In two previous posts I discussed some preliminary work I’ve been doing on the life cycle of a business relationship. I posited that the first stage, pretty clearly, is the relationship-establishing or deal-killing friend-or-foe analysis. In other words, neuroscience tells us, the first thing that people do when they get together is decide do I feel comfortable with this person or not?   Is this person a friend or a foe?

The second stage is the credibility stage. That’s where we decide does this person on the other side of the table know what he/she/they are talking about? That process can take a little to a lot longer, depending on the cultures involved (how fast people get down to business) and the deliberate opportunities for establishing the same.

Once the first two phases are accomplished, the work can get underway and the third phase, the trust phase, begins. It’s the longest of the three phases, simply because trust takes time to establish. We want to see how you react under different conditions, and under stress, and so on.

OK, I covered Phase One in the previous post.  On to Phase Two and Three.

The key to the second phase, building credibility, is showing up with authority. Authority is most powerfully established with the voice. I’ve written about the research on the voice before, so I’ll be quick here, but the important thing to note is that your pitch, timbre, and intonation within your range all together determine how authoritative you sound. In terms of pitch, your voice is most authoritative at the bottom quarter of your range, but not at the very bottom. In terms of timbre, you want your voice to be resonant – and that is promoted with good diaphragmatic breathing. And in terms of intonation, you want your voice to describe an authoritative arc, which means coming down clearly at the ends of phrases, not rising up (as so many people do) as if you were asking a question.

Authority is then confirmed in body language with the posture, and the relative positioning of yourself to the other person. Your posture has to be upright, like a soldier’s, only without the tension. If your head is down, or your shoulders are rounded, you look submissive, and that is antithetical to authority. That is the curse of the mobile phone era – we all have our heads down reading our phones – or looking for them. We all look submissive as a result.

Relative to the other person, you want not to be situated below them. We sort out our authority pecking orders by the relative positions of our heads. The funniest illustration of this is the Daily Show stage set, where Jon Stewart – famously short and self-conscious about it – has the guest approach him on a floor which is set a good six to eight inches lower than the platform his desk sits on. In this fashion, the first visual the audience gets of him relative to his desk is one that makes him roughly six feet tall – good enough for just about everyone except basketball players.

Then they sit down. Watch the guests who are trying to stay on Stewart’s good side keep their heads level with or below his. It’s an amusing dance.

The final stage, the trust stage, is all about clarity of intention. We trust people whose intentions we can read easily (and who keep to those intentions over time). So consistency is an important part of this judgment. If you show up pretending to be present, or happy, or glad to see the other person, while radiating distraction or anger or something else too many times, we judge you to be inconsistent, and we don’t trust you.

But even more important is clarity. If you can learn to share your emotions openly (without undue fuss) we will trust you more readily. If we sense that you’re withholding, then we will be left uneasily feeling that you are not fully sharing your essence with us, and we don’t know you. Trust cannot flourish in those conditions.

What instances have you seen of openness, authority, and clarity working or not during the course of a business relationship?







  1. Nick: Very interesting perspective. I do believe that active listening amplifies and solidifies the “being present” component of phase one. It also allows you to arm or stock up insight that can accelerate phase two’s credibility aspect by syncing up your style, jargon and sound bites, etc. and also knowing where some lines are that are out of bounds, etc.

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