This post is part of our Monthly-ish Tips series.

A lesson in how to get others’ attention from an unexpected sourcerI usually work specifically with people who are in client-facing roles, helping them be more influential and impactful by leading with trust. I recently had an opportunity to look at key trust lessons through a different lens, as I worked with a group of senior leaders on how to communicate with staff in more trustworthy ways. I think my preliminary conclusions are worth sharing, so here we are.

The specific challenge statement we worked on was this: How can leaders communicate during times of great change and uncertainty in ways that are:

  • Clear
  • Confidence-inspiring
  • Supportive
  • Honest
  • Trust-building?

We explored this challenge as it relates to broadcasts (like presentations and staff-wide emails) as well as dialogue.

My conclusion to date is that the answers are all relatively simple, just not easy—as it always seems to be with trust-building.

The enlightened way forward starts with recognizing what I have identified as five very tempting communication pitfalls, along with the trust problems they each create:

  1. Commiseration—as in, “Oh yeah, I’m really pissed off about that too.”

    Commiseration isn’t about connecting with or mirroring others; it’s about using their complaints as a springboard for indulging your own. That makes it all about you, and any bonding that occurs as a result is at the expense of the organization, which is a cannibalizing kind of move. In terms of the trust equation, this raises your self-orientation and lowers your credibility and intimacy.

  1. Invalidation—as in, “It’s not that bad. You should see how it went down during the last <insert name of change effort here> that I lived through.”

    While your intentions may be decent (you may be trying to lend perspective, for example), the result is another big trust hit. For starters, negating someone’s complaint or point of view is actually worse than not listening, and draws down on intimacy at lightning speed.

  1. Too much positivity too soon—as in, “<Insert name of change effort here> is actually a really good thing!”

    This one’s a close cousin to invalidation, only worse in some ways, because you’re trying to convert someone who’s worried/fearful/resistant/skeptical into an ally without first acknowledging their worries/fears/resistance/skepticism. When people’s shields are up (as they naturally are in the face of change), unbridled enthusiasm kills your credibility and pushes them further into their own camp.

  1. Mr./Ms. Fix-It—as in, “Here’s what we can do to make it better!”

    Good intentions usually abound here, too. Yet the downsides of premature problem-solving are three-fold, especially as it relates to helping others deal with change: (a) you’re likely signing yourself up for unnecessary work, because often all they really needed is a sounding board, (b) if there is a problem to be solved, you’re probably solving the wrong one because you’re rushing to fix something rather than taking the time to get at the true, root issue, and (c) you’re missing opportunities to build intimacy along the way.

  1. “Blah blah blah”—as in, well, insert any kind of corporate-speak here. We all know the language that’s jargon-laden, overly formal, and so template-driven that we simply tune out. “Blah blah blah” is often a symptom of indirect-itis, which is a tendency to answer questions indirectly when we fear that the honest reply won’t be well received. While consistency is important when we’re communicating about change, towing the party line in “blah blah blah” ways comes across as inauthentic, hurting both credibility and intimacy. On top of that, anything that smacks of CYA (cover your you-know-what) drives self-orientation sky high.

These five pitfalls are understandable, and so easy to fall into. If you find yourself anywhere in the list above, remember to be gracious with yourself. As they say, the first step is to admit you have a problem.

Then comes the opportunity to train yourself to respond in more trustworthy ways.

In the next week’s tip, we’ll look at five communication alternatives that will help you do just that.

Make It Real

This week, be on the lookout for any and all of the five communication pitfalls—whether you or others are the guilty instigators. Imagine (or notice) what it’s like be on the receiving end.

Learn More


Read about how strong leaders build teams, from our friends at Trusted Advisor Associates, or brush up on ways to listen masterfully in Chapter 6 of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook.


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Andrea Howe

As the founder of The Get Real Project, I am the steward of our vision and our service offerings, as well as a workshop leader and keynote speaker. Above all else, I am an entrepreneur on a mission: to kick conventional business wisdom to the curb and transform how people work together as a result. I am also the co-author, with Charles H. Green, of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook (Wiley, 2012).