Six Hacks to Get into the Trusted Advisor Mindset

In a recent TrustMatters webinar, I shared four key attributes of Trusted Advisor relationships, and six mindsets that can help you get there.

You can view this and all our free webinar recordings here. For those of you who prefer to read versus watching a recording, here’s what we discussed.

Four Attributes of Trusted Advisor Relationships

True Trusted Advisors are safe havens for tough issues – those people to whom we can turn for any challenge, professional or private, when we want guidance, support, or a sounding board. The special professional relationships Trusted Advisors form have four key attributes that distinguish them. These attributes are:

Personal. We often define our professional relationships by the roles we play: client and consultant, business partner and provider, customer and customer success advisor. Thinking about our relationships in terms of our roles creates a buffer and promotes the concept that we are working together only to fulfill a transaction. For trusted advisors, the relationship transcends the transaction. It is not a relationship between roles, but a relationship between two people. To be a Trusted Advisor, we must care about our client as a person.

Two-way. No one has the power to unilaterally create a Trusted Advisor relationship. The client must participate and reciprocate. While we can always strive to be more trustworthy, we won’t – can’t – be Trusted Advisors to all our clients. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t invest in building trust with all your clients, just that if it isn’t two-way, it’s limited.

Both Rational and Emotional. Trusted Advisor relationships go beyond the rational benefits, like solving business problems and meeting business needs, to engage on an emotional level. Empathy, the ability to recognize what someone is experiencing emotionally, is a critical element to connecting. But Trusted Advisorship also is more than deep friendship. Don’t overlook that being a Trusted Advisor means being comfortable engaging on a broad set of issues, not just those for which we’ve been hired.

Intrinsically about Perceived Risk. To quote from The Trusted Advisor, “Trust without risk is like cola without fizz; there isn’t much point to it.” The very act of trusting is taking a risk; if there were no risk, there would be no need for trust. Risk, real and perceived, varies based on the situation, but the client’s perception of their own risk may as well be the reality. Whether or not we agree with that perception, we need to acknowledge and respond in kind.

Mindset Matters

So how do we develop relationships that have these key attributes? It’s simplistic to look for tips and tricks without considering the importance of Trusted Advisor mindsets. And often, having the right mindset will help us naturally take the right action. Mindset hacks are simple things we can do to get – and stay – in the right mindset.

Here are six key Trusted Advisor mindsets, and a hack to get into each one.

Mindset #1: Focus on the other person. If we focus on the other person, everything else in the relationship will pretty much fall into place. As professionals, it would seem obvious that we would be focused on the other person. But there are a lot of impediments to other-focus. For example, we may believe that our technical capability or competency is enough, or have difficulty maintaining concentrated attention, or we’re focused on what they think about us. Maybe it’s just that we think that solving the problem is more important than understanding the problem. All of these are impediments to other focus.

The mindset hack here is to focus on the person, not the problem. Clients generally want to be understood as a precondition to having their problems solved.

Mindset #2: Self-confidence. Self-confidence is about recognizing the value that you bring to the relationship, beyond technical expertise or the results of a particular transaction. The biggest impediment to self-confidence is fear; that we’re wrong, that they won’t think we’re smart or competent, or like or respect us. So we push conversations to our expertise, to where we’re comfortable. With self-confidence, you can let the conversation go where it naturally will, knowing you can meet the client where they are.

The mindset hack for self-confidence is to ask yourself, “What value do I bring to the relationship?” (Beyond the technical expertise to solve the challenge is that’s in front of you.)

Mindset #3: Ego strength. This sounds like a strange one for trusted advisors, where we spend so much time talking about maintaining a low self orientation. Ego strength is the ability to take yourself out of the equation and focus on the process of developing the relationship. Ego strength requires objectivity, the ability to look past ourselves and our emotions and focus on the process of building the relationship. Impediments to ego strength include a desire for recognition or an avoidance of blame; inappropriate emotional attachment to our solution, idea or perspective; and losing sight of the big picture. We let what we want to get emotionally out of a situation get in the way of the relationship.

The mindset hack for ego strength is a mantra, “It’s not about me.” If you feel yourself thinking about getting the credit, or the blame, or you find you’re tied up in something that’s emotional for you, just remind yourself that it’s not about you.

Mindset #4: Curiosity. The mindset around curiosity is this: the problem is rarely as simple as it seems at first pass. David Maister, co-author of The Trusted Advisor, points out that the problem is never what the client says it is in the first meeting. Curiosity helps us focus on what we don’t know, not just on what we do know. It enables better solutions, ensures we’re solving the right problem, and demonstrates to client that we fully understand them. Some things that get in the way of curiosity are over-confidence from past experience (you’ve seen this before and know the answer), unexplored or unrecognized assumptions, and urgency. Don’t get so caught up solving the problem that you forget to understand the problem.

The mindset hack for curiosity is one question: “What’s behind that?” It’s non-judgmental and creates an opportunity for the other person to share more before we move on to the next step in problem solving.

Mindset #5: Inclusive professionalism. This is not “inclusive” in the sense of DEI. Inclusive professionalism means working with the client, not carrying the attitude that, as the professional, I’m here to fix them or do something they are not capable of doing. Inclusive professionalism requires that we embrace the value the client contributes to do our job correctly. Some inhibitors to inclusive professionalism include fear of losing control, patronization stemming from ego, and the assumption that they offer limited value because they asked for our help. Lack of transparency can also be exclusive. Our clients are specialists and experts in their roles. We may have a different perspective or experience, but they are experts at what they do, and we need both parts, together, to succeed.

The mindset hack for inclusive professionalism is a simple statement: “We will be more successful together.” That suggests they have something to add and we have something to add, and only together can we be successful.

Mindset #6: The relationship is the goal. It’s easy to get so caught up in work we’re doing that we forget about the relationship. Relationships survive bad events. Not projects. And relationships lead to growth, not deliverables. One impediment to a relationship mindset is short term thinking. If you only focus on this project or transaction, you give up the future potential the relationship holds. Similarly, only focusing on the technical problem leaves you with nothing when the problem is solved. Another major impediment is a lack of willingness to invest emotionally, to care about our clients as human beings.

The mindset hack is very, very simple. “The relationship is more important than …” The relationship is more important than not being blamed, than defending myself, than completing this deliverable right now. If we always put the relationship first, then our behaviors will follow.

Keeping Yourself on Track

Changing your mindset takes practice and intentionality. These four questions will help you be intentional about your mindset:

  1. Who am I thinking about?
  2. What does the client feel about this?
  3. Who am I serving by my present approach?
  4. What am I afraid of here?

The next time you feel yourself slipping out of the Trusted Advisor mindsets, ask yourself these four questions to get back on track.

Content for this post sourced from The Trusted Advisor by Maister, Green, and Galford, The Free Press, 2000; and Trust-Based Selling by Charles H. Green, McGraw Hill, 2006.

Trust-Based Resources to Maximize Your Team’s Potential:

Recovering Lost Trust May Be Simpler Than You Think

We’ve all heard it (and may have said it ourselves) many times: “Trust is hard to gain and easy to lose.” Often that statement is followed up with, “And, once it’s gone…” Even without finishing the sentence the implication is clear: once trust is lost, it’s very difficult to get back.

But is trust really as fickle as we think it is, requiring such Herculean effort to gain and maintain? And is it really so hard to recover once it’s lost?

Trust is Hard to Gain

Let’s start by exploring the idea that trust is hard to gain.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a stranger on the street trusting you to watch their beloved cat Lawrence while they vacation in Greece this month.

Before entrusting you with the wellbeing of their precious companion, they would need some reassurances. They would need to be confident that your intentions are good, that you’re able to do the job, that you actually will do the job, and that you will connect with and care for Lawerence almost as much as they do, five walks around the block each day and all.

Trust may be hard to gain quickly with Lawrence’s Greece-bound caregiver, but it’s still relatively simple to demonstrate your intentions, capability, reliability, and level of caring before they ask you to temporarily foster their feline friend.

In fact, there are several things you can do – both with cat-loving vacationers and in your professional relationships – that will accelerate trust, like focusing on the other person and listening, making it a lot easier to gain than we might think.

Trust is Easy to Lose

Next, let’s explore this concept.

Think about a few people at work whom you trust and with whom you have strong relationships. That might include your work BFF, a colleague you really admire, or someone who just gets you.

Has anyone in that group ever done anything to break your trust? Even just a little?

What about that time they said they were going to get right back to you and they didn’t? Or they’re constantly running late so you can’t trust them to join the team for lunch on time. Maybe at some point they weren’t as careful as you wanted with information you asked them not to share.

Yet you still trust them.

With most people we trust, it’s easy to forgive transgressions, especially for smaller things. We assume positive intent on their part and give them the benefit of the doubt. When they don’t get right back to us as they said, we know they probably have a good reason, and we don’t make it a big deal.

From that perspective, real trust isn’t as easy to lose as we sometimes think it is. Real trust can withstand a little testing.

Once Trust is Gone, it’s Not Coming Back

So what about those times when trust isn’t just tested, it breaks – what then? How hard is it really to recover trust once it’s lost?

It’s important to remember that all human relationships go through natural periods of rupture and repair and that no relationship, professional or personal, is going to be entirely conflict free. And that includes broken trust, whether through intentional or unintentional actions.

Furthermore, if we handle the conflict or the broken trust well, the relationship can actually come back stronger than before. This is a concept known as antifragility, an idea popularized by Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile.

Taking perhaps a little liberty in the interpretation, antifragility is the concept that systems, entities, or organisms can thrive when exposed to stress, vs. being durable or resilient (difficult to break or able to recover to their initial state). In other words, antifragile entities actually become stronger under duress.

Think about a forest after a fire: massive regrowth, new species appear, flora and fauna flourish.

What happens to muscles that have been tested and stressed through exercise? They rebuild into stronger, more capable muscles.

Broken bones generally heal stronger than the original bone.

This is antifragility.

Relationships can be antifragile, too, as they go through those natural periods of rupture and repair.

If there’s a relationship where trust is broken and you want to recover it, there are a few things you can do to build the relationship back stronger than before – or at least get it to a better place.

  1. Prioritize the relationship over your own discomfort – be willing to have the tough conversation;
  2. Listen to the other person to be sure you’ve heard their experience of the event;
  3. Acknowledge the impact of broken trust on the other person;
  4. Take responsibility, and apologize when appropriate, for your part; and
  5. Commit to preventing it in the future.

Although the myths about how difficult it is to build trust – and to recover it when it’s lost – persist, there’s really no mystery to it: lower your self orientation and focus on the other person, be willing to connect, say what needs to be said, and do what you said you would.

Recovering lost trust might be easier than you think. And the rewards are certainly worth it.

Trust-Based Resources to Maximize Your Team’s Potential:

Trusted Advisor Lawyers

In Gallup’s annual poll of Most Trusted Professions, lawyers rank 11th out of 15. In our work with clients, we often ask for unprompted answers to “which professions are least trusted?” The results reliably list car salesmen, lawyers and politicians as top choices for the bottom three. It’s also true that in our practice, lawyers generally rank low on the Trust Quotient self-assessment tool.

Given those daunting results, can lawyers legitimately aspire to being trusted advisors?

It’s a fair question, but our answer is unambiguously ‘yes.’ Not only that, but lawyers who do figure out the answer have a great competitive advantage, given the generally low bar set by their compatriots.

Structural Barriers to Trust

It’s worth noting that lawyers (and politicians) face some structural barriers to being perceived as trustworthy. In the US, the legal system by design is an adversarial system, and the first-listed ethical obligation is to advocate for one’s client (in the UK, service to the justice system gets top mention). As a lawyer friend of mine puts it, “in the law there is no truth – there is only evidence.” This is a feature, not a bug – the US system is designed to trust the system, not the lawyer. But it does mean that simple concepts like truth-telling don’t capture the whole essence of trust for lawyers.

Note: A similar structural feature applies to politicians – it is the work of politicians (at least, until recently) to seek compromise in order to further a common good. Again, simple definitions like “truth and honesty” aren’t sufficient to capture the whole story of trust.

I can’t think of a similar structural ‘excuse’ for the low trust ratings of car salesmen – they have to own their dismal ratings.

Lawyers and the Trust Equation

Notwithstanding the above, there is no reason lawyers can’t perform well on all dimensions of the Trust Equation. In my experience, all professional services suffer, more or less, from over-emphasis on the two ‘rational’ components of trustworthiness, Credibility and Reliability. But lawyers are at the extreme end of the professions in their tendency to equate trust with competence, credentials and rationality.

Again, this is not surprising; apart from physicians, lawyers must undergo far more rigorous substantive training and certification than, say, people in executive search or management consulting. Such fields attract people who are good at mastering complex material. On top of that, lawyers must be good at logical argumentation.

When a field puts inordinate emphasis on one aspect of trustworthiness, it is natural to expect people to assume that such emphasis is the key to being trusted.

Except, it isn’t.

Lessons of the Trust Quotient

The TQ (Trust Quotient), itself based on the Trust Equation, offers a quantitative indicator of trustworthiness. Our analysis of TQ data found that the “soft” skills of Intimacy and low Self-Orientation are slightly more powerful determinants of trustworthiness than are the “hard” components of Credibility and Reliability (based on a regression analysis of over 70,000 responses). But don’t take our word for it; note that the previously-mentioned Gallup poll shows nursing as the most trusted profession – for 19 years in a row. Not doctors, but nurses – a profession whose very job most foundationally rests on great skills of Intimacy and low Self-Orientation. Or, consider a classic Harvard Business Review article, Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks.

To put it delicately, few lawyers believe in their heart of hearts that soft skills are as important as hard skills. Yet legal clients are the same people who are hospital patients, and the same people who hire accountants or financial planners. The clients are all human beings, who share human traits, including a tendency to weight heavily the soft skills when it comes to choosing who to trust.

So What’s a Poor Lawyer To Do?

There are many aspects of being a trusted advisor, so it is misleading to focus on one. Nonetheless, let me take that leap, if only because this is a short blogpost.

Arguably top of the list is to be an excellent listener. Before you roll your eyes and move on, I’m talking about a particular kind of listening. It’s not about listening for data, or to prove a hypothesis or a case. Instead, it’s about listening as a form of respect. Respect, when given, produces respect in reciprocation. If I first listen to you, you are more inclined to listen to me.

Yes, clients seek us out largely for our reputation for expertise. But we all – and lawyers especially – draw the wrong conclusion from that. Once they’re found you, clients aren’t interested in you proving how smart you are, or how fast you can cut to the chase of the case at hand – that’s why they came to you in the first place.

But they won’t fully trust your advice on that basis. That trust comes from you first proving that you understand their unique story. If they believe you understand who they are and what their situation is, they then become willing to hear your advice – even if it was the same advice you expected to give them before they walked through the door, or that you routinely give to others in similar situations. They want your expertise, yes; but not until they sense that you have grasped their unique essence and circumstances.

They don’t teach this in law school. (Nor in business school, or architecture school, etc., for that matter). Yet it’s true. The key to being a trusted advisor is to earn the right to offer your expertise – a right we earn by paying attention to the individual humanity of each client, one at a time. Yes, competence and expertise matter, but not to the exclusion of the softer skills.

The good news is, it’s a lot easier to “learn” those skills; really, to recover them, because they are skills we learned in kindergarten, and have simply been mis-educated to unlearn them.

The S Trap: Is Self-orientation Destroying Your Trustworthiness?

Since The Trusted Advisor was first published in 2000, the most popular theme in the book has been the Trust Equation.

And within that equation, the factor that has stirred the most interest over the years has been the denominator, self-orientation. In the trust equation, since the S factor is in the denominator, a high level of self-orientation reduces trustworthiness. A low level of self-orientation serves to increase trustworthiness.

Self-Orientation Is About Focus

Self-orientation is essentially about our focus: is it on us or is it on them?

Our self-orientation is low (which is good) when our focus is on the other person, and it’s high (which is not good) when our focus is on us.

You’d think that, as people in professional services, we could confidently say our focus is nearly always on the client. If only that were true. High-self orientation creeps into our everyday interactions in all manner of sneaky and insidious ways.

The most obvious form of high self-orientation is when we are focused on our own goals/needs/desires above those of our client. Think of a stereotypical used-car salesman who will say anything to make the sale. Thankfully, because this form of self-orientation is so obvious, it is somewhat rare in professional services.

More common in professional services are the subtler, more insidious examples of high self-orientation: wanting to be right, wanting to be the one to solve the problem, subtly competing for attention and recognition, or wanting to be liked.

Taken to the extreme, this kind of high self-orientation can tip into self-obsession. Especially when we go into a situation anxious, or stressed, or lacking confidence, sometimes we just can’t get out of our own heads.

When we are so focused on what others think of us, there’s no space left for us to think about them.

High Self-orientation Diminishes Trust

When we are operating from high self-orientation, we do not hear others. We do not hear their questions, desires, fears, or emotions in general. The noise inside our own head drowns them out.

The psychology goes like this: if your level of self-orientation is low, you can pay attention to someone else. If you pay attention to someone, they experience that as caring. If someone thinks you care about them, they feel safe and are likely to trust you.

Conversely, if your attention is focused on yourself, others become acutely aware of it and infer that you do not care about them. Rightly or wrongly, they deem you less trustworthy.

We can test our S by asking ourselves if what we are saying or doing is truly in service to the relationship, vs. in service to ourselves.

Self-Orientation Does Not Mean Selfishness

Selfishness is zero-sum – I get what I want, and you do not – which is not the same as having high self-orientation. If you are selfish, you are probably pretty self-oriented. But you may also be highly unselfish, yet attached to the idea of others seeing you as unselfish. That is also high self-orientation.

Sometimes people equate low self-orientation with passivity or with willingness to give away business, cut price, or otherwise let the other party “win.” It means nothing of the kind.

A low self-orientation is critical to legitimate client focus. You cannot be focused on customers if you are obsessed with the activity in your own brain. Since client focus is a driver of profitability, this leads to a wonderful paradox: if you focus on achieving profitability by way of client focus, you will sub-optimize. Yet if you focus on the good of the client, rather than the funds you can extract from their accounts, you will achieve greater profitability – by treating it as a byproduct rather than as a goal.

Here’s a simple practical tool for avoiding high self-orientation: seek humility. That does not mean thinking less of yourself; it means thinking of yourself less.

What to Do When “My Client Is a Jerk”?

Let’s face it, in professional services, difficult clients come with the territory. You’ve probably encountered at least one:

  • A client who refuses to share information, explore ideas, or otherwise engage in making the project a success.
  • A client who cannot make a decision, no matter how much information and analysis you provide.
  • A client who is immobilized by fear or ignorance or office politics, who is not willing to address critical issues.
  • A client who is, well, just difficult, who always argues, or rejects your ideas, or is disrespectful to you and your team, yet who is perfectly wonderful with others.

When we deal with difficult clients, it’s easy to point the finger at them. But a deep, hard look might tell another story.

It turns out there’s a common thread among the clients that make you curse, and it has nothing to do with the clients. That common thread is you.

The Client Situation

Let’s create some perspective about the client.

Most of the people in a position to hire an outside professional are successful. They have people in their lives who love and appreciate them. A boss has likely promoted them. It is wise to assume that, even if their behavior is bad, they have some ability to get by in life. True psychotics/sociopaths are pretty rare in business.

Proclaiming your client is a jerk (even just to yourself) is a terrible problem statement. It’s highly subjective, unverifiable, and your client likely won’t agree that it is the problem. So where do you go from there?

Truly bad behavior usually comes from decent people who are stressed out, and thus not coping well. If someone is acting like a real jerk, it’s likely that they are afraid of losing something they have, or not getting what they need.

When you identify that fear, you can replace demonization with a real problem statement, which is a far more productive approach. This allows you to talk about that fear with your client and create a lasting bond that can serve you both well.

Our Own Situation

The truth about clients’ fear and bad behavior is equally true for us.

We are loaded with fear: fear of losing the sale, missing the deadline, blowing the project. But even deeper than the fear of failure is our fear of judgement. If I fail, will my boss view me as incompetent? Will my co-workers cease to value my work? Will my client think less of me?

As much as we fear being judged by others, judgment primarily resides in our own heads. We allow ourselves to be hijacked and held hostage by our own ideas of what constitutes success, based on value judgments instilled from our past.

One of the most emotionally attractive ways out of self-judgment is to blame others. “It was not my fault,” we want to say. “I’m late because of traffic,” or “that just wasn’t a realistic goal.” More to the point, we might say, “This project was doomed because I got stuck with a difficult client. If you’d had my client, you couldn’t have done much either. It wasn’t my fault – it was the client’s.”

But blame is useless, and it can all too easily become self-destructive. When blame flares up, people at first might commiserate with you, encouraging it. Then, as it metastasizes into resentment, people begin to move away from you. Misery may love company, but company doesn’t return the favor.

Blaming a client never got you the win, and it never will; but it may keep you from getting the next one. People don’t like blame-throwers. Clients especially don’t.

Recognizing When You Are to Blame  

To get to the root of the problem, we have to articulate the real problem.

The first thing to do is to notice our thoughts. Ask yourself, “What is the problem here?” If your mental snapshot answer starts with, “My client won’t…” or “My client doesn’t…” or “I can’t get my client to…” or “My client never…” then you need to step back and reframe your thinking. You are stuck in the blame game, spinning your wheels, and going nowhere.

  • A good problem statement is objective and verifiable. Changing what someone does is a lot easier than changing who someone is.
  • A good problem statement has you in it. If it’s all about the client, you are helpless to change the situation.
  • And almost always it should be a problem statement that is joint. If you and your client can’t even agree about why you’re not getting along, you’re certainly not going to make much progress on the substantive issues you want to work on.

If you have a “difficult” client, find a “we” statement you can both agree to that gets to the heart of the disagreement.

How to Fix a “Difficult” Client

Sometimes, all we need to do is jointly reframe an issue and–voila–our client no longer seems so difficult.

If that isn’t enough, and you decide the relationship is worth saving, go back to basics. Really listen. Deeply. Just for the sake of understanding. Don’t react with suggestions or action steps. Empathy and true understanding often end up being the catalysts that change everything.

But sometimes, we need to do more advanced work – on ourselves – to see what we’ve become attached to that holds us hostage. There’s a saying, “You’ll worry less about what people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.”

Here are three ways to move beyond fear and self-judgement:

  1. Let go of your desired outcome. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t have a strong opinion or argue committedly for what you know is right. But we are not responsible for our client’s actions, only for informing their actions as best we can. Holding ourselves accountable for changing others is a losing proposition. Do the right thing, then detach from the results. You don’t own the outcome.
  2. Check your ego at the door. The best way to lose an argument is to try too hard to win the argument. It is not about you. The only one who thinks it is about you is you. Focus on the client, not yourself.
  3. Be curious. Is your client “difficult?” Be curious as to why. What are they afraid of? What is at stake? What is your role in the situation? What are you afraid of? What problem are you both trying to solve?

There aren’t any difficult clients. Not really. There are only relationships that aren’t working well. And nearly all of those can be fixed. But it must start with us.

The 80/20 rule for Virtual Relationships (Part IV): Double-Down and Ramp Up the Rational Trust Builders

The initial post of this blog series introduced what we called the (new) 80/20 rule for virtual relationships, warning that focusing too much on the “virtual” part of “virtual relationships” could lead to missed opportunities and damaging long-term consequences.

In that post, we pointed out that relationship-building and selling aren’t really different these days, in spite of what people are trying to tell you, and in spite of what your own fears are whispering—or maybe shouting—in your ear.

Using the trust equation as a framework, the second and third posts addressed the more emotional trust factors, self-orientation and intimacy.

In this final post, we invite you to consider how you might double down on your relationship EQ and ramp up your virtual IQ on the rational side of building trust – Reliability and Credibility – to strengthen your bonds with clients and colleagues when you can’t be together in person.


It does not diminish the importance of reliability to say that it is the aspect of trust at which most professionals excel. This is the factor most likely to be done well by you (and your competitors). It is also the on factor of trust that requires time.

Judgments on reliability are strongly affected, if not determined, by the number of times the client has interacted with you. We tend to trust the people we know well, and assign less trustworthiness to those with whom we have not interacted. After Intimacy, Reliability is the second most powerful trust builder.

Double down on time-tested relationship principles (80%)

  • Make small promises. You don’t have to wait for a big “thing” to be delivered to flex your strong reliability muscles. Amp up the number of small promises you make. Give others more data points to assess your consistency/predictability by creating bite-sized “deliverables,” then consistently follow through.
  • When you miss a deadline or an expectation (and you will), say something about it ASAP. Clean up any residual messes and re-promise. Do this even for things that may seem small or inconsequential.

Ramp up your virtual best practices (20%)

  • Communicate more, and more often. Absent a crisis, reliability is table stakes, and generally over-emphasized by professionals at the expense of other variables. During a crisis, its relative importance increases because of our basic human need for predictability. Consider how you might regularly communicate what you know about a situation, even if it’s little or nothing—the “regularly” is actually more important than the content of your message.


Credibility isn’t just providing expert content. It’s expert content in conjunction with “presence,” which refers to how we look, act, and present our content.

Credibility is also about honesty and candor—saying what needs to be said, in spite of how awkward or uncomfortable it may feel.

Double down on time-tested relationship principles (80%)

  • Be bold with your point of view. Initiate conversations, post opinions, publish articles. The “advisor” part of “trusted advisor” is just as important as the “trusted” part. Have the courage to put a stake in the ground. If not now, when?
  • Express passion for your work. Show more than just professionalism; show your genuine enthusiasm for what you do, and for what your clients do. Passion is something that everyone can benefit from expressing more, but it can be especially uplifting and impactful during a challenging time.
  • Be real about your limitations and errors. For example, be willing to say, “I don’t know,” straightforwardly and with a blend of confidence and humility. You’ll build credibility through honesty. And therein lies the plot twist/paradox: when you’re OK to admit what might be perceived as weakness, people see your strength.

Ramp up your virtual best practices (20%)

  • Dial down the amount of content. The tendency to over-pack conversations and presentations is more damaging now that we’re all perpetually tired from having to engage in “constant gaze.” Think and apply “less is more” when it comes to content and give people more time to digest it and react to it.

Many professionals believe that being credible and reliable is enough to form strong trust relationships. While these two factors often provide the foundation for trust, they are only part of what forms the everlasting client bonds and deep, unshakable loyalty that come with true trusted advisorship.

Winning trust requires that you do well on all four trust dimensions (in the client’s eyes).

The 80/20 rule for Virtual Relationships (Part III): Double-Down and Ramp Up Intimacy

In the first post of this four-part blog series, we introduced what we called the (new) 80/20 rule for virtual relationships. For anyone seeking a “silver bullet” to build virtual relationships, focusing too much on the “virtual” part of “virtual relationships” becomes an easy distraction from what really matters.

Now is the time for 80% focus on our relationship EQ and 20% focus on improving our virtual IQ—not the other way around.

We introduced the trust equation in Part II of the series as a framework to do just that, sharing our favorite low self-orientation relationship builders (the 80%) and behaviors to incorporate specifically for virtual interactions (the 20%). Today look at the most powerful trust-building factor: intimacy.


The most common failure in building trust is the lack of intimacy. Some professionals consider it a positive virtue to maintain an emotional distance from their clients. We believe that they do so not only at their own risk, but also to that of their clients.

Double down on time-tested relationship principles (80%)

  • Listen with earnest empathy. And then do it some more. And some more. Borrowing Charlie Green’s wise words: “Wow” is a complete sentence.” So is “Ouch,” and “Good on you!” Statements of empathy are ways of mirroring emotions, and empathy is key for connectedness and influence.
  • Create “small talk” moments. Neuroscientists teach us that something as simple as the exchange of pleasantries (like talk about the weather) produces feel-good chemicals in our brains that promote bonding. Go one step further and ask about the photo you see on the bookshelf behind them. Small talk can facilitate a big personal connection.
  • Dare to talk about feelings (yours and theirs). We all have them, and they’re a legitimate part of professional life. Steer towards first-person language when you focus on their feelings, as in, “I’m sensing hesitation” (compared to, “You’re hesitating”) or “If it were me, I think I’d probably feel …” (instead of, “You probably feel …”). Speak candidly about your own feelings, as in, “Well, I’m a little concerned about …,” or “At the risk of being the outlier, I’m not on board yet with this idea.”
  • Let others get to know you. For real. Now is not the time to err on the side of “buttoned up”; now is the time to connect meaningfully across our humanity. Fortunately, our collective context makes it both relevant and easier to reference our outside lives. Take emotional risks. Beware the temptation to make excuses or hide the truth—if you have to cut a call short to help your child with homework, be honest about it. Charlie also reminds us, “Don’t legislate cats out of the picture.”
  • Ask for feedback. Be proactive about seeking critique. Ask well crafted, open-ended questions that help with the inertia that most clients have to overcome to say something unfavorable. Be equally willing to take in their positive remarks. And don’t just ask about content and task; inquire about the quality of your relationship, too.

Ramp up your virtual best practices (20%)

  • Seek greater (emotional) bandwidth. Try a higher medium of communication than you did six months ago. Debating over text versus email? Go with the one that’s a little riskier because it’s more intimate. Also remember the forgotten application embedded in our smart phones: the phone itself.
  • Attend to nonverbals more than before. We’re all at a massive communication disadvantage, far more consistently than we once were. Practice making regular “eye contact,” for example, which means letting them look you in the (camera) eye. Tune into—and make deliberate use of—the sight and sound senses that are still available: voice modulation, gestures, movement.

The behaviors that build intimacy—discretion, empathy and personal risk-taking— create emotional safety for the other person. Intimacy was already the most important factor in the Trust Equation, and in times of stress, it’s vastly more valuable.

In our final post of this series, we’ll explore increasing credibility and reliability in virtual relationships.

The 80/20 rule for Virtual Relationships (Part II): Using the Trust Equation to Double-Down and Ramp Up

We recently introduced what we call the (new) 80/20 rule for virtual relationships. In the first of this four-part blog series, we acknowledged that it’s anything but business as usual these days, but cautioned that focusing too much on the “virtual” part of “virtual relationships” could lead to missed opportunities and damaging long-term consequences.

We concluded that now is the time for 80% focus on our relationship EQ and 20% focus on improving our virtual IQ—not the other way around.

That’s because how we interact may have changed, but what builds trusted relationships has not. True trusted advisorship demands that we find ways to make choices from our higher selves, not from our baser instincts, and not from our bag of virtual tricks.

The temptation to spend a lot of time and money on the technological equivalent of shiny objects becomes an easy distraction from what really matters, when our current reality is a call to lead with time-tested relationship principles and shore them up with virtual best practices.

Enter our old friend, the trust equation, as a framework to help us all do exactly that.

Many professionals believe that being credible and reliable is enough to form strong trust relationships. While these two factors often provide the initial foundation for trust, they are necessary but insufficient to form the everlasting client bonds and deep, unshakable loyalty that come with true trusted advisorship. Trust has multiple dimensions: credibility, reliability, intimacy and lack of self-orientation. Winning trust requires that you do well on all four dimensions (in the client’s eyes).

Consider how you might double down on your relationship EQ and ramp up your virtual IQ to form everlasting client bonds and deep, unshakable loyalty.


We begin with self-orientation because there is no greater source of distrust than advisors who appear to be more interested in themselves than in trying to be of service and trying to help the client.

Unfortunately, your self-orientation is likely to be high right now, whether you realize it or not. On the other hand – so is everyone else’s.

We recognize – and will remember – those who are able to genuinely reach out beyond their own psyches and connect with others in such times.

Double down on time-tested relationship principles (80%)

  • Lead with your genuine caring as an individual. Reach out just to say hello and find out how they are. We’ve always advocated for this relationship-building practice, only now it’s more important than ever.
  • Lead with your genuine caring as an organization. Now is the time for rallying cries that are truly client-centric. Don’t let fear set your goals and choose your messaging.
  • Make generous offers. Propose something concrete that you can give away that would be helpful—resources, ideas, small bites of work that you can do remotely and not charge for. These are gestures, not discounts, and there are lots of ways to do this without compromising your fee/rate integrity.
  • Leave clients feeling good about themselves when they’re around you. It’s a favorite piece of David Maister wisdom: “You don’t make people want to spend time with you because they feel good about you. You do it by making them feel good about themselves when they are with you.” Think about how you might acknowledge or promote your clients—genuinely, of course.
  • Be rigorous about the rituals and practices that help you get and stay grounded. Zoom fatigue is real and everyone’s surge capacity is in short supply. Be intentional about managing your fear along with your overall well-being, and be a good role model for others in the process.

Ramp up your virtual best practices (20%)

  • Plan for interaction/engagement every five minutes or so during virtual meetings. No, that’s not a typo. It’s far too easy for clients to get distracted when we’re together online, plus it’s harder to sense what isn’t being said, so we all have to work harder to be collaborative when virtual is our primary/only option. Have both tech-savvy and traditional tools at the ready and use them appropriately: annotate, chat, breakout, pause and reflect, and many more.

Finally, grant yourself the grace to realize that things are different . Recognize and acknowledge what you are experiencing, and manage your Self-orientation moving forward.

In Part III of this series, we’ll share what to double down on and what to ramp up to increase Intimacy in virtual relationships.

Building Trust in a Low-Trust World

Being trustworthy means you make it easier for another person to trust you. You do what you say, are authentic in your words and actions, and are an overall “solid” human that people hold in high regard. But with trust, being trustworthy is only one side of the coin. To create trust, you must be trustworthy, and you also must take the risk of trusting. The latter is where most people struggle.

In our current state of the world, trust is insanely low. Only 17% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (Pew Research Center) and a Harvard Business Review survey revealed 58% of people say they trust strangers more than their own boss (Forbes). People are looking side to side to determine who they can trust and are coming up short. We’re in a trust standoff, and if no one steps forward first, there will be no movement.

How do you build the most satisfying personal and professional relationships possible, when no one is willing to take the risky leap to trust? The answer is that you need to take the first leap, and trust that the other person will reciprocate and trust you in return. You can make that reciprocation easier by leading with intimacy, which is the strongest factor in The Trust Equation.

Intimacy is about creating a sense of safety in the relationship, for you and for your client or colleague. It’s part discretion, part empathy, and part risk-taking. True intimacy demands that you be vulnerable and open to taking risk, just as you are asking your client to take the leap to trust you. Here are five practical ways to kick intimacy into high gear:

  • Listen really well, to both facts and emotions. Be fully present to what your client is saying and experiencing. This may mean putting aside distractions (no multi-tasking) or silencing the voice in your head that is running off to solve the problem you think you already identified. Then acknowledge what you hear, both the facts and the feelings. Giving someone the gift of listening is the fastest way to create intimacy.
  • Share something personal. You don’t have to share private details of your life, or even what you did over the weekend. Some of the most intimacy-building moments come from sharing how you personally are impacted by a situation, a decision, or an experience.
  • Tell your client something you appreciate about them. Are you impressed by their point of view? Appreciate how they navigated a tricky political situation? Grateful for the support they’ve given you? Don’t just think it, say it.
  • Comment on feelings – yours or theirs. Empathy creates emotional connection. When your client knows you really understand them, not just the situation, but how it impacts them, they will be more open to hearing your perspective. And because trust is a two-way street, be willing to share with them when you’re frustrated, excited, or upset. They’ll appreciate knowing that you’re human, too.
  • Say what needs to be said. Acknowledging uncomfortable situations and being direct with less-than-happy news lets your client know they can count on you for the good and the bad, so they aren’t left wondering if there’s something you’re holding back. Bonus – candor builds credibility at the same time.

It’s easy to say you must take the first step in creating trust, yet harder to do because it feels so risky. Here are five more practical tips to help you overcome your fear to take this important personal risk:

  • Realistically assess the risk. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen? What is the probability of that happening?” Then act accordingly.
  • Name it and claim it. What is making it feel risky to you? Getting these fears into the light of day can rob them of their hold on you.
  • Practice empathy. As discussed above, empathy creates connectedness. It also can help you see the situation from both sides, which creates a more objective perspective on the risk you feel.
  • Identify your assumptions. Discern the facts that you know from the assumptions you make. Having trouble discerning fact from assumption? You can always ask your client to help you see it more clearly.
  • Believe in reciprocity. You have the choice to take the first step. Believe that the other person will follow.

Trust is personal, and it occurs between two people. You can’t force someone to trust you. What you CAN do is pave a smooth path that feels less risky for both you and your client.

The 80/20 rule for Virtual Relationships (Part I): Beware the Seductive View That “It’s Different Now”

This post was co-authored by Andrea P. Howe and Noelle Mykolenko.

Virtual, virtual, virtual. It’s all the rage now. Virtual meetings. Virtual teams. Virtual selling. There is no shortage of Google results boasting “11 Tips,” “5 Ways,” and “The One Thing You Need to Know.” Sales and relationship training providers are quick to tell you that you must, must, must adapt quickly to your new virtual reality or watch your revenues plummet. Providers of professional services seem especially quick to take the bait.

The problem is, that’s only 20% true.

Here’s our take:

Relationship-building and selling aren’t really different these days, in spite of what people who sell these things are trying to tell you, and in spite of what your own fears are whispering—or maybe shouting—in your ear. It’s anything but “business as usual” these days, that’s for sure. But beware the temptation to spend a lot of time and money on shiny “new” stuff that becomes an easy distraction from what really matters.

As Noelle so aptly said in a recent interview, “Human nature hasn’t changed.” Now is the time for 80% focus on our relationship EQ and 20% focus on improving our virtual IQ. Not the other way around.

Tips and tricks have never saved you before and they won’t save you now. Perfecting your office lighting is seductive, in the same way it’s always been tempting to tinker with a deck that contains far too much content to begin with. It’s easy to default to technical answers for non-technical problems. It’s more challenging—and considerably less soothing—to work on improving our own relationship liabilities and deficits.

True, the medium has changed for many of us; it’s at least become more dominantly virtual. And there are some really helpful and important things we all can and should practice to be more effective as a result. But we can and should do that while we focus most of our time and attention on trust-building mastery.

Our collective virtual work conditions (and selling/relationship circumstances) are a byproduct of our global situation; losing sight of that creates big relationship risks. Front and center for us all are the massive global and local challenges we’re facing—even if we momentarily forget or aren’t always present to the ways we are walking around unsettled and uncertain. Sure, we’re getting used to our “new normal.” Sort of. But let’s get real: we’re still only just beginning to grapple with it all—just ask a parent who’s navigating the new school year right now. And on top of everything, some businesses are in serious trouble.

If you’re wondering why your long-standing client is not replying to the email you sent asking for 30 minutes to brief them on your new offering, take a step back and consider that they just might be dealing with some serious sh** of their own right now–consciously or otherwise. The good intentions and solid logic that suggest they need what you’re selling more than ever don’t change that. Adding a standard, “Hope you and your loved ones are doing OK under the circumstances” at the beginning of your emails isn’t nearly enough. Conducting more engaging Zoom meetings isn’t enough, either.

Anyone whose success depends of the quality of their relationships should be laser focused on being of greater service to clients, starting with relating to them as businesspeople, yes, but also simply as people. There is an unprecedented opportunity to do right and do good (#silverlining) by taking our relationships deeper and broader.

If a trusted advisor is a safe haven for tough issues, consider how many more tough issues there are to be safe havens for right now. Our current environment is a weirdly helpful backdrop for doing that, and faster than ever before. We’ve all been physically and emotionally disconnected for months; people are craving connection. Plus, things that weren’t previously possible or the norm before are becoming commonplace. One example: Thanks to the shared impact of COVID on our loved ones, it suddenly seems more relevant to talk about our families and home situations even in our “business” conversations. Another example: That new possible client who, before COVID, would never turn her camera on in Zoom? Now it’s her default.

And therein lies the extraordinary opportunity to make more meaningful and lasting connections, provided that we lead with our caring, not with our spit-polished “virtual selling” techniques.

The biggest trust de-railer for us all right now is the same as it has always been, only amplified x 10: it’s fear.  There’s the fear of not making our numbers, of losing our jobs, of losing a family member, and more. Uncertainty is the word of the day, and our human brains are fighting ambiguity at every turn. Fear triggers our basest instincts: we default to protecting ourselves, obsessing about stuff, and avoiding relationship risks (or any risks, for that matter). This in turn affects our ability to really tune in to and be of service to others. Plus, we add to the cacophony when we don’t manage our own “stuff.”

Your results will be seriously compromised—in some cases, indelibly—unless and until you (1) recognize your fear and (2) deal with it effectively,

The only thing worse than a hammer looking for a nail is a fear-based hammer looking for a nail.

Your pre-pandemic relationship liabilities haven’t mysteriously disappeared. To quote Warren Buffett, “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” When things are going well, it’s easy to ignore mediocre relationship skills because you’re successfully getting the next sale or getting the job done.

Now is the time to do some serious personal work so that you can get seriously focused on how to make a difference for your clients and other people who matter to you.

The bottom line …

True trusted advisorship demands that we find ways to make choices from our higher selves, not from our baser instincts, and not from our bag of virtual tricks. Our current reality is a call to lead with time-tested relationship principles (80%) and shore them up with virtual best practices (20%) to form everlasting client bonds and deep, unshakable loyalty.

In Part II, we’ll show you how to use the trust equation as a framework to do exactly that.