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).
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?