Real People, Real Trust: Our Magnificent Seven

Over the past year, I’ve offered an insider view into the challenges, successes, and make-it-or-break-it moments of seven men and women who are making their mark by leading with trust—every day. In case you missed any of them, or want a fresh dose of practical advice (not to mention inspiration), here’s a recap.

  •  “I asked him what would make him feel like we addressed the situation to his satisfaction.” Learn how Chip Grizzard’s nonprofit marketing and fundraising agency retained a long-term client even after mistiming their direct mail campaign.
  • “I have never had someone say, ‘I wish you hadn’t told me that.’” Find out how Anna Dutton, Sales Operations Director, finds the courage at her educational tech company to be genuine, tell the truth, and say things that others might not agree with.
  • “My life philosophy is there’s plenty of everything—customers, money, everything.” Take a tip from entrepreneur and former bed and breakfast owner John Dunn on collaboration…and learn how he joined forces with other B&Bs.

The themes across these stories: transparency, humility, courage, and true customer focus.

Many thanks, once again, to these magnificent role models.

Story Time: He Who Eats With Chopsticks Wins

Our Story Time series brings you real, personal examples from business life that shed light on specific ways to lead with trust. Our last story proved that trust is personal.  But what does it take to really close a deal?

A New Anthology

When it comes to trust-building, stories are a powerful tool for both learning and change. Our new book, The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust (Wiley, October 2011), contains a multitude of stories. Told by and about people we know, these stories illustrate the fundamental attitudes, truths, and principles of trustworthiness.

Today’s story is excerpted from our chapter on the dynamics of influence. It vividly demonstrates how non-rational factors—like respect for tradition—can make or break a sale.

From the Front Lines: Decisions Aren’t Just Rational

Russell Feingold, now of Black & Veatch, recalls an early-career sales win.

“The client was a large electric utility in Hong Kong, and the project was complex. My company invested considerable time preparing our proposal, responding to questions, and meeting with the client face to face in Hong Kong. We won the project.

“However, it was during our working lunches that I really won the client’s trust—by my proficiency with using chopsticks. Quite simply, my clients appreciated my respect for their tradition, when even their own children were turning to Western ways of eating. To this day I believe my ability to use chopsticks not only ingratiated me with our client for the remainder of the project, but was a deciding factor in our being selected in the first place.”

—Russell Feingold (Black & Veatch)

What’s the most unexpected factor that’s won you a job?


Read more stories about trust:

Story Time: Risky Business

Our Story Time series brings you real, personal examples from business life that shed light on specific ways to lead with trust. Our last story told of the upside of being willing to walk away. Principle pays off in today’s story.

A New Anthology

When it comes to trust-building, stories are a powerful tool for both learning and change. Our new book, The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust (Wiley, October 2011), contains a multitude of stories. Told by and about people we know, these stories illustrate the fundamental attitudes, truths, and principles of trustworthiness.

Today’s story is excerpted from our chapter on risk-taking. It vividly demonstrates the potential upside of sticking to your guns.

From the Front Lines: Telling a Difficult Truth

Lynn P., a career systems consultant serving largely government clients in the United States, tells a story about taking a risk under pressure.

“Eleven years into my career, I took over a major project. A key phase, testing, was way behind schedule, and the Testing Readiness Review was only two weeks away. Passing the review was a very big deal: it meant completing a milestone and getting a payment for my company.

“I was due to present to all the clients and the senior managers of my own company. It was intimidating—and I was intimidated.

“I was under significant pressure to keep the program moving by passing the review. I also knew that we were not ready to pass.

“Knowing it could cost me my job, I went line by line through our assessment, citing the facts as I saw them. I said we did not pass the review and that we would need to delay to correct the critical items.

“There was complete silence in the room.

“My top executive asked, ‘Are you sure?’

“I said yes.

“After the meeting, both my client and my senior managers approached me informally to commend me for ‘sticking to my guns’ and recommending what I believed to be right.

“Apparently, I had created trust—a lot of it. Over the next 18 months, I was given roles of increasing responsibility, and was eventually promoted to program manager.

“I now believe it was this event that drove the client to increase my role. The experience gave me greater confidence in my own judgment and skills. And finally, it was this program’s success that ultimately propelled my career to the next level.”

The willingness to take a risk by being principled can pay off hugely—as long as you’re doing it for the principles, not the payoff.

—As told to Charles H. Green

When have you stuck to your guns? What payoff did you get?


Read more stories about trust:


Listen to a podcast interview with Andrea Howe and Charlie Green on Trust Across America Radio.

Three Star Leadership

Charlie and I were recently interviewed by Wally Bock of Three Star Leadership Enterprises on the subject of trust and leadership. He wanted to know what bosses in general can take away from our new book, The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust.

From the Front Lines

Wally and I met via Twitter—he was a distinctive and caring voice in the crowd when I first joined the fray. Wally is a coach, consultant, and popular speaker to audiences in North America and elsewhere. He focuses on front-line leadership, and brings to his work all that he indelibly learned as a Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps—first and foremost that a leader’s job has two parts: accomplish the mission and care for your people.

Wally’s latest book, Ruthless Focus, features companies that have been successful for years by training their sights on a single, simple, core strategy. Wally also created the Working Supervisor’s Support Kit, among other resources. He’s committed to providing day-to-day practical advice on how to be a great boss.

Wally blogs thoughtfully and regularly on the subject of leadership at all levels in his Three Star Leadership blog. His aim: to give you insight, information, and pointers to resources to do a better job and live a better life. Example blog posts include:

Q & A

Wally asked us provocative and wide-ranging questions. He wanted to know:

  • How is The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook different from the original The Trusted Advisor?
  • What, exactly, makes this a “fieldbook”?
  • What can a boss take away from here, regardless of the level where they find themselves on the org chart?
  • In addition to the things any boss will get, is there something for each of the following:
    • A first line boss such as a police sergeant, call center boss, utility company crew chief or sales manager?
    • A middle manager, probably with a technical specialty such as accounting, marketing, or logistics?
    • A general manager in any size organization?
    • What is the single most important take-away from the Fieldbook?

Check out Wally’s blog post today to find out how we answered.

Connect with Wally on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Upcoming Events and Appearances: Trusted Advisor Associates

Join us at one or more upcoming Trusted Advisor Associates events.  This Fall, we’ll be hosting and participating in events in Baltimore, MD; Minneapolis, MN; and through globally accessed webinars.

Also, a word about the Trusted Advisor Mastery Program.


Wed. Nov. 2nd          Global            Charles H. Green & Andrea P. Howe

Charlie and Andrea will be interviewed by Jordan Kimmel, host of Trust Across America on VoiceAmerica, at 12:00pm EST. Visit here for information on tuning in, embedding and sharing the program.

Wed. Nov. 9th            Global            Charles H. Green

Charlie will guest-host on the Trust Across America show on VoiceAmerica at 12:00pm EST. Charlie’s guest will be trust expert Robert Porter Lynch and the subject will be trust and neurochemistry, leadership and innovation.

Thurs. Nov. 10th            Global            Stewart Hirsch

“Everything You Wanted to Know About the Trusted Advisor Mastery Program (but were afraid to ask).” When: November 10th, 2011; 2:00-2:45 PM EST.

Register for this FREE webinar and get an inside peek into our signature program, the Trusted Advisor Mastery Program. As our next group is forming in the Fall, this is a great opportunity for you to get to know the program and see if it is a good match for your needs. For more information on the webinar and to register, email Tracey Del Camp at: [email protected].

Wed. Nov. 16th          Baltimore, MD          Charles H. Green

Charlie will be keynoting and doing a book signing of his and Andrea Howe’s The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook, on Day 2 of Entrequest’s 2-day sales seminar, “The eQ Sales Effect.” For more information visit,

Fri. Nov. 18th        Minneapolis, MN         Charles H. Green
Charlie will keynote the Twin Cities Compensation Network Annual Luncheon.  He’ll speak on “Becoming a Trusted Business Advisor: the HR Challenges.”  Marriott Minneapolis West in St. Louis Park, MN.  Open to TCCN members and one guest.


The next Trusted Advisor Mastery Program is forming and registration is $3900/person.  This is the last chance to register for this program at this price before it increases for 2012. Please email Tracey Del Camp of your interest and she’ll be in touch with more specifics.

Here’s what a participant of the current program has to say:

The Trust Mastery Program is a great mix of online modules, background reading, exercises, group discussion and coaching–all of which reinforce the development of personal trustworthiness. I love the way the program is designed. I have been able to go through the material at my own pace, learn from the experiences of my cohorts on the online forum, assess my behavior and set short term doable goals.

—Tina Beranbaum (Principal, Centauric Consulting, La Jolla, CA/Toronto, Canada)

Trust Tips: Moving Right Along

We’re getting close.

The Trust Tips countdown continues to the release of “The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust,” by myself and Andrea P. Howe, to published by Wiley Books in early November.  We issue one Trust Tip per weekday; there are eleven more to come. They’re simple tips you can use every day to overcome the obstacles to having strong trust relationships. impede the trust-building process.

Get the tips straight from the source by following us directly on Twitter (@CharlesHGreen and @AndreaPHowe); you can also find them by using the hash-tag #TrustTip. We’d really enjoy hearing from you; the conversations have become a highlight of my day.

We’re also into making life easier for you, so we also keep a running tab of the tips right here on our site. If you need to catch up, see the recaps below:








And now, skipping on down, here is the latest batch of Trust Tips: Numbers #30-12

#30: If the gods offer you a choice between competence and good relationships, assume it was probably a friendly gesture. Choose…

#29: The ultimate net promoter score driver: trust.

#28: If your competitor has a trusted relationship with a target client: go find a new target client.

#27: A short time-frame is one of the natural enemies of trust.

#26: If you don’t trust me, the odds of me trusting you just went down.

#25: Being brutally honest: what brutes do when they try to tell the truth.

#24: You can’t make somebody trust you; but you can make yourself more trustworthy.

#23: Only on TV quiz shows do you win by blurting out the answer before listening fully.

#22: Robinson Crusoe had no need for trust–at least not before Friday.

#21: Defining the problem is not worth very much unless the other party agrees with your definition.

#20: I trust my dog with my life–but not with my sandwich.

#19: Intent without action seems insincere: action without intent feels mechanical.

#18: Mind readers exist only in carnivals; in business, tell people what you mean.

#17: You get the right answer = you’re lucky. I get it = I’m smart. You agree with me = you’re wise.

#16: The sun is predictable; a man is reliable. Which are you?

#15: Doing the right thing is long-run profitable; but the profit is a byproduct, not a goal.

#14: All trust is personal; corporate trust is just accumulated interactions.

#13: Increased business trust reduces demand for lawyers and regulators.

#12 If someone trusts you, do you screw them? Why should you expect them to be any different?

A couple of my favorites:

#24: You can’t make somebody trust you; but you can make yourself more trustworthy.

This gets to the heart of the matter. In this world, you can never truly control another human being; trying to do so is the root of much misery. The only thing you can control in this world is your own actions—and your re-actions to others’ actions. You can spend hours trying to persuade someone to trust you, and all you’ll get is red in the face and high blood pressure.

Don’t tell someone you’re trustworthy—just act the part, and let them draw their own conclusions. And by the way, those conclusions are theirs too—leave them alone.

#17: You get the right answer = you’re lucky. I get it = I’m smart. You agree with me = you’re wise.

This is like ‘a recession is when your neighbor is laid off; a depression is when you are let go.’ Noticing things from the other’s perspective is never easy; worse, we tend toward assumptions that are self-serving (“I hardly ever have bad intentions. You, however, are frequently mean, clearly have it in for me, and probably always have.”)

But it’s possible to transcend this self-serving self-centeredness.  When we recognize someone in the way that they see themselves, and freely acknowledge it, we get a double success.  First, they appreciate the compliment (if compliments were involved—they don’t have to be).  But much more importantly, they appreciate the notice itself—it is validating.  We get credit for being wise just by understanding the Other from their perspective–and saying so.






The Connector and the Catalyst: She Said, He Said

We’re shining a spotlight on Trust Temperaments™ in our team over the next few months. Recently, I wrote about the six different temperaments we’ve identified in our research. Today, experience the temperaments in action through a conversation between a Catalyst and a Connector—our very own Charles H. Green and Andrea P. Howe.Listen in as they discuss facilitating programs and co-authoring a book.

Connectors and Catalysts

Connectors, like Andrea, are strongest in Intimacy and (low) Self-orientation. They can be described as:

  • Magnetic and caring
  • Those others trust with sensitive information
  • Seeing the world from the point of view of people

Catalysts, like Charlie, combine strong Credibility with Intimacy. They:

  • Love sparking—and gaining—new insights
  • Like to make up their own rules
  • Tend to see the world in terms of ideas

Setting the Stage

Sandy: Let’s start with workshops and presentations. You both have the same goal: to help people become powerfully trustworthy. You’re both terrific at what you do. Yet, you are very different temperaments. How do you prepare for a new workshop?

Andrea: Before the program itself, I like to build as much rapport with the people in the group as I can—through conversations, mini-focus groups, and email exchanges with participants sharing their current relationship challenges. I want every participant to get as much from the session as possible, and these connections give me a personal sense of the people I’ll be meeting as well as the issues they are facing.

As a Connector, I have a low (or favorable) Self-orientation score, and more than anything that means I manage my Self-orientation—constantly. Meeting the group as friends rather than strangers keeps my anxiety low and helps me to be fully present during a program.

Charlie: As a Catalyst, I value preparation too, but for a different reason.  I like to know in advance about the group, the industry and the participants so I can see the big picture and get a sense of the issues facing them. I really want to know what’s going on at the macro level. This lets me make the training relevant in the moment to the participants, by saying things like: “You all know what it’s like to…”

Andrea: Yes, and you’re great at that. Though I know it’s important to connect to the big picture too, I don’t naturally lead with that in my preparation; I have to be intentional about it.

The Dress Rehearsal

Sandy: Ok, it’s nearly show time and very shortly you’re on stage.  What do you do to get ready?

Charlie: It’s all about prep, and then ego deflation. I look over the agenda, check my handouts (the few that I use), and then work on calming my mind so that I can focus.  I have a sort of prayer or meditation I do before I leave the hotel. I actually get on my knees and express my gratitude for being there on that day, and remind myself I’m there not for my own ego, but to be of service to the group.

Andrea: My approach is very different, with the same goal of being present for the participants. I create a very detailed agenda, and I work a lot on timing and transitions, which I review over and over.  Then I leave the agenda behind. For me it’s like being a professional improviser: doing lots of rehearsal in order to be spontaneous on stage.

Charlie: Whatever the method, we both try to keep Self-orientation as low as possible so we can focus on personal growth—for ourselves and for every participant in the room.  That’s what leads to being a better facilitator and a stronger leader.

Curtain Up

Sandy: What’s different about how you open up a program?

Andrea: I always start with some kind of introduction with a twist—something fun, engaging, and personal that gets people talking. I want people to get to know each other—and me—so they’re comfortable taking risks and stretching outside their comfort zone.

Charlie: And I’m more willing to skip this step and jump right in.  I want to get them thinking, first and foremost. The Catalyst in me wants to spark new ideas both in and for the group.

Sandy: During a program, how do you manage the inevitable challenges of group dynamics?

Andrea: Andrea: One of the most important tools I use as a facilitator is our Name It and Claim It practice. If I lose concentration for a moment, or misunderstand someone, or say something stupid, right away I Name It and Claim It:  “Oh boy, could I have gotten that more wrong?”

Just last week, I was leading a session and completely lost the group. We had an administrative task that took all 50 people in the room completely off course. I spoke to myself (out loud, into the mic): “OK, Andrea.  Focus. Focus. Focus!” Putting my thoughts on loudspeaker that way got us all right back on track.  Several people came up to me afterward to say that they learned something valuable by watching me simply being transparent about losing the group and my own focus.

Charlie: Being transparent is the savior of any speaker, and I’ve used it hundreds of times. Here’s another spin on it: being credible means if you don’t have an answer, you say so. I still sometimes have to say, “I’ve never thought of that question, and I don’t have the answer.”  It’s also a good way to throw a question back to the group. After all, what I know is a lot less important than what they learn.

Tough Moments and Happy Endings

Andrea: As a Connector, it’s often hard for me to close off conversations when it’s time to move on. I want to give people as much time as they need to think through their issue out loud, and I want to nurture them all the way to their own insights.  That isn’t always possible in the time we have. My temperament can play havoc with my carefully planned schedule!

Charlie: And I’m happy to stop them with a one-liner—the conclusion or insight.  Sparking aha moments quickly is pure joy for a Catalyst.  I like to hit people between the eyes. For me it’s a little tougher to stay in the emotional space for too long.

Andrea: I like to hit them between the eyes while holding hands.

Charlie: Yes, that’s it exactly.  (laughing) In the end, we both get to the same result: helping participants grasp the material, generate aha moments, and take those insights into their own business and personal lives.

Sandy: Sounds like the key to success is in integrating who you are with the material you teach.

About a Book

Sandy: You recently sent the final manuscript for The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook to Wiley. As anyone who’s done it knows, writing a book is hard, and writing with another person sometimes makes it harder.

Andrea: Our different temperaments made for a stronger book in the end, but along the way the preferences of a Connector and those of a Catalyst definitely created conflict. Writing the fieldbook was natural for me in many ways because it’s all about making the trusted advisor material personal and useful to each and every reader.

Charlie: And for me, it was the hardest book I’ve ever written for that very same reason. It truly is a fieldbook— a keep-a-dog-eared-copy-with-you-at-all-times book about solving real problems. The focus is less on new insights—although there are plenty in the book—and more on translating concepts into everyday action. Not my strong suit.

Andrea: I think it’s true for everyone that working in ways that play to our natural temperament is energizing, while working against type can be exhausting. We both found this to be true with the fieldbook.

Writing the manuscript gave me an opportunity to reach out and ask people to contribute stories, to reconnect with clients old and new, to have a lot of personal interaction. It takes a village to write a book, and a Connector loves a good village!

Charlie: The exhausting part for me was the effort of working within the all-too-necessary framework of rules needed to get this book done—the standard formats, the numbered lists, the rigorous reviews.  I like to create my own rules!  Which, it turns out, is very Catalyst-like.

Andrea: You’re telling me! (laughing) You Catalysts also love a good debate; we Connectors—not so much. Going back and forth with you about chapter content, along with trying to keep things on track, definitely made for some trying times for us both.

Charlie: Would you do it again?

Andrea: Can you ask me that question in about six months?

The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust, by Charles H. Green and Andrea P. Howe can be pre-ordered between now and October 31.

Continuing the #TrustTip Countdown

Many people in this world work for tips alone.  We think it’s about time that the tips start working for people.

That’s why we’re giving out a Trust Tip per day, counting down the days until the release of “The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust,” a new book written by the two of us – Charles H. Green and Andrea P. Howe – to be published by Wiley Books on October 31, 2011. They are simple tips that you can use every day to remove the obstacles that slow down the building of trust.

If you follow us directly on Twitter (@CharlesHGreen and @AndreaPHowe) you’ll get these tidbits delivered straight to your Twitter feed; or you can find them by using the hash-tag #TrustTip. We’d love it if you joined us; we’ve been having rather enlightening conversations over on Twitter.  You can also check them out from Charles Green on Google+

But if you’re an eye-roller when it comes to social media, camp, there’s no need to fret. We keep a running list of the tips right here on our site.  You can always catch up–see our recaps below:

Trust Tips #144-135

Trust Tips #134-115

Trust Tips #114-105

Trust Tips #104-90

Trust Tips #89-81

Trust Tips #80-71

Below is the freshest batch, tips #70-56

#70: Try letting someone else have the last word.

#69: Dare to be really honest even (especially) when it makes you look bad.

#68: Saying ‘trust me’ is like saying you’re the winner of the ‘most humble’ award.

#67: Don’t be a blame-thrower; it burns you as much as the intended object.

#66: Rule of thumb: if communication fails, it’s the responsibility of the speaker.

#65: Deliver ‘early & ugly’–collaborate and iterate.

#64: Be willing to make a referral to your competition, if that happens to be the right thing to do.

#63: When your heart’s no longer in it–go find where your heart went.

#62: Trust is a two-way relationship: one to be trustworthy, the other to do the trusting.

#61: You don’t have to think less of yourself to think about yourself less.

#60: Hire for trusting-ness; train for trust-worthiness.

#59: Is there someone you trust greatly? Have you said so to them lately?

#58: People really don’t care what you know, until they know that you care. Maybe a truism, but it’s the truth too.

#57: Trust but verify? No. Trusting means you don’t need verification.

#56: Gossip is poison; envision everything you say being recorded on YouTube for everyone.

A Couple of Our Favorites:

#68: Saying ‘trust me’ is like saying you’re the winner of the ‘most humble’ award.

Having to goad people into trusting you flies in the face of building trust. It’s great when people say you are trustworthy. And it’s valuable to think about talk about how you might become more trusted.  But don’t try to self-advertise.  And please don’t build a marketing campaign claiming that you are someone’s trusted advisor.

Let your actions, not your words, tell people to trust you.  Your credibility will grow and your self-orientation will shrink at the same time, letting your trustworthiness shine through.  Let your actions do the talking, and leave the testimonials to others.

#57: Trust but verify? No. Trusting means you don’t need verification.

Ronald Reagan’s famous Russian-sourced proverb is great rhetoric—and probably sound politics—but it isn’t accurate about trust.  The essence of trusting means accepting the risk that someone might do you harm.

To take a risk without thinking is either an act of faith or of stupidity.  Neither one of those is trust.  But neither is it trust when you cross your fingers behind your back, sneak a peek at the cards, or “trust but verify.” To trust is to consciously assume a risk, knowing that the relationship that can result is often worth more than the risk actually taken.

Impeccability vs. Perfection: Who’s Got Your Back?

At first glance, the difference between Impeccability and Perfection is slight.

Taking a closer look, they are very different characters, each with a profoundly different impact when it comes to building trust. Here’s the punch line, delivered by a recovering perfectionist:

Impeccability is your friend; Perfection is not.

A Character Study: Perfection vs. Impeccability

Let’s envision Perfection and Impeccability as two characters in a play.

In physical appearance, both are well-dressed. Perfection’s shirt is buttoned to the top; Impeccability’s open collar reveals a crisp, white T-shirt underneath. Perfection sits with his back rigidly straight; Impeccability assumes a relaxed yet confident stance. Perfection drums his fingers nervously on the table-top; Impeccability sits quietly.

As to their personalities: Where Perfection is determined with gritted teeth to always get it right, Impeccability is determined to be thorough and complete. Where Perfection endeavors to never make a mess, and experiences distress when the inevitable occurs, Impeccability recognizes that all humans make mistakes and chooses to see the inevitable as an opportunity to build trust. (see previous post: Why Mistakes Build Trust).

Perfection is controlling, stressed, and perpetually uptight; Impeccability is focused, at ease, his sense of perspective and humor intact at all times.

Perfection is often accompanied by Impatience, Judgment, and Frustration; Impeccability hangs out with Compassion, Confidence, and Self-Acceptance.

Impeccability vs. Perfection: One Level Deeper

Both Perfection and Impeccability are well-intended characters—striving to be the best they can be. Yet dig a little deeper and we see a key difference between the two: what’s driving them.

Perfection constantly feeds a need to satisfy something internal and self-oriented. Impeccability, on the other hand, is other-oriented at the core; his motivation is the satisfaction that comes with being of service and making a difference.

Even Perfection agrees that Impeccability is much more pleasant to be around. Impeccability is much easier to relate to. He endeavors to do his best and humbly accepts that he will fail at times. He cleans up his messes with transparency, swiftness, and an appropriate amount of lightheartedness. In doing so, he leaves room for others to be human.

Put yourself in your clients’ shoes. With whom would you rather spend your time?

Three Little Words

My mother always told me that bad luck comes in threes. At the risk of pushing my luck, I’m going to disagree with her–at least when it comes to trustworthiness. Here are three phrases, each three words long, that are an essential part of any Trusted Advisor toolkit: "That makes sense," "Tell me more," and "I don’t know."

"That Makes Sense"

Charlie speaks this phrase all the time and it’s remarkably effective. I say "speaks," rather than "uses," because it’s not a tactic; it’s a genuine expression of empathy.

When said from the heart, "That makes sense" is an incredible intimacy-builder. It’s no accident it also happens to be what relationship guru Harville Hendrix teaches couples to practice saying with each other when working through tough personal issues. Simply put, it’s validating. In a business context, "that makes sense" is particularly disarming in response to an opposing viewpoint…or something you don’t really want to hear.

Note that saying "that makes sense" is not the same as saying "I agree." With "that makes sense," you’re simply looking at the world from the other person’s vantage point and seeing how things might be pieced together. And unless you’re speaking to someone whose mental faculties are completely compromised, I promise you things do make sense over there, and there’s a way to see it, somehow or another.

"I see you’re concerned about investing a lot of money and time without being sure of the return. That makes sense."

"Sounds like it’s imperative to have the right executive sponsor in place before we move forward. That makes sense."

"It makes sense to consider all the options before you decide which firm you want to hire."

"Tell Me More"

"Tell me more" is a simple and elegant way to invite someone to share information with you. Distinct from a targeted, intellectually-impressive question, "tell me more" implies an absence of time pressure, agenda (as in motives), and a desire to show off. Its subtext: "The agenda is yours, my time is yours, and my focus is devoted to you, not me." Its beauty is in its simplicity and its other-orientation.

"I Don’t Know"

I’ve been in and around the consulting industry for close to 20 years and know very few consultants who are comfortable not knowing an answer to a question (myself included). On the contrary, we’ve convinced ourselves that clients not only want answers, they want the right answers…right away.  (See The Point of Listening is Not What you Hear but the Listening Itself.) Which leads to a lot of well-intended bad behavior, like ever-so-slightly exaggerating what we do know in order to fill in the gaps.

The alternative is having the courage to say "I don’t know" when you don’t know–being forthright in a way that appropriately conveys your overall confidence (so high, in fact, that you’re OK to admit what might be perceived as a weakness) and your commitment to find the most accurate answer. As counter-intuitive as it may be, "I don’t know" actually builds credibility (and therefore your trustworthiness) because it shows you are honest. ( For more about how the things we want to say the least usually build the most trust, read Trust and Golf: How Neither Makes Sense).

The Proof

Of course, we could add "I love you" to the list of word triplets, but then things start to get a little too squishy. (Or do they?)

I’ll end with this instead: intimacy, other-orientation, and credibility increase trustworthiness. "That makes sense," "Tell me more" and "I don’t know" improve your score on each. Therefore, three little words really can make you more trustworthy.

Quod erat demonstrandum.

P.S. By the way, with the new year upon us and so many of the usual resolutions already long-forgotten, it’s worth checking out Chris Brogan’s recent blog post, My 3 Words for 2010. Trusted Advisor Associates’ three words for the year (in draft) are Community, Rich-Soil, and Starpower. My personal ones are Leaps, Delicious, and Gravitas. And you?