Intimacy 201

At first blush, intimacy is a strange word to use in a business context. "What, I’m supposed to intimate with my clients?" In the sense that being intimate means being familiar, informal, and emotionally connected…yes, indeed.

Intimacy is one of the four components of the Trust Equation and it usually gets the short-shrift. For most, it’s more natural to build trust by increasing credibility and reliability. And yet, without intimacy, business transactions are just that–transactions–and the "safe haven" experience that is the hallmark of Trusted Advisor relationships is a pipe dream.

Here is a Top 10 list of intimacy-builders to help answer the question, "How do I build intimacy with my clients?"

Caveat: While the three  groupings (Be Positive, Be Personal, Be Bold) are relatively universal, the specifics underneath are written from a U.S. orientation (mine) and should be adapted as appropriate to fit different cultural norms.

Be Positive

1. Tell your client something you appreciate about him. Don’t just think it; say it. "Amal, before we dig into our agenda today, I just wanted to say I really appreciate how you handled the meeting yesterday. You were clear and direct while also listening to the concerns that were raised. I think it made a difference for the staff."

2. Celebrate successes together. Give the tendency to be a Task Master a little reprieve. Suggest meetings, coffees, lunches–whatever–that are specifically focused on reflecting on/toasting a job well done.

Be Personal

3. Use your client’s name when you communicate with him/her. They say your own name is the sweetest music to your ears. Address your client personally in your emails, voicemails, and conversations.

4. Use colloquial language. Check the consulting jargon and multi-syllablic words at the door. Practice human talk. Simple. Straightforward. To the point.

5. Be empathic in all your interactions. Empathy creates emotional correctedness. Stop to demonstrate that you’re really tuned in to what your client is saying (both the words and the "music") before you ask your next question or make your next recommendation. "It’s clear this is a stressful situation, Frank" or "I can appreciate the difficulty in that" or "That sounds like a victory worth celebrating!" (see #2)

6. Be willing to express your own emotions. They’re legit too. "Gee, Johannes, I must confess to feeling pretty frustrated by what you just said" or "You have no idea how happy I am to hear that."

7.  Share something personal. The next time you’re doing the Monday morning how-was-your-weekend-fine-thanks-yours bit, don’t let it stop at a superficial exchange. "My weekend was great, Surita, thanks for asking. My parents were in town and Sam and I really enjoyed the built-in babysitting. We got a much-needed break."

Be Bold

8. Acknowledge uncomfortable situations. Caveats are conversational jewels: "Wow, this is awkward…" or "I wish I had better news…" or "The timing with this is embarrassing…"

9. Say what needs to be said. Practice doing it in 10 words or less. "We’re not going to make the deadline" or "We just don’t have the executive sponsorship we need" or "Jim is leaving the team." The direct approach works especially well in combination with caveats (see #8).

10. Take responsibility for mistakes. Yeah, it’s risky. It’s also human (we all make ’em) and refreshingly real. "Janet, part of the problem here is that I dropped the ball."

Of course, none of these "techniques" creates intimacy if they’re forced or disingenuous or robotic. It’s okay (and perfectly natural) to be a little awkward and unpolished–in fact, that just creates more intimacy.

15 replies
  1. Loren Paulsson
    Loren Paulsson says:

    Your examples emphasize words and what individuals say, and maybe the medium here dictates a greater dependence on words, but in my experience, what a person says often gives the least accurate indication of the person’s trustworthiness.

    So how would you unpack these ideas in terms of behavior or attitude?

  2. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    I’d like to offer one response to Loren’s question.

    For me, the behavior/attitude thing begins long before the interaction. It begins with my orientation to my self, my work, my orientation to the world and my orientation to the people I meet in the world.

    When I begin each day setting my intention (and attention), for example,  to an orientation such as, "Whomever I come into contact with and whoever comes into contact with me, may it be for our mutual highest good," we set the tone and tenor for our experiences.

    Now, if I can’t get myself to set such an intention, or really believe in it, or have a deeper personal/spiritual orientation towards folks, then the interaction will display that inability or unwillingness in some way- in thought, word or deed.

    The words and actions are a function of my values and of my orientation (conscious and/or unconscious) of how I view myself…that is, who I am and how I am in the world.


  3. Andrea Howe
    Andrea Howe says:

    Thanks, Loren, for the great question, and Peter for the thoughtful response.

    I would certainly agree that "thoughts, words, and deeds" (as Peter put it) must be aligned for someone to be experienced as trustworthy. You’re absolutely right that vacant words (without the corresponding intentions or actions to back them up) are problematic. For example, speaking appreciation for your client with the background thought "He’s a jerk" or with a tone of voice that conveys boredom certainly creates dissonance and doesn’t result in trust.

    I think the reverse is also true:  thinking your client is extraordinary and not taking the risk to express it doesn’t result in trust either–at least not the high levels we aim for when we strive to be Trusted Advisors.  Where I’m landing on this as I write is that it’s a package deal.

    I wasn’t thinking consciously about thoughts and deeds when I wrote the post; what came streaming out for me were examples of things to say. Thanks for making me take a second look.

    I certainly welcome any other thoughts on this one.

  4. Bradley J. Moore
    Bradley J. Moore says:

    Andrea –

    These points are so simple, but so basic to the soul and spirit of human interaction, which we often forget in the quest for achieving business goals. When you get right down to it, business is all about people. Very few of us can become successful without any interaction. We ten to minimize this, or forget about it, or focus on our own goals, but how much richer would we all be by following your points and seeing the person behind the business deal.

    I posted something similar to this a while back, called "Thou Shalt Love Thy Customer." 


  5. Andrea Howe
    Andrea Howe says:

    Thanks, Brad, for the link to the provocative post about daring to love your customer.

    Now I’m going to risk losing all my readership on this blog by admitting to you that I actually have at least one client to whom I have said "I love you." The one who immediately comes to mind is female, which maybe makes it a little less intimate/risky for me (since I’m a heterosexual woman and therefore not risking a male client mistaking my love for a suggestion of a *different* kind of relationship). Regardless, the first time I said it, it was a clear and genuine and uncensored expression of my appreciation for her. I used a caveat to lessen the chance of freaking her out (something like, "At the risk of freaking you out … ")

    Her reply? "I love you too!"

  6. Bradley J. Moore
    Bradley J. Moore says:

    Well, I think that’s nice.

    I have not gone so far as that, although I do think  love is the ultimate expression of service, humility, passion, creativity, and leadership, at work, and is what will ulitmately motivate and mobilize a team. 

  7. dr jim sellner, PhD., DipC.
    dr jim sellner, PhD., DipC. says:


    Great, insightful article, thank you.

    i think developing intimacy in personal and professional arenas is an ongoing risk activity.

    i open myself to you not knowing what you will do with the info. You do the same.

    i reveal, in the difficult times — the true test of my courageous decsion to stay on the intimacy path, rather than the defended one is in the difficult times  — my vulnerabilites, insecurities and hopes & dreams with you.

    The alternative to doing the risk thing, i think, is a "porcupine relationship" in which we are defended and isolated – not much fun nor very exciting.

    dr. jim sellner, PhD. DipC.

  8. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    Just wanted to acknowledge the ‘porcupine relationship’ phrase; I love it.  Very descriptive, very apt, very relevant.

    There is no gain in intimacy without risk.  It doesn’t just "happen." Someone has to take that step.  The only question for professionals is, will you wait for it to be the client?  Or find the nerve to initiate it yourself.

    The instinct for reciprocity is so deeply wired in us that by far the normal response to a genuine expression of risk-taking by one is reciprocity on the part of the other.  Just as was the case with Andrea and her client.


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