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Are trust-building conversations different for women? In at least one case, absolutely.

We had a really interesting discussion in a team meeting the other day about a trust-building technique that we’ve been espousing for years (one that Charlie Green first wrote about in Trust-Based Selling in 2005 and has been a favorite of mine ever since he taught it to me). We talked about how that technique, when used by women, might unintentionally compromise their trust-building efforts in a big way. This week’s tip digs a little deeper into the issue and proposes a solution that actually applies to women as well as men.

The technique in question is a caveat, which is a short, emotionally honest statement that precedes a tough message—like, “This is awkward …” or, “At the risk of embarrassing myself … ”.

The questions that arose were (1) Can caveats hurt a woman’s credibility and (2) Should women therefore avoid them entirely?

The answers I’ve since come to, thanks to colleague and coach Stewart Hirsch’s thoughtful input based on the work he’s done on implicit bias, is (1) quite possibly, yes, and (2) no.

Caroline Turner, former General Counsel of Coors and author of Difference Works (with whom Stewart has collaborated), helps us understand the why behind both answers.

In Caroline’s article, “Masculine-Feminine Difference: How We Talk,” she describes a masculine-feminine continuum and distinguishes what she calls masculine and feminine language. She reminds us that both men and women operate on both sides of that continuum, and each has its own language. In short, masculine language is marked by declarative statements. Feminine language uses more questions, and, as noted in Caroline’s article, often relies on what Dr. Pat Heim calls disclaimers, hedges and tag questions. Feminine language used in a masculine environment—and vice versa—are where trust issues can arise.

With caveats, which can sound a lot like disclaimers, a more feminine style of speaking could in fact hurt credibility in a more masculine-dominated setting. (A disclaimer has the effect of discounting the message, though that’s not the intent of a caveat.) Examples of problematic caveats in this case include:

  • “I could be wrong …”
  • “I may be missing something …”
  • “I’m not sure how to tell you this …”
  • “At the risk of embarrassing myself …”

Similarly, more masculine-style caveats, like, “You’re not going to like this …” could hurt intimacy in a more feminine-dominated setting. (Side note: I had great difficulty coming up with a lot of masculine-style examples as I am definitely more feminine-style oriented. Suggestions are always welcome.)

The solution is the same for both women and men: know your audience and tailor accordingly. Interestingly, the caveats above could be very effective when applied in the other setting. And when you’re not sure, you could go more neutral:

  • “Heads up …”
  • “I’m not sure how you’re going to react …”
  • “There’s no easy way to say this …”

The solution is definitely not to avoid caveats altogether. That’s because they serve as a warning to the recipient that bad news is on the way, and that warning is an intimacy-builder in and of itself. And intimacy—especially in the face of bad news—is a critical aspect of trust-building for us all.

Tips, Tricks and Trust

In the spirit of the season, I recently started thinking about a question I used to get asked frequently: what are some tricks to becoming more trusted?

Here’s the thing: Trust is a Treat. Not a trick.

Let me elaborate.

When I give seminars or training sessions, I often begin by asking for participants’ expectations. And reliably, at least one of the first few will say, “I’d just like to learn some tips and tricks to become more trusted.”

Tips and tricks to become more trusted.

My first reaction—which I’ve learned to stifle—is to think, “Who do you think you’re kidding! You’re not going to get anyone to trust you with some slick trick!”

Occasionally, if I’m feeling testy, I’ll ask the participant, “Tell me—when was the last time you went to a session like this where you actually got a great “tip” or “trick”—and what was it?” Usually, I get a panicked, blind stare.

But the truth is, who am I to get sarcastic? Because I do the exact same thing myself.  And, some of the most popular posts on this blog have been my  “trust tips” series.

When I listen to others’ DVDs or speeches or articles, I too am looking for that one little “aha!” that will give me some kind of great insight. And if not a great insight, I’ll settle for something that gives me an incremental nudge in the right direction.

Something that’s pretty easy to do.

So, it would seem that my attendees and I are all looking for the same thing. Ideas that are low investment and fast payback. In fact, we value those over high return. Fast, easy, and directionally right beats high ROI – if it requires high I.

But I’m not sure I’ve got it right, and I don’t want to give in too easily to the desire for “fast, easy and directionally right.” Not entirely anyway.

I do believe that becoming trustworthy is at least as much about mindset as it is about skillset. You actually have to change your attitude. You can’t fake it ‘til you make it, or just act your way into good thinking.

But since I’m guilty of the same desire—let me take the cotton out of my ears and put it in my mouth, and listen to you.

What’s the role of tips? What are some great “tips” you have heard? What made them great? And what is the right balance between serving up “tips” and the harder work of becoming trustworthy? Let’s get some dialogue going.

Story Time: How One Conversation Changed Everything

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 a tale of risky business. Today’s anecdote zeroes in on the importance of being willing to interrupt the status quo.

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 shifting from tactics to strategy. It demonstrates how simple it can be to dramatically alter the nature of a working relationship, and pave the way for delivering far greater value.

From the Front Lines: Upping the Ante

Sarah Agan tells us about the conversation that changed everything with her client, John.

“I had just joined a new consulting firm and was asked to take over as the engagement manager for a project that I soon learned was in dire straits. My client John was happy—he was responsible for a high-priority government-wide initiative with the potential to catapult his career, he had a high-end strategy firm by his side (that was us), and he was getting everything he thought he wanted—a well-documented plan identifying key investments required to guard against terrorist attacks.

“The problem was this: my team was very unhappy. Imagine a group of super-bright, creative, energized young graduates, well-trained in strategy development and execution, assigned to a high-visibility project, sitting in a windowless conference room formatting Excel spreadsheets. It was a troubled project that everyone in my firm had heard about and no one wanted to work on.

“While it was tempting to step in and make a dramatic move, I bided my time. I focused first on developing my relationship with John, understanding his interests and priorities. In several of our initial meetings he made reference to our team as his ‘administrative support.’ At first, I just filed it away. He was happy with the arrangement. He had no idea what he could or should expect from us.

“I also made a point to find out more about how our company had ended up in this predicament. We had fallen into the trap of being seduced by a lucrative long-term contract, doing whatever it took to keep the funding coming.

“One day when John referred to us again as his ‘administrative support,’ I decided it was time to speak up.

“I don’t recall being particularly nervous at the time. I just spoke from the heart: ‘John, this is at least the third time I’ve heard you refer to us as your administrative support. If that’s what you truly feel you need, let us help you find someone who does this as a core competency at a fraction of what you are paying us. If you’re interested in doing things more strategically, I’d love to have that conversation.’

“From that moment, everything shifted. The nature of all our conversations changed. The team began to bring ideas to the table, like helping John host a national workshop—with representatives from across the government, academia, and private industry—so that John could engage all his stakeholders in a way that they would have some ownership for the nationwide plan. It was an extraordinary workshop John’s successor is still talking about years later.

“Now we were positioned to deliver the kind of value we were truly capable of. The project that no one wanted to be on became a project people wanted to be part of.

“The biggest lesson for me in all of this was the importance of being willing to interrupt the status quo and say what had been left unsaid for too long in order to focus on what really mattered to John. Looking back, it was a pretty risky move. It was also the right one. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

—Sarah Agan

What’s been left unsaid for too long in one of your relationships?

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Read more stories about trust:

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Many Trusted Advisor programs now offer CPE credits.  Please call Tracey DelCamp for more information at 856-981-5268–or drop us a note @ info@trustedadvisor.com.

 

Story Time: An Unexpected Way to Recover Lost Trust

When it comes to trust-building, stories are a powerful tool for both learning and change. Our new Story Time series brings you real, personal examples from business life that shed light on specific ways to lead with trust. Today’s anecdote zeroes in on an unexpected way to recover lost trust and appease an unhappy client: listening.

A New Anthology

Our upcoming 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. In the coming months, we’ll share a selection of stories from the new book with you.

Today’s story is excerpted from our chapter on listening. It vividly demonstrates the value of hearing someone out, resisting the temptation to problem-solve too quickly, and being willing to always do what’s in your client’s best interests—even if that means letting go of the work assignment.

From the Front Lines: Listening to Recover Trust

Catherine Gregory, Senior Principal at SRA International in its Touchstone Consulting Group in Washington, DC, tells a story of the business value of listening.

“I had a team of four working on a long-term project with an important client who especially valued seeing the same faces year after year. In the course of three months, the entire team turned over. I had to deliver the bad news as each team member departed.

“After several turnovers, my client vented to me his frustration. I listened, and then listened some more, as he expressed his concerns and aggravation. He concluded with, ‘I know you are doing all you can. I just had to get that out.’ He was still unhappy and we were able to move forward together.

“Once things were stable with the team, I brought up the possibility of phasing out our support and letting him phase in a contractor who he felt would be more reliable. He didn’t want anyone else; he wanted our team.

“This experience proved to me without a doubt that listening is a critical business skill, and a way to recover trust in the face of challenging circumstances.”

—Catherine Gregory (Senior Principal, SRA International, Touchstone Consulting Group, Washington, DC)

Who in your life is waiting for you to give them a good listening to?