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A trust fall is a group exercise in which a person deliberately allows herself to fall in order to be caught by someone or others in the group. The exercise is used by a variety of groups, organizations, and business to give the persons involved a sense of trust in one another. It is also designed to build team spirit among the members in order to help the group accomplish its goals.
In a typical trust fall exercise, group members form a circle around the person who is to fall. Sometimes there is a designated “spotter” who is to catch the person falling. The spotter should be positioned close enough to catch the person but far enough away to allow for an almost complete fall.
There is an element of danger in trust falls. The person who is to fall stands stiff and straight and then simply leans backward. She is not to try in any way to slow or prevent the fall. When injuries do occur, they are usually the result of panic on the part of the person falling, or the failure of the spotter to safely catch the person. Trust fall facilitators recommend that there always be at least one experienced group leader.
In some exercises, the length of the trust fall is gradually extended or varied. It may include falling from a stepladder and then a stage. More than one person may be designated to fall. Falls can be arranged in any direction, or the person falling must chose one without revealing it.
A variant of the trust fall is to perform the exercise in two stages, an emotional fall and a physical fall. The emotional fall involves trusting there will be acceptance from the group. Individuals may be asked questions such as why they are there and what strengths they believe they bring to the group. Participants may also be asked to explain their level of commitment to the group and why its purposes are important. Many facilitators believe that building the emotional trust first strengthens the success of the physical fall.
There is generally a question and answer session, sometimes referred to as a “debriefing,” at the conclusion of a trust fall exercise. Participants are asked to comment on what the exercise meant to them. They are also encouraged to talk about how it made them feel emotionally, particularly toward the rest of the group.
Some critics point out that there is no scientific evidence that a trust fall really builds trust. The exercise is in a controlled environment, in which the participants are all expected to act in a trustworthy manner. They are also in the presence of all their peers. However, group leaders point out that the exercise creates a shared sense of purpose among the participants, from which lasting trust grows as they continue to work together.
I didn't believe in the benefits of trust falls until I had to take one of my own at a band camp in high school. It was supposed to be a surprise trust fall, not an elaborate ceremony. We were all told to anticipate someone yelling out "Trust Fall!" and then leaning backwards. A few people didn't get caught, but they weren't hurt too badly.
When it was my turn, I looked back to make sure there were enough people to catch me and I just yelled TRUST FALL! I fell backwards and I felt all of these arms around me. Nobody tried to drop me or pull out or anything. They just lowered me down to the ground and helped me back up again. I realized it really was a trust building exercise, even if I didn't consider everyone behind me to be a personal friend. The TEAM wasn't going to let a team member down.
We did some trust falls at a company retreat one time as part of a communication exercise. The "catchers" were supposed to assure the "faller" that they would indeed catch him or her. The faller would only take the fall if he or she felt convinced it was totally safe. This is where the communication skills part took over. Each catcher had to make a convincing argument that he or she had no reason to let that person get hurt by pulling away.
I thought it was a pretty good way of building trust, but we did have a few people act like they were going to back out of the catch. I felt bad for the faller one time, because she shared her fears with the group and one immature participant nearly ruined it.
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