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

I’ve said for years that referring to someone by name is a quick and simple trust-builder. That’s because being intentional about acknowledging others in this very personal way accelerates intimacy. It would stand to reason then that forgetting their name, or fumbling around about how to pronounce it, would sound the death knell for trust, no? Actually, no. The implications are significant, but only in terms of how you choose to handle it.

Case 1: You’ve forgotten their name all together. First, let’s acknowledge the awkwardness that naturally arises when this happens, whether you forget right after you learned it or after time has passed. Ugh. If you’re like most people, you succumb to that awkwardness by finding ways to avoid admitting your predicament, or by avoiding the person all together.

Unfortunately, avoidance of any kind is rarely your best trust-building strategy. In fact, your commitment to practicing a different response has benefits that go far beyond your relationship with what’s-their-name.

One simple and profound alternative is to be real about it by simply admitting your predicament, with humility and sensitivity:

  • “You just told me your name and I’ve already forgotten it.”
  • “I’m embarrassed to admit that I can’t remember your name.”
  • “Your face is so familiar and yet I can’t for the life of me remember your name.”

Case 2: You don’t know/remember how to say their name. The same candid approach works when the issue is how a name is pronounced—a small gesture that goes a long way toward creating more respectful and inclusive relationships, especially with names that might be considered “different” by the majority culture. As one HBR article says so well, “Learning to pronounce a colleague’s name correctly is not just a common courtesy but it’s an important effort in creating an inclusive workplace, one that emphasizes psychological safety and belonging.” (Thank you, Ruchika—which is pronounced Roo-CHEEK-Ah, for the record.)

In the grander scheme, the “be real” option with name stumbles is not only a great way to get better at the whole name thing (small muscle), it’s a great way to walk the talk of trusted advisorship (big muscle). Why the significance? Because things like taking a risk, telling the truth, and revealing your humanity are part and parcel of being a “safe haven for tough issues.” Bonus: These gestures usually make others much more at ease doing the same with you.

Get comfortable (or at least more comfortable) with the name thing, and you’ll find yourself better able to do allllllll the things that set you apart from everyone else.

Side note: I’m pretty good at remembering people’s names and I’m often asked, “What’s your secret?” It’s a two-part answer. Being willing to admit when I’ve forgotten is one part—it takes the pressure off, plus I can get a refresher when I need it. The second part is repetition/practice. I make a point to call people by name as often as I can without being weird about it—from participants in my workshops to help desk reps who answer when I call. And when someone’s name is pronounced in a way I might not easily remember (and will want to), I make a note—as in, an actual note that spells it out phonetically. In other words, there’s no magic in it; I’m just committed to it.

Make It Real
This week, practice referring to people by name, and practice admitting when you struggle to do it (or do it correctly). What’s it like for you? What does the experience teach you about bigger trust lessons?

Learn More
Discover 10 ways to build intimacy or find out more about the relationship between trust and risk in Chapter 9 of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook.

Dale Carnegie said it well: “Names are the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

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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).