5 Short Phrases to Build Relationships: Part 5 of 5

This is the fifth 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 they resonate in the mind of the listener. 

Today’s Phrase: (Three words) 

            “What’s behind that?”

When you find yourself wondering either, “What is he hiding? That can’t possibly be the whole truth!!” or, “I don’t think she’s thought this through,” this is the phrase to use. 

When to Use It:

  • When you feel there is a deeper level of explanation or motivation for what the other person is saying;
  • When you suspect the issue is being discussed at a shallow level, and needs to be explored more fundamentally.


  • “I know you’ve said that you don’t trust suppliers in this industry; what’s behind that?” 
  • “I notice that you and your team have very well-developed procedures for vetting new hires – much more than usual. What’s behind that?
  • “Your corporate values statement puts emphasis on ‘client first.’ Can you tell me, what’s behind that?

Why It Works.

These three words transform a potentially critical or antagonistic question into one of respect and curiosity. They work because of a sub-text of Respect and Curiosity.  

Respect. Given the situation in which you use this phrase – typically one where you suspect either avoidance or weak thinking on the part of the respondent – it’s very easy to let those suspicions bleed out into the appearance of antagonism, critique, or diminution of the respondent. 

“What’s behind that” positions you as assuming positive intent and clarity on the part of the respondent. By making that assumption, and by showing that you are simply ignorant of the presumably good reasoning background or rationale behind the statement, you show respect. This defuses the negativity. 

Curiosity. Along with the respect conveyed by the words, you are complimenting the person by suggesting that not only do they know something you don’t, but that you are motivated by genuine curiosity – you too want to know what is behind the surface statement, and the respondent is in the position to enlighten you. 

A caveat. It’s important to note that you are potentially putting someone in a difficult situation. If they in fact haven’t thought the issue through, or their motives were hidden for a self-serving reason, then you are putting them in a position of self-indicting embarrassment. Unless that is your intent (which unless you’re a prosecutor, I recommend against), you need to be ready to save their self-respect by empathizing with their situation. If you do that rightly, you will end up with a deeper level of shared intimacy, as well as appreciation from the respondent that you have treated their issue with care and respect.   

Click Here To Read The Full Series:

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five