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?




10 replies
  1. Shaun Dakin
    Shaun Dakin says:

    I really like this post.  Thanks for the thought provoking content as always on this blog, whether it is from Charles or other associates.

    The one I have most difficutly with is the "I don’t know".   Very hard for anyone (consultant or Father) to say that out loud.

    Shaun Dakin

    • Andrea P. Howe
      Andrea P. Howe says:

      Shaun, how embarrassing that you posted this four years ago (!) and I never replied. I don’t think I ever saw it! Your point is well taken about consultant-hood and parent-hood. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Michelle Riley
    Michelle Riley says:

    I’m committed to using “That Makes Sense” more often. I can easily see how it demonstrates to the person I speaking with that I’m actively listening, that I’m open and that respect his/her comments. Thank you, Andrea, for the great advice. It definitely makes sense to me (smile).

  3. Joanne
    Joanne says:

    Love your post. Very helpful. In a 35 year work life, I’ve changed careers. Yet, there are definite crossovers between two seemingly different career paths. One important one is listening — and listening well. What does this look like? The most obvious is less work with my mouth and more with my ears! It also means taking notes when someone is speaking, writing my questions in the margins and looping back to those questions when the time is right in the conversation.

    Another powerful lesson I learned was with a tough client. He was under pressure himself from someone higher up the ladder. He wanted briefing charts and he wanted them NOW. I had some rough ideas but nothing with which I was confident. I had to look him in the eyes and say, “I don’t have an answer for you yet.” I had to hold my ground and say, “I promise. As soon as a more efficient approach becomes clearer, I’ll contact you for immediate feedback.” I wasn’t snowing him. I truly meant it. It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in a professional environment. This client was a full colonel.

    Finally, I had some younger employees reporting to me. One in particular was very earnest and very intelligent. She was not yet confident in her ability to present something to me. I said, “I trust you. Go with your best judgment and we’ll take it from there.” Months later she told me the positive effect that had on her.

    Hope this helps others as well.

    • Andrea Howe
      Andrea Howe says:

      What great life lessons, Joanne. Thank you for sharing all of them. I can really appreciate how hard it was to hold the Colonel at bay–kudos to you for doing what was right and honest. I’m also not surprised to hear that listening has been a critical crossover in your experience. Thanks for taking the time to write.


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