part of the conversation. Everyone in the room knows that no matter what they say, it will be met with thoughtful discussion. Those who have more experience will have the space to share their own paths in life while at the same time not imposing their beliefs on anybody else. There’s no one telling you what you SHOULD do. Rather, “this is a parallel situation I’ve gone through in my life. What can we learn from it to help you through this challenge?”

Walking into a room of optiMizers, I always get this visual in my head of a little gold beam connecting every person like a spider web. We each individually bring positive energy to the table, but being together amplifies it and helps us to all grow as a community. I just think it’s so amazing how optiMize has created this sense of love and caring. It didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it takes a serious investment in culture from the optiMize community to commit to these guidelines. All I know is that it works. And it brings about more productive and inspiring discussions than any other group I’ve been a part of.