HYCS #17 – The Quickest Path to Credibility

HYCS #17 – The Quickest Path to Credibility

Focusing on your accomplishments may be the wrong thing to do.

Word Count: 835

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Assignment Time: 3.2 minutes

You come into the meeting nervous that your client doesn’t trust you to advise them, so you start by displaying your competence.  You need reassurance before you can relax into collaboration.

Your client is nervous because he feels vulnerable asking for help.  He needs psychological safety before he can open up more.    Neither of you will say what you need directly.  Instead, you’ll talk about the task at hand.

Do you see the problem?

The more you try to impress with your show of competence, the more defended your client becomes. Neither of you are getting what you need, and both of you are trying hard not to show your tender side.

Unless one of you changes your approach, it’s going to be a long, tense meeting.

The chicken or the egg?

In consulting, it’s both. We’ve come together to accomplish a task and build a relationship with a person.  But which comes first?  And where does establishing credibility come in?  Credibility is the natural by-product of conducting the relationship in a way that accomplishes the task.  Or, credibility is the natural by-product of accomplishing the task in a way that builds the relationship.  It doesn’t matter:  Pick the version you like best

What matters is knowing which is needed and offering it.

In the above example, even a tiny relationship-oriented comment or question could shift the tone of the meeting.  Something like:  “I talk too much when I’m nervous.  Sorry.  You were talking about why you want to do this?”  Or “If I were you, I’d be feeling interfered with, even micromanaged.  How is it for you?”  Even if your client doesn’t answer that last question, you’ve shown your interest in them as a person.

Show Them

Until you stop promoting yourself, you’re selling, not consulting.  Credibility doesn’t come from telling someone how good you are.  It comes from showing them.   Instead of trying to impress your client with your accomplishments, use quality questions and genuine interest to help your client feel more comfortable opening up.

Quality Questions

Quality questions show the client that you’ve taken the time to research and think about what is important to them.  Quality questions area about the things you don’t know and that your client may not either.  Quality questions show you’ve thought deeply about what the client wants to accomplish, not just about what they are asking you to do.  Quality questions help your client discover the joy of speaking.

The Joy of Speaking

In, Opening Up:  The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, James Pennebaker tells us that the more someone talks, the more they like the person or group they are talking to.  His research also showed that the more someone talks, the more they believe they’ve learned about their audience.

The more talking your client does, the better they will like you and the more they will believe they’ve gotten to know you.

Questions aren’t enough

It gets a little creepy if you only ask questions.  Eventually, you’re going to have to make a statement.  You may summarize the points your client was making.  Perhaps you’ll offer a simple paraphrase.  At some point, you’ll hear your client say something you need to call them on.  They might say “There’s no point in telling my boss about that.  He always shoots me down.”  To which you would almost be compelled to say:  “I notice when you mention your boss, you talk about how he denigrates your ideas.  Please tell me more about that.”

Being that direct is too much for some people, and that’s OK.  If you are not comfortable being that direct, or if you find your client shutting down, you can soften your observations with what Adam Grant in his book Give and Take calls “Talking Tentatively.”

Talking Tentatively

Here are several ways to reduce the threat of what you’re saying or asking.  These are especially helpful when clients are feeling vulnerable, or when you’ve gone overboard establishing your credibility.

Hesitations: well, um, uh, you know….

Hedges:  kinda sorta, maybe, probably, I think….

Disclaimers:  This may be a bad idea, but…

Tag Questions:  That’s interesting, isn’t it?  That’s a good idea, right?

Here’s the above example with each form of tentative talking:

“Well, er…I notice when you mention your boss, you talk about how he denigrates your ideas.  Um, could you tell me more about that?”

“Your boss denigrates your ideas.  That’s maddening, isn’t it?”

“I notice when you mention your boss, you talk about how he denigrates your ideas.   This may be a bad idea, but have you approached him about this?”

You can speak the truth without blame or judgment and create safety for your client too.


  • Listen for your client’s vulnerability the next time you are called in to help.
  • Stop self-promoting and focus on asking your client questions so they will open up.
  • Offer your next observation using Tentative Talk