Five Short Phrases to Build Relationships: Part 1 of 5

 

This is the first in a series of five posts on short (seven words or less) powerful phrases. Each phrase distills the essence of a key part of approaching trust-based relationships in business.

Why focus on short phrases like this? Because the concise expression of several emotionally powerful concepts packs a punch. Such phrases feel profound. They catch the listener’s attention. They force the listener to reflect. They are short enough to remember every word, and thus to resonate in the mind of the listener.

Today’s Phrase: (Seven words) 

“I could be wrong about this, but…”

What then follows is an observation, hypothesis, or point of view, that you wish to put forward to your client.

When to Use It

  • When you are attempting to distill key elements of a discussion and move toward framing an issue
  • As a way to establish thought leadership or credentials in a pitch or sales presentation
  • As a way to present an alternative point of view in a conversation.

Examples

  • “I could be wrong about this, but in my several forays into the retail industry, the merchandising function has generally had a pretty powerful voice…”
  • “I could be wrong about this, but my sense is that you may be attributing more energy on this issue coming from Bob than he might have – I wonder if he really cares that much?”
  • “I could be wrong about this, but it strikes me from what you’ve said that the downside risk sounds pretty small compared to the upside benefit…”

Why It Works

This little phraselet triggers four key concepts behind trust-based interactions: Low Self-orientation, Respect, Reciprocity, and Risk.

Low Self-orientation. By explicitly acknowledging up front your possible fallibility, you show that you are willing to subordinate your ego for the greater good of the team (paradoxically demonstrating that you are comfortable enough in your own skin to withstand being perceived as wrong).

Respect. By overtly confessing that you might not be right, you are deferring to the client as a possible arbiter of the real truth. It invites a correction if one exists. At the same time, if the client doesn’t have the right answer, it lets them off the hook, allowing them to save face – because at worst, they are your equal in ignorance.

Reciprocity. Reciprocity is a fundamental dynamic of human relationships, forming the template for such interactions as etiquette, influence, and trust. If you do X first, I will do the same in return. If you listen to me, I will listen to you; if you treat me well, I will treat you well; if you humble yourself to me, I will humble myself to you.

    • In this case, you are offering a gift of sorts – a gift of your insight, presented with humility. The natural reciprocative response is, bare minimum, to consider your gift; and often to, in return, engage in dialogue about the issue you have raised.
    • Note that in this context, it is critical that you really might be wrong, and you know it; the whole thing doesn’t work if you flat-out believe you couldn’t possibly be wrong (in which case you’re being hypocritical), or if there’s really no risk at all to your gift.

Risk. At nearly every point in nearly every relationship, each party fears taking a small risk to go deeper. Short term loss always overwhelms long-term gain in our emotional short-sightedness. But “I could be wrong, but…” says to the other party, “It’s OK – I’ll take the first risk. I’ll test the water, I’ll risk the humiliation – I’ll put myself forward to lessen the risk to you.” And, as per the reciprocity point above, this willingness to take the first risk results – paradoxically – in greater willingness of the other person to join you.

Next Blogpost:  Short Phrase #2 of 5: “At the risk of…”


Click Here To Read The Full Series:

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

13 replies
  1. Matthew Caldwell
    Matthew Caldwell says:

    Great article Mr. Green! These are such important tips as I don’t think I clearly understood what the “risk” aspect of building trust is about, but this really helps clarify the concept.

    Reply
  2. Stewart Hirsch
    Stewart Hirsch says:

    Charlie,
    Reading this post brings to mind an issue that I’ve been learning, writing and teaching about lately – implicit bias. Using the phrase suggested in your post works well under certain circumstances, depending on who says it. By way of example, a typical man, saying “I could be wrong about this, but…” demonstrates his ability to admit he doesn’t know everything. It softens the statement he is about to make, to help others accept his opinion. If, however, it’s a typical female who says those words, it is more likely to be seen as a sign of weakness – or that she doesn’t believe in her idea so much, and that that she is hesitant to share it.
    Of course, there are exceptions. For example, the phrase may work well for a woman with a reputation of using authority to get what she wants. Or it may not work well for a man with a “weak” presence because it shows just one more thing that he isn’t sure about. It may also depend on the listener, and the import of the topic.

    Caroline Turner, in her book, Difference Works, calls this type of phrase, a “disclaimer”. She describes a continuum, which has stereotypical masculine and feminine behaviors, and acknowledges that, while men and women can be anywhere along the continuum, typically, most women fall on the feminine side, and most men on the masculine side of the continuum. This is definitely an oversimplification, and I strongly recommend Caroline’s book for clarification and a deeper and more elegant description. A disclaimer like “I may be wrong but…” is described as a more feminine form of speaking, meant to build connections, while the more masculine form of speaking would be declaring with certainty. Caroline’s book contains helpful charts showing the differing ways of speaking along the continuum, along with the impact on listenerss.

    Based on what I have learned about implicit or unconscious bias, women have to walk a tightrope (compared to men) in terms of their use of language (and actions). So words such as appear in the blog work only in a limited circumstances for women, and much broader circumstances for men, because there are presuppositions about how we believe women and men are supposed to act, regardless of where they land on the continuum Caroline describes.

    By the way, I discussed this with Caroline before writing this, and she adds that we should all choose the right words (and actions), whether stereotypically masculine or feminine, for the circumstances, and consider our gender and that of the listener when doing so, so our words and actions have the effect we want. Back to addressing the phrase you shared in the blog, where I come out is that the phrase is a tool in the toolbox, to be used in the right circumstances by the right person, taking several factors I noted above into account. That is, it is a good tool, but not a one-size fits all.

    I am curious what you think, and what your readers think, keeping gender appearance in mind.

    Reply
  3. Stewart Hirsch
    Stewart Hirsch says:

    Charlie,
    Reading this post brings to mind an issue that I’ve been learning, writing and teaching about lately – implicit bias. Using the phrase suggested in your post works well under certain circumstances, depending on who says it. By way of example, a typical man, saying “I could be wrong about this, but…” demonstrates his ability to admit he doesn’t know everything. It softens the statement he is about to make, to help others accept his opinion. If, however, it’s a typical female who says those words, it is more likely to be seen as a sign of weakness – or that she doesn’t believe in her idea so much, and that that she is hesitant to share it.
    Of course, there are exceptions. For example, the phrase may work well for a woman with a reputation of using authority to get what she wants. Or it may not work well for a man with a “weak” presence because it shows just one more thing that he isn’t sure about. It may also depend on the listener, and the import of the topic.

    Caroline Turner, in her book, Difference Works, calls this type of phrase, a “disclaimer”. She describes a continuum, which has stereotypical masculine and feminine behaviors, and acknowledges that, while men and women can be anywhere along the continuum, typically, most women fall on the feminine side, and most men on the masculine side of the continuum. This is definitely an oversimplification, and I strongly recommend Caroline’s book for clarification and a deeper and more elegant description. A disclaimer like “I may be wrong but…” is described as a more feminine form of speaking, meant to build connections, while the more masculine form of speaking would be declaring with certainty. Caroline’s book contains helpful charts showing the differing ways of speaking along the continuum, along with the impact on listenerss.

    Based on what I have learned about implicit or unconscious bias, women have to walk a tightrope (compared to men) in terms of their use of language (and actions). So words such as appear in the blog work only in a limited circumstances for women, and much broader circumstances for men, because there are presuppositions about how we believe women and men are supposed to act, regardless of where they land on the continuum Caroline describes.

    By the way, I discussed this with Caroline before writing this, and she adds that we should all choose the right words (and actions), whether stereotypically masculine or feminine, for the circumstances, and consider our gender and that of the listener when doing so, so our words and actions have the effect we want. Back to addressing the phrase you shared in the blog, where I come out is that the phrase is a tool in the toolbox, to be used in the right circumstances by the right person, taking several factors I noted above into account. That is, it is a good tool, but not a one-size fits all.

    I am curious what you think, and what your readers think, keeping gender appearance in mind.

    Reply
  4. Stewart Hirsch
    Stewart Hirsch says:

    Charlie,
    Reading this post brings to mind an issue that I’ve been learning, writing and teaching about lately – implicit bias. Using the phrase suggested in your post works well under certain circumstances, depending on who says it. By way of example, a typical man, saying “I could be wrong about this, but…” demonstrates his ability to admit he doesn’t know everything. It softens the statement he is about to make, to help others accept his opinion. If, however, it’s a typical female who says those words, it is more likely to be seen as a sign of weakness – or that she doesn’t believe in her idea so much, and that that she is hesitant to share it.
    Of course, there are exceptions. For example, the phrase may work well for a woman with a reputation of using authority to get what she wants. Or it may not work well for a man with a “weak” presence because it shows just one more thing that he isn’t sure about. It may also depend on the listener, and the import of the topic.

    Caroline Turner, in her book, Difference Works, calls this type of phrase, a “disclaimer”. She describes a continuum, which has stereotypical masculine and feminine behaviors, and acknowledges that, while men and women can be anywhere along the continuum, typically, most women fall on the feminine side, and most men on the masculine side of the continuum. This is definitely an oversimplification, and I strongly recommend Caroline’s book for clarification and a deeper and more elegant description. A disclaimer like “I may be wrong but…” is described as a more feminine form of speaking, meant to build connections, while the more masculine form of speaking would be declaring with certainty. Caroline’s book contains helpful charts showing the differing ways of speaking along the continuum, along with the impact on listenerss.

    Based on what I have learned about implicit or unconscious bias, women have to walk a tightrope (compared to men) in terms of their use of language (and actions). So words such as appear in the blog work only in a limited circumstances for women, and much broader circumstances for men, because there are presuppositions about how we believe women and men are supposed to act, regardless of where they land on the continuum Caroline describes.

    By the way, I discussed this with Caroline before writing this, and she adds that we should all choose the right words (and actions), whether stereotypically masculine or feminine, for the circumstances, and consider our gender and that of the listener when doing so, so our words and actions have the effect we want. Back to addressing the phrase you shared in the blog, where I come out is that the phrase is a tool in the toolbox, to be used in the right circumstances by the right person, taking several factors I noted above into account. That is, it is a good tool, but not a one-size fits all.

    I am curious what you think, and what your readers think, keeping gender appearance in mind.

    Reply
  5. Stewart Hirsch
    Stewart Hirsch says:

    Charlie,
    Reading this post brings to mind an issue that I’ve been learning, writing and teaching about lately – implicit bias. Using the phrase suggested in your post works well under certain circumstances, depending on who says it. By way of example, a typical man, saying “I could be wrong about this, but…” demonstrates his ability to admit he doesn’t know everything. It softens the statement he is about to make, to help others accept his opinion. If, however, it’s a typical female who says those words, it is more likely to be seen as a sign of weakness – or that she doesn’t believe in her idea so much, and that that she is hesitant to share it.
    Of course, there are exceptions. For example, the phrase may work well for a woman with a reputation of using authority to get what she wants. Or it may not work well for a man with a “weak” presence because it shows just one more thing that he isn’t sure about. It may also depend on the listener, and the import of the topic.

    Caroline Turner, in her book, Difference Works, calls this type of phrase, a “disclaimer”. She describes a continuum, which has stereotypical masculine and feminine behaviors, and acknowledges that, while men and women can be anywhere along the continuum, typically, most women fall on the feminine side, and most men on the masculine side of the continuum. This is definitely an oversimplification, and I strongly recommend Caroline’s book for clarification and a deeper and more elegant description. A disclaimer like “I may be wrong but…” is described as a more feminine form of speaking, meant to build connections, while the more masculine form of speaking would be declaring with certainty. Caroline’s book contains helpful charts showing the differing ways of speaking along the continuum, along with the impact on listenerss.

    Based on what I have learned about implicit or unconscious bias, women have to walk a tightrope (compared to men) in terms of their use of language (and actions). So words such as appear in the blog work only in a limited circumstances for women, and much broader circumstances for men, because there are presuppositions about how we believe women and men are supposed to act, regardless of where they land on the continuum Caroline describes.

    By the way, I discussed this with Caroline before writing this, and she adds that we should all choose the right words (and actions), whether stereotypically masculine or feminine, for the circumstances, and consider our gender and that of the listener when doing so, so our words and actions have the effect we want. Back to addressing the phrase you shared in the blog, where I come out is that the phrase is a tool in the toolbox, to be used in the right circumstances by the right person, taking several factors I noted above into account. That is, it is a good tool, but not a one-size fits all.

    I am curious what you think, and what your readers think, keeping gender appearance in mind.

    Reply
  6. Stewart Hirsch
    Stewart Hirsch says:

    Charlie,
    Reading this post brings to mind an issue that I’ve been learning, writing and teaching about lately – implicit bias. Using the phrase suggested in your post works well under certain circumstances, depending on who says it. By way of example, a typical man, saying “I could be wrong about this, but…” demonstrates his ability to admit he doesn’t know everything. It softens the statement he is about to make, to help others accept his opinion. If, however, it’s a typical female who says those words, it is more likely to be seen as a sign of weakness – or that she doesn’t believe in her idea so much, and that that she is hesitant to share it.
    Of course, there are exceptions. For example, the phrase may work well for a woman with a reputation of using authority to get what she wants. Or it may not work well for a man with a “weak” presence because it shows just one more thing that he isn’t sure about. It may also depend on the listener, and the import of the topic.

    Caroline Turner, in her book, Difference Works, calls this type of phrase, a “disclaimer”. She describes a continuum, which has stereotypical masculine and feminine behaviors, and acknowledges that, while men and women can be anywhere along the continuum, typically, most women fall on the feminine side, and most men on the masculine side of the continuum. This is definitely an oversimplification, and I strongly recommend Caroline’s book for clarification and a deeper and more elegant description. A disclaimer like “I may be wrong but…” is described as a more feminine form of speaking, meant to build connections, while the more masculine form of speaking would be declaring with certainty. Caroline’s book contains helpful charts showing the differing ways of speaking along the continuum, along with the impact on listenerss.

    Based on what I have learned about implicit or unconscious bias, women have to walk a tightrope (compared to men) in terms of their use of language (and actions). So words such as appear in the blog work only in a limited circumstances for women, and much broader circumstances for men, because there are presuppositions about how we believe women and men are supposed to act, regardless of where they land on the continuum Caroline describes.

    By the way, I discussed this with Caroline before writing this, and she adds that we should all choose the right words (and actions), whether stereotypically masculine or feminine, for the circumstances, and consider our gender and that of the listener when doing so, so our words and actions have the effect we want. Back to addressing the phrase you shared in the blog, where I come out is that the phrase is a tool in the toolbox, to be used in the right circumstances by the right person, taking several factors I noted above into account. That is, it is a good tool, but not a one-size fits all.

    I am curious what you think, and what your readers think, keeping gender appearance in mind.

    Reply
  7. Stewart Hirsch
    Stewart Hirsch says:

    Charlie,
    Reading this post brings to mind an issue that I’ve been learning, writing and teaching about lately – implicit bias. Using the phrase suggested in your post works well under certain circumstances, depending on who says it. By way of example, a typical man, saying “I could be wrong about this, but…” demonstrates his ability to admit he doesn’t know everything. It softens the statement he is about to make, to help others accept his opinion. If, however, it’s a typical female who says those words, it is more likely to be seen as a sign of weakness – or that she doesn’t believe in her idea so much, and that that she is hesitant to share it.
    Of course, there are exceptions. For example, the phrase may work well for a woman with a reputation of using authority to get what she wants. Or it may not work well for a man with a “weak” presence because it shows just one more thing that he isn’t sure about. It may also depend on the listener, and the import of the topic.

    Caroline Turner, in her book, Difference Works, calls this type of phrase, a “disclaimer”. She describes a continuum, which has stereotypical masculine and feminine behaviors, and acknowledges that, while men and women can be anywhere along the continuum, typically, most women fall on the feminine side, and most men on the masculine side of the continuum. This is definitely an oversimplification, and I strongly recommend Caroline’s book for clarification and a deeper and more elegant description. A disclaimer like “I may be wrong but…” is described as a more feminine form of speaking, meant to build connections, while the more masculine form of speaking would be declaring with certainty. Caroline’s book contains helpful charts showing the differing ways of speaking along the continuum, along with the impact on listenerss.

    Based on what I have learned about implicit or unconscious bias, women have to walk a tightrope (compared to men) in terms of their use of language (and actions). So words such as appear in the blog work only in a limited circumstances for women, and much broader circumstances for men, because there are presuppositions about how we believe women and men are supposed to act, regardless of where they land on the continuum Caroline describes.

    By the way, I discussed this with Caroline before writing this, and she adds that we should all choose the right words (and actions), whether stereotypically masculine or feminine, for the circumstances, and consider our gender and that of the listener when doing so, so our words and actions have the effect we want. Back to addressing the phrase you shared in the blog, where I come out is that the phrase is a tool in the toolbox, to be used in the right circumstances by the right person, taking several factors I noted above into account. That is, it is a good tool, but not a one-size fits all.

    I am curious what you think, and what your readers think, keeping gender appearance in mind.

    Reply
    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:

      Stewart, thanks for raising this, and I hope others will comment as well.

      I completely agree with your points: one of the more infuriating things I hear in discussions about -isms is that somehow the speaker and the listener have no effect on what’s said.

      The truth is: the identify and nature of both speaker and listener contribute mightily to the message that is sent, and that is received. The gender differences you cite are prime examples.

      What are we to take away from this? I think that you, Caroline and I all agree that every human interaction is unique: you must take into account who you are speaking to, and who you are doing the speaking. It helps a lot to realize the general patterns (i.e. the difference in reception of ‘I could be wrong” by gender on the whole and on the average); but people don’t come in averages.

      We all have to swim in a complex pool of humanity. Know what generally works, but then file it away and: know who you’re talking to, and know yourself.

      Reply
  8. Stewart Hirsch
    Stewart Hirsch says:

    Charlie,
    Reading this post brings to mind an issue that I’ve been learning, writing and teaching about lately – implicit bias. Using the phrase suggested in your post works well under certain circumstances, depending on who says it. By way of example, a typical man, saying “I could be wrong about this, but…” demonstrates his ability to admit he doesn’t know everything. It softens the statement he is about to make, to help others accept his opinion. If, however, it’s a typical female who says those words, it is more likely to be seen as a sign of weakness – or that she doesn’t believe in her idea so much, and that that she is hesitant to share it.

    Of course, there are exceptions. For example, the phrase may work well for a woman with a reputation of using authority to get what she wants. Or it may not work well for a man with a “weak” presence because it shows just one more thing that he isn’t sure about. It may also depend on the listener, and the import of the topic.

    Caroline Turner, in her book, Difference Works, calls this type of phrase, a “disclaimer”. She describes a continuum, which has stereotypical masculine and feminine behaviors, and acknowledges that, while men and women can be anywhere along the continuum, typically, most women fall on the feminine side, and most men on the masculine side of the continuum. This is definitely an oversimplification, and I strongly recommend Caroline’s book for clarification and a deeper and more elegant description. A disclaimer like “I may be wrong but…” is described as a more feminine form of speaking, meant to build connections, while the more masculine form would be declaring with certainty. Caroline’s book contains helpful charts showing the differing ways of speaking along the continuum, along with the impact on others.

    Based on what I have learned about implicit or unconscious bias, women have to walk a tightrope (compared to men) in terms of their use of language (and actions). So words such as appear in the blog work only in a limited circumstances for women, and much broader circumstances for men, because there presuppositions about how we believe women and men are supposed to act, regardless of where they land on the continuum Caroline describes.

    By the way, I discussed this with Caroline before writing this, and she adds that we should all choose the right words (and actions), whether stereotypically masculine or feminine, for the circumstances, and consider our gender and that of the listener when doing so, so our words and actions have the effect we want.

    Back to addressing the phrase you shared in the blog, where I come out is that the phrase is a tool in the toolbox, to be used in the right circumstances by the right person, taking several factors I noted above into account. That is, it is a good tool, but not a one-size fits all.

    I am curious what you think, and what your readers think, keeping gender appearance in mind.

    Reply

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