How to be a great conversationalist

I've written a lot lately about prioritizing relationships, so now is an excellent time to explore the secret to creating new relationships - good conversation skills.

Conversation skills include having something to say, keeping a conversation going, and listening well.  Let's go over the stages of a good conversation.

Stage zero: preparation

Almost everything worth doing requires some preparation.  A good conversationalist is always ready to hold a conversation.  To prepare, let's look at two of the most common questions.

Prepare to answer the question, "How are you?"

Ninety-nine percent of the time, people don't expect you to give them an honest answer.  However, you can still use this as a chance to start a meaningful conversation by thinking of something that will arouse the curiosity of the other person.  If something wonderful is happening in your life, it is a good topic for conversation.  Get people's attention by saying, "I've never felt better!" or, "This is the best I have felt in years."

A person who sees the value in talking to you will likely ask what's going so well.

I love this creative response: "My kids are healthy and happy, and my husband is still trying to impress me."

At least you'll get a laugh from a response like this, and at best, the conversation will proceed effortlessly.

What if things aren't going so well? You can still create a bridge to a valuable conversation. Consider these possibilities:

  • I could write a book on that topic.
  • I'm ready to run a marathon, but my body is not cooperating.
  • Supposedly, "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" - I should be the Hulk by now.
  • Right now I'm facing many challenges, but I have a lot of support and couldn't ask for any more.

These are lighthearted attempts to engage the other person in further conversation. Have a topic in mind to discuss that isn't too negative. Focus on the positive. Despite these challenges, what keeps you going?

Here are a couple of responses that really invite engagement:

What if someone asks, "What do you do?"

Unless you're a firefighter or an astronaut, this question can often lead to awkward conversations, but it doesn't have to.It's possible the person asking this question is feeling you out to determine your social status, either to know how much respect to give you or even to determine if you are worth their attention. In any case, try to ignore the person's possible motives and just use the question as a valuable springboard. You can answer this question in countless ways.  Preparing two or three in advance will ensure you won't regret missed opportunities for great conversations.

The underlying question they are asking is, "Can you give me something we can connect over?"This quote and some of the ideas below come from a great article on the subject at

So think about what you do in these terms:

  • Who do you help?
  • In what way does your work make a difference?
  • What are the results? Can your efforts save time or money, generate revenue, or reduce workload?
  • Why did you get into that line of work?
  • What is fun or inspiring to you about your work?
  • What would people benefit from knowing about your job or industry?
  • What's the most interesting thing you've learned recently?
  • How did you get to where you are now?
  • How do you envision your career going forward?
  • Tell a story about a day at work you found particularly exciting.
  • Tell about the challenges you faced during your journey and some of the sacrifices you made.
  • Talk about any of the answers to the above questions that don't apply to paid work.

Make a list of answers to some of the above questions and pick out the ones you think others would find most interesting.  Then, come up with an appealing way to answer the question, "What do you do?"

You can craft a one-liner using this formula: "I help <insert group of people here> to <insert their desired outcome here> by <insert what you actually do here>."

Some examples:

Now you're ready to get out and talk to people.

Stage one: engaging the other person

Wherever you go, there you are.  Your surroundings matter, especially when it comes to starting conversations.  The best topics for conversation are:

  1. The immediate environment
  2. Something positive or neutral about someone present

While you look around, think about:

  • What brought you here?
  • Who else is here that you already know or would like to meet?
  • What kinds of activities take place here?
  • What makes this place unique or interesting?
  • What can you learn about this place from someone else?
  • What previous experiences have you had here?
  • How do you feel about this place?
  • What do a person's clothes, age, build, speech pattern, jewelry, hairdo, or reading material tell you about them? Maybe there's a tattoo or t-shirt slogan you can ask about.

As you progress in the conversation, you can include nearby areas or related topics.

For instance, you could start a conversation with the person sitting next to you by saying, "Our host just got back from California." This gives them an opportunity to comment on the host, or California, or traveling. Pause, and if the other person doesn't pick up the conversational ball, you can ask them a question.  "Have you ever been to California?"

Stage two: keeping the conversation going

Once your conversation has moved beyond the immediate physical environment, you can start looking for other ways to connect.  During the conversation, anything can serve as a springboard to something closer to your interests, or better yet, closer to the other person's interests.

At an appropriate point in the conversation, consider discussing:

  • Your interest in a topic they mentioned earlier
  • Getting their opinion on something
  • Their free time activities
  • Briefly share something about yourself that's relevant

Other effective questions include:

  • Have you experienced any highlights this year?
  • Do you have a favorite mistake you've ever made?
  • What's one thing someone can do to stand out to you?
  • What would you do if you had more time to deal with X?

The answers to these questions will help the other person present themselves in a positive light, resulting in a deposit into your relationship bank account.

Your goal should be to identify the "hot button" topics of the other person, topics they enjoy talking about.  Having a positive conversation about these topics will almost always move the relationship forward.

As you build rapport with the person, you can ask questions to discover their 'hot buttons' or share your own:

  • When you're not working, what do you like to do?
  • What kind of activities do you enjoy?
  • Are you involved in any projects?
  • Do you have any hobbies that you enjoy?
  • Do you belong to any particular organizations?
  • I'm very excited about...
  • Guess what, I'm finally going to..
  • This weekend, I am looking forward to...
  • I just finished working on...

Stage three: responding to the other person

Speaking is just half of an effective conversation.  Listening is the other half, and it may be the most important. Concentrate on what the other person is saying and avoid thinking about what you will say next.

Keep your attention focused on what you're learning about the other person.  Don't ask nonstop questions.  Instead, share some of your own viewpoints and experiences.  But try to keep the conversation focused on the other person as much as they are comfortable with.  

Encourage the other person to continue talking once you have gotten them started.  There are many ways to do this:

  • That was an interesting thing you said. Is it because...?
  • From what you told me, I gather that you... Why do you say that?
  • Since you brought up the fact that..., can I ask you...?
  • I would have never guessed that you ... Thanks for letting me know that.
  • Restate the things they're telling you in your own words. "Let me just summarize what you’ve said."
  • In other words, what you're saying is...
  • Please tell me more.
  • Use the news reporter's open-ended questions: who, what, where, when, how, and why. 
  • A seemingly off-hand mention of something unrelated should be explored.
  • Pay attention to the things they say beyond what you asked for.
  • Try to discover what the other person knows that you don't.

Ask for clarification:

  • After that, what happened?
  • If I understand you correctly you want to ...
  • Let me see if I've got this straight. You're going to ... Is that right?
  • When do you expect it to happen?
  • How did that happen?
  • What did you do next?
  • How did it turn out?

Ask for and think of examples:

  • Like what, for instance?
  • What would that include?
  • How will I know?
  • Can you describe your idea of a good ...for me?
  • Would it include...

Watch for "iceberg statements," messages that indicate they wish to discuss the topic further.  Some examples:

  • My grandkids will be visiting this weekend.
  • I'm going to see a foreign film tonight with some people from my language class.
  • I hope the weather is good this weekend.
  • I'm considering some career training in...

Ask follow-up questions to get them to tell you more.

You may not know what to ask sometimes.  The person may not be giving you much to draw on.  But as long as they are talking, you'll have ways to encourage them to continue.  If someone tells you that the weather is hard on pets, simply ask "Hard on pets?" This will be interpreted as a request for more information, and the other person will be glad to provide it.

Stage four: moving the relationship forward

Congratulations on making it this far; you are an effective conversationalist. You have shown that you can start a conversation, keep it moving, and respond effectively to the other person. Hopefully, you share some interests with them. If nothing else, you've learned something useful, and you've provided value to the other person by engaging in an interesting conversation.

If you decide that it would benefit you to continue the relationship, don't miss the opportunity.

Find a way to keep in touch. If you don't think the other person would be comfortable giving you their contact information, offer them yours. Provide a phone number, email address, or social media handle. Where there is the potential for mutual benefit, set up some expectations. Call them or email them by a specified date. And be sure to follow through.

The benefits don't have to be immediate.  Then it would be like you had opened a new bank account that may soon pay rich dividends.  

If you have already built some relationship capital with the person, you may want to ask for a favor.  Don't be afraid to ask them directly.  The worst thing that could happen is that they will say no.  Accept it graciously.

If you get along well, take the initiative to arrange a specific meeting or plan an activity around something you both enjoy. When saying goodbye, use the person's name.

At an appropriate time and place, record the facts and details related to the person. Make sure you remember as much as you can.  If someone asks you how you remember something they said, how would you respond?  It's okay to tell them you took notes. People are just as impressed that you cared enough about their conversation to keep track of what they've said.

To close this article, I will share these beautifully written words that swept across Twitter while I wrote this:

Woman tapping shoulder of frustrated female friend. Image credit:

Empathy - What is it?  Why is it important? And how to be more empathetic

What is empathy?

The Oxford Dictionary defines empathy as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.  We can definitely build on this.the word “empathy” was invented in 1908 by psychologists looking for a way to translate the German term Einfühlung, which literally means “feeling in.”

Here's how various experts have defined it:

Empathy is the experience of understanding another person's thoughts, feelings, and condition from their point of view, rather than from your own.

Empathy is the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another person, animal, or fictional character.  

Empathy involves understanding others' anxiety and making a genuine effort to reduce it.Bruna Martinuzzi 

I think empathy at a deep level is the understanding that someone else's world is just as real as yours.Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki

According to science

There are four components of empathy, according to neuroscience:Fishbane, M. D. (2016). The neurobiology of relationships. In T. L. Sexton & J. Lebow (Eds.), Handbook of family therapy (pp. 48–65). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, which cites: Decety, J., & Jackson, P.L. (2004). The functional  neuroarchitecture of human empathy. Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews, 3, 71–100.

  1. Resonance, an automatic process that happens below conscious awareness.  Mirror neurons simulate the same firing patterns of neurons that accompany emotions and actions.
  2. Cognitive empathy, where one person consciously thinks about how another feels.  It occurs in the prefrontal cortex, the region responsible for higher cognitive functions.
  3. Self-regulation. Since (affective) empathy is "your pain in my heart," a person who experiences this needs a mechanism to regulate the pain.
  4. A boundary between one's self and another. FMRI scans reveal areas of the somatosensory system that are activated only in response to one's own pain, not empathy for another's pain.

Empathy is a form of "perspective-taking."  Perspective-taking is defined as "the ability to understand how a situation appears to another person and how that person is reacting cognitively and emotionally to the situation."Gehlbach, H. (2004). “A new perspective on perspective taking: a multidimensional approach to conceptualizing an aptitude.” Educational Psychology Review, 16(3), 207-234. In other words, empathy, technically called emotional perspective-taking, is the ability to understand how the other person is reacting emotionally.  Another type of perspective-taking is cognitive perspective-taking, also called Theory of Mind (ToM).  It is the ability to understand how another person thinks about a situation.

I was unable to find the source of the phrase, "Empathy is your pain in my heart."  In fact, this phrase often appears with the word "compassion" substituted for "empathy."  The terms are indeed very closely related.  

Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman categorize empathy differently from the neuroscientists mentioned above.  In addition to cognitive empathy, they add emotional (affective) empathy and compassionate empathy.  Cognitive empathy involves recognizing (in the mind) what the other person is feeling, whereas emotional empathy involves actually sharing those feelings.  Compassion adds a motivational component, making the empathetic person want to do something to help.

There is a reason why some people shy away from empathy. Empathy is painful.  Empathizing with someone's pain means experiencing it yourself. This leads to our next question: 

Why is empathy important?

There are so many reasons:

  • It leads to better relationships.
  • It helps build trust.
  • It is an important component of emotional intelligence.
  • People with greater empathy are more likely to have stronger conflict resolution skills.
  • Those with greater empathy skills work better within a team.
  • Highly empathetic people are more prosocial, and this is linked to higher levels of performance, productivity, and creativity at work.
  • According to Loevenger, a high level of maturity includes deep empathy for others.
  • A well-rounded person shows empathy, listens rather than judges, and understands others' viewpoints.
  • Empathy is the only effective way to help people change counterproductive beliefs.
  • Listening with empathy is a relationship-building "currency" that builds social capital.
  • It is a crucial element of critical thinking, enabling a person to overcome biases and see multiple perspectives.
  • It empowers a person to stand up for what is right despite the self-interest, prejudice, and ruthlessness of others.
  • The best leaders demonstrate empathy.
  • It is a protection against the trend toward self-objectification (as in the selfie craze).
  • In difficult situations, it can be useful in defusing tension.
  • Empathy is the most important and essential aspect of social awareness and is directly related to self-awareness.
  • You will become a better manager or leader.
  • It plays an important role in meeting the needs of customers when developing some sort of product or service.
  • It is an important component of effective negotiation.
  • Empathy training increases happiness, mental and physical health, social and marital relationships, and decreases cortisol (the stress hormone).
  • When you face situations that are almost impossible to overcome, it can help you keep going.

To illustrate the latter point, consider U.S. Navy SEAL training.  Hell Week, considered the most difficult military training in the world, is required for candidates to qualify for this elite position.  Only 25 percent of candidates complete this training.  SEAL officer Eric Greitens identifies empathy as a critical quality for those who succeed:

They had the ability to step outside of their own pain, put aside their own fear, and ask: How can I help the guy next to me? They had more than the "fist" of courage and physical strength. They also had a heart large enough to think about others.Quoted in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister.

How can we build empathy?

Start by recognizing emotions

According to Mona Fishbane, also cited above, "Attunement to another requires attunement to one’s own emotions." Since mirror neurons in our brains fire automatically in response to the emotions of another, we need training to recognize emotions we encounter in ourselves and others.

Thoughts about another's feelings - cognitive empathy - can be incorrect.  We should consider our impressions as simply that: impressions.  You can verify them by asking the other person how they feel.  They will appreciate our interest along with the opportunity to be understood.

Suspend judgment

A person cannot be both compassionate and judgmental at the same time.  Instead of judging the person or situation, interrupting and sharing your personal experiences, or offering a solution, focus on understanding how the person feels, and why they feel that way.

Instead of thinking how you would feel in their exact situation, consider a situation you have been in where you felt the same way as they do. According to Justin Bariso, author of EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence, "It is the feeling of when you failed that you want to recall, not the event."

Listen empathetically

Resisting the urge to interrupt or to offer advice is essential.  Try to see things from their point of view.  Ask thoughtful questions, listen to the answers, and ask in a way that encourages self-disclosure.

Talk face to face if at all possible.  According to Fishbane, "Exercises that include eye contact between partners or family members increase empathy and emotional awareness."  Technology is no substitute.

Use your imagination

You can ask yourself, "If I were in this situation, how would I feel? What would I need?’

Another way to use imagination to stimulate empathy is to read literature, especially fiction.  According to neuroscientist Gregory Berns, “The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist.” I found a lot of scientific evidence to back this up.

Referring to mirror neurons, Dora B. Rowe wrote:

Even when neither the situation nor the individual is real, a reader’s clearly defined mental image of the thoughts, feelings, and physical and emotional responses (mentalizing) activates the cortex as if the event actually took place, albeit it to a somewhat lesser intensity.Rowe, D. B. (2018). The “Novel” Approach: Using Fiction to Increase Empathy. Virginia Libraries, 63(1). 

Rowe identified completeness of imagery and identification with characters and their experiences as the basis for empathic growth.  In her opinion, readers should enhance their empathy by imagining what they read.  Another way to enhance empathy with fiction is to have students create it themselves.

Researchers John Stansfield and Louise Bunce have found strong correlations between exposure to fiction and cognitive empathy, and between transportation and affective empathy.  An emotional response after a story induces immediate helping behaviors.Stansfield, J., and Bunce, L., 2014. The Relationship Between Empathy and Reading Fiction: Separate Roles for Cognitive and Affective Components. Journal of European Psychology Students, 5(3), pp.9–18. DOI: 

Prioritize social capital

Today, "financial freedom" is more valued than ever before.  However, we might be emotionally impoverishing ourselves as a result.

Michael Kraus of Yale University has found that poor people make more accurate inferences about others' emotions. Those who are rich have difficulty reading other people's emotions, and they lack empathy and compassion towards others. This deficit stems primarily from their lack of dependence on others.

Those who are wealthy worry more about what others think of them and are very likely to blame other people when things go wrong. A contributing factor to poor quality personal, family, and romantic relationships among the rich is their inability to apply flexibility, empathy, and open-mindedness when faced with uncertainties in relationships

Other methods

Learn horseback riding.  According to Sarah Evers Conrad, among many other good qualities, horseback riding teaches empathy.  "Without these traits, the rider will not go far in their horsemanship studies."

Practice self-distancing.  Imagine the benefit of writing a narrative from another person's perspective. The technique is especially valuable for those who want to empathize with someone they aren't getting along with.  Writing the narrative from the other person's perspective made it much easier to see their point of view.

Get religion.  While religion is growing less popular these days for good reasonReasons include religion's involvement in politics, hypocrisy, and child abuse, to name a few.  I am a very religious person myself, but I recognize that not everything about religion is good., studies show the more religious a person is, the more he or she is likely to show empathy.

Take action

Bariso urges you to practice compassionate empathy by asking the other person directly how you can help. Ask yourself: What helped me when I felt similarly? Or: What would have made a difference?

Great videos on empathy

It's Not About the Nail

When I first watched this video with my wife, I couldn't comprehend why the woman wasn't willing to consider what I considered the obvious solution.  My empathy was severely underdeveloped.  But my wife had no problem understanding.

Now I get it.  Pain victims are in need of connection before they are in need of solutions.

I wasn't laughing the first time I saw the video.  I didn't get it.  Now, every time I see the video I laugh.  I laugh at how (exaggerated but) true to life it is, and I laugh at my clueless younger self.

Brené Brown on Empathy

How can we ease someone's pain and suffering? In this beautiful animation, Dr. Brené Brown reminds us that we can only form true empathic connections if we are brave enough to be vulnerable.

My favorite suggestions from the video:

Say, "I know what it's like down here, and you're not alone."

If I share something with you that's very difficult, I'd rather you say,
"I don't even know what to say. I'm just so glad you told me."
Because the truth is, rarely can a response make something better.
What makes something better is connection.

Trust: why it's essential, and how to earn it

"When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective." --Stephen R. Covey

I've been planning to revisit the topic of trust on this blog for some time. Upon reviewing my blog posts from the past year, I've identified 20 principles related to trust. I list four of them below.

Expertise is highly valued and rewarded.  Yet many people are unaware that trust is even more valuable.

First, why is trust so important?

  • Trust helps us maintain stable interactions.
  • Trust gives us the ability to hold beliefs, without which we would be paralyzed, unable to take any action.
  • Trust is an important ingredient in life satisfaction.
  • We are happiest when we have relationships with people we trust to support us.

The "Trust Equation" from The Trusted Advisor by David H. Maister, Charles H. Green, and Robert M. Galford, intrigued me because it quantifies something most people wouldn't normally try to measure. According to this equation, a person's trustworthiness is influenced by four factors: credibility, reliability, intimacy, and self-orientation.  The first three factors increase trustworthiness, and the last factor decreases it.

The trust equation: (credibility + reliability + intimacy) / (self-orientation)

It may not be a scientific formula, but it's the closest thing I've found to one so far.  In researching this topic, I discovered other factors that contribute to trustworthiness, which I will mention here.  I will explain each one in more detail, and then we will see which seems most important.  The result may surprise you.  Finally, we'll discuss how we can use this to our advantage.

Factors that affect trustworthiness

I did not leave any stone unturned in my search for factors that affect trustworthiness.  Similar to the "trust equation" above, I found there to be four general categories for these factors:

  • Honesty
  • Competence
  • Openness
  • Caring about others

Let's examine each in turn.  First, here are the sources from which this information was obtained:

The diagram below comes from, which website compares The Trust Equation with two other popular models of trust.I am indebted to World of Work, not just for the graphic but for the four categories since I believe they accurately sum up not only the three models they consider but also all the other models I've explored.  The first is Ken Blanchard's ABCD model of trust.Kenneth Hartley Blanchard is an American author, business consultant, and motivational speaker. His most successful book, The One Minute Manager, has sold over 15 million copies. Blanchard is known for the quote "None of us is as smart as all of us."  I looked high and low for the source of the "Trust in Sales" model but couldn't find it.  Nevertheless, it fits in quite well with what is described below.Update 12/15/2022 I queried ChatGPT, currently the most powerful publicly-available LLM-AI (basically a computer brain that can instantly process enormous amounts of data to find the exact needle in the haystack you are looking for). It was also not familiar with this "popular model." I asked it to tell me the "five dimensions" of trust in sales and it provided the following: competence, reliability, integrity, communication, and mutual respect. In comparing these to the WorldofWork comparison chart, I observed that these five also correspond to the four categories: Being Capable: competence; Honest Word and Action: reliability (spans two columns) and integrity; Being Open: communication; and Caring About Others: mutual respect. So while the "popular" Trust in Sales "model" is still highly suspect, I believe the comparison chart is still a valid and useful learning tool.

I used two academic sources, both meta-analyses, for comparison, which I call the Integrative ModelThe paper examines the work of 23 prior authors studying trust that were published between 1953-1993. Mayer, R., Davis, J.H., & Schoorman, F. (1995). An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust. Academy of Management Review, 20, 709-734. and the Multidisciplinary AnalysisThis paper compared definitions of trust from 17 papers and found common factors that were mentioned. Tschannen-Moran, M., & Hoy, W. (2000). A Multidisciplinary Analysis of the Nature, Meaning, and Measurement of Trust. Review of Educational Research, 70, 547 - 593. .  I also compared an informal (non-peer-reviewed) study by Charles Green, founder of Trust Associates and one of the authors of The Trusted Advisor, as well as another informal study by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman featured in Harvard Business Review."By looking at data from the 360 degree assessments of 87,000 leaders, we were able to identify three key clusters of items that are often the foundation for trust. We looked for correlations between the trust rating and all other items in the assessment and after selecting the 15 highest correlations, we performed a factor analysis that revealed these three elements." (As opposed to a typical employee performance review, in which an employee's performance is evaluated only by their manager, a 360-degree review takes into account feedback from peers and reporting staff members-even customers and others with whom the employee interacts.)


It is no surprise that honesty is essential for trust.  The only surprise may be how important it is in relation to the other factors.  We'll get to that shortly.

The World of Work associates honesty with two things: words and actions.  

Honesty in words includes integrity - the trustor's perception that the trustee adheres to an acceptable set of principles.  Keeping our promises, not stretching the truth, and not gossiping are ways to demonstrate integrity.  Blanchard calls this "believability."

Honesty in action is also called dependability, reliability, or consistency.  By being predictable, we give others the assurance that we will do what they expect.


Various models refer to this quality as ability, expertise, or capability.  Because someone without knowledge or ability in a certain field depends on someone who has it, expertise increases trustworthiness. There is more potential for trust when the difference in experience is greater.  Zenger and Folkman add "good judgment" to this category.  Green and his associates use the word credibility, which, as the diagram below indicates, spills over to honesty.  


This category is not as obvious to some researchers as the first two. A person who is open is relatable, approachable, warm, and human.  They come across as genuine.  

Openness goes beyond this.  Openness is characterized by not withholding relevant information; it is the process by which people make themselves vulnerable to others by sharing their own personal information.  The Trust Equation model uses "intimacy" to describe the degree to which people trust us and believe that we are discreet, empathetic, and safe.

Caring about others

Earlier, formal models referred to this quality as benevolence. Benevolence is the extent to which a trustee is believed to want to do good to the trustor. It is the confidence that one's well-being, or something one cares about, will be protected and not harmed by the trusted party.

Those with this quality help customers make an informed purchase decision by giving them accurate information about products and services while avoiding high-pressure sales tactics and gimmicks.  Customers are the priority, not sales.  Green refers to it as (low) self-orientation.

Blanchard calls this "connectedness," meaning openly sharing information about oneself and the organization and trusting employees to use that information responsibly.  This shows that Blanchard considers benevolence and openness to be two sides of the same coin.  

Zenger and Folkman found only three primary categories.  Besides good judgment/expertise and honesty/consistency, their third category is "positive relationships."  According to them, positive relationships include staying in touch with the issues and concerns of others, balancing results with concern for others, generating cooperation, resolving conflict, and giving honest feedback in a helpful way.  It's basically the same as Blanchard's "connectedness."The Integrative Model also is basically a 3-factor model, placing openness under either integrity or benevolence depending on the context.  In contrast, the Multidisciplinary Analysis finds five key factors: honesty, reliability, competence, openness, and benevolence.  This would fit very nicely if we expanded honesty in word and action into two separate categories, as the Blanchard model has also done.  All told, every model I've considered supports the four categories I've listed, with some condensing two of them into one. (Benevolence and openness in two models and competence and honesty in the case of The Trust Equation.)

A diagram comparing Blanchard's ABCD model with "The Trust Equation" and another sales-based model

How to be trusted

Here's where the rubber meets the road.  Although each of these categories is important, they are not equal.  

In your opinion, which category is the most important?

I've already hinted that honesty isn't the most influential factor.  What about competence?  Having expertise is highly rewarded, and it also contributes greatly to trustworthiness - so is it the most important factor?

No.  Openness and care for others matter most.  It might surprise you to learn that, of all four, openness, or intimacy, is the most important.  Why is this?

A sense of openness indicates mutual trust. Individuals who withhold information and conceal it provoke suspicion. Others wonder what these people are hiding and why. Trust breeds trust, and distrust breeds distrust. 

Green and his colleagues used a proprietary scoring instrument with 20 questions - five questions for each of the four variables.  Their white paper, linked above, reports their findings after testing over 70,000 participants.  Reliability was the most important variable for 53% of respondents. Only 18% of respondents scored favorably on intimacy and only 18% on self-orientation.I was unable to determine from the paper how many scored highest for credibility.  It was somewhere between 18-53%.

The paper concludes that credentials and skill mastery, which most organizations place great emphasis on, are the least effective in building trust. Acquiring more knowledge and adding credentials rarely is the best way to become more trustworthy. 

The most effective leaders scored high on reliability and intimacy.  This describes only 17% of the respondents.  The top three of six "temperament" types categorized as most effective all scored high in intimacy.  Only 34% of the respondents belonged to these three types.The authors add, "An even blend of the four trust components is more effective than being off the charts in one or two areas."

Intimacy skills can usually be learned. This offers organizations a great opportunity to enhance employee trustworthiness. Despite this, most organizations do little to develop their employees' intimacy skills - a missed opportunity.

An individual's trustworthiness can be drastically improved by focusing on weaknesses because improving weaknesses increases perceived integrity.

Showing trust percentile as a function of relationships, judgment, and consistency

Zenger and Folkman also found that Relationships were the most significant factor, accounting for 30 percentile points.  In contrast, Judgment influenced the score by around 15 percentile points, while Consistency impacted it by only ten percentile points.  If someone scored high on both Judgment and Consistency, they were still considered less trustworthy than someone who scored high on Relationships but poorly on the other two.  In fact, if one scored low on the Relationships factor, it was nearly impossible to be considered a trustworthy leader.The authors noted, "Being just above average on these skills can have a profound positive effect and, conversely, just being below average can destroy trust."

What do we learn? Reliability and integrity are important, but learning to be open, trusting, and vulnerable will yield the best results.  It's also a good time to prioritize your relationships.I also want to point out that integrity, dependability, reliability, and care for others are all traits of a well-rounded person.  In addition, emotional vulnerability demonstrates a willingness to take risks.

I'm going to end with some excellent questions suggested by Bruna Martinuzzi, author of the book The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

  • When I know that information I have is useful to others, do I share it or keep it to myself?
  • Am I kind and compassionate to everyone?
  • Regardless of the personal cost, do I stick to my commitments?
  • Do I seize opportunities to encourage others?
  • Am I just as happy about others' achievements as I am of my own?
  • Would people readily describe me as genuine?

How to be valuable

As a human being, you are inherently valuable.  Nothing you do can change that.  Whether you are wildly successful in business or are the funniest person in the world, your intrinsic value does not change, nor does it change if you are an ax murderer or a brutal dictator.

Nonetheless, there are a lot of factors that can affect how others perceive your value.  The article addresses the question, "How can I feel more valuable?" by asking, "How can I provide value to others?"  

There's a good reason for this. We are social creatures, and we measure our worth by how others treat us. If we are valuable to them, they will treat us as such, and we will feel more valuable.

This creates a positive feedback loop. By investing in others, our own self-worth will increase.

So the question is, how can we provide value to others?

What providing value means

In researching these topics, sometimes I find the authors' words are so well written that I have to quote them.  Podcaster Carol Lynn Rivera set out to answer the question, "What Is Value, Really?" After listing a series of things, she concludes, "Value is all of those things, and none of those things."

In the end, the best I can do to sum up what value means is by saying that it’s giving people what they want. Not only that but giving them what they didn’t even know they wanted. It’s that little bit of je ne sais quoi that leaves people feeling, “Wow.”

I think that sums it up very well.  Of course, it still begs the question:

How do I know what they want?

Getting to know someone is the key.  This means genuinely being interested in them.  And how do we do that?  By considering the other person as a source of wealth. And as I pointed out in this article, investing in people is very much like investing in anything else. 

In that article, I discussed the Cohen-Bradford Influence Model and how it can help us identify the "je ne sais quoi"This French phrase basically means, "I can't put my finger on it." It's something that's hard to describe or express in words.  However, I try my best in this article to do just that. in each relationship.  The important factors are:

  1. What you can do for the other person, and
  2. What the other person values.

In reciprocal exchange, these two things become the "currency".  It's an effective way for you to invest in the relationship.

First, let's briefly examine the types of "currencies" that Cohen and Bradford say are useful in exchanging value with others.  They can be inspiration-, task-, position-, relation-, and personal-related.


These include:

  • Sharing a vision of something the other person can help accomplish.
  • Giving the person an opportunity to excel by using their talents to create something valuable.
  • Allowing the person to uphold their own ethical standards.


  • Helping the person obtain the resources or skills they need to accomplish a project.
  • Providing assistance personally or allocating personnel to help. 
  • Removing barriers to access, such as helping someone skip a waiting line. 
  • Providing inside information.


  • Letting superiors know about the person's accomplishments and abilities. 
  • Providing ways in which the person can be of service to such individuals.
  • Giving them access to the "inner circle," making them feel their efforts are recognized.
  • Providing connections to others that can help them.


  • Making them feel accepted and included.
  • Treating them with kindness. 
  • Listening with empathy. 
  • Supporting them on an emotional level.


  • Expressing gratitude. 
  • Giving them ownership and control of important tasks.
  • Affirming their self-worth, values, and identity.
  • Helping them solve a problem.

The other person can value any of the "currencies" on this list, but obviously not all of us can offer the same level of value in the first three categories.  In most cases, however, we are able to offer value in the last two categories.

Let's view this from another angle

Regardless of our status or level of achievement, there may be ways that we can:

  • Teach others
  • Inspire others
  • Empower others; help them make good decisions

We can give of ourselves:

  • Give of our time
  • Help them solve problems
  • Offer our expertise

We can make use of our social network:

  • Introduce them to someone who can help
  • Say a good word to the right person about them
  • Use our influence to help remove barriers

Never underestimate the power of kindness:

  • Look for ways to give others attention, acceptance, and approval
  • Learn how to listen without interrupting
  • Learn how to look for bids for connection and respond positively
  • Look for ways to commend others
  • Be willing to let others help

The last step is to manage other people's expectations.  Develop a reputation for doing quality work and being fair and helpful.  Be sure to follow through on your promises.

Then do even more.  Your perceived value increases greatly when you exceed their expectations. People are much more inclined to help you if they feel like you went the extra mile for them.  What matters is how they see things.  A modest amount of extra effort on your part can reap great dividends if the unexpected value you provide is important to them.  This includes giving people unexpected gifts.

Always remember that every human being, including yourself, has a very high intrinsic value.  If you treat people that way, even if they seem lowly or incapable of repaying you, others will come to be a source of great wealth for you.

What you've been taught about how to learn is all wrong

Imagine a student preparing for a big test in class.  She spends hours highlighting important passages with a highlighter.  She re-reads the material several times.  The night before the test she stays up late reviewing the highlights to make sure she will remember them for the test.

Does this sound unusual?  Of course not.  You may have done these things yourself.  

The school of life has taught us to use these methods, whether we have learned them from teachers or not.  And if, like many people, you have experienced test anxiety, it probably won't surprise you to hear these are not effective methods for learning.

So what methods are effective?

After studying the scientific literature, I've identified two methods known to be superior, so I'll emphasize them:  practice testing and distributed practice.

On his blog, Mark Koester recommends the highly popular MOOC (massive open online course) Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects.  I took the course this spring, and I also recommend it.  This free four-week course may be the best investment of time to help you learn more effectively.

Practice testing

You probably won't be surprised by this method.  Imagine the same student, but with a slightly different approach:

  1. She looks at the points she has highlighted in the text.  For each one, she thinks of a question that the point would answer.  She writes down the question.
  2. After reading and highlighting one chapter, she closes the book.
  3. She then reads each question she has written and tries to answer it from memory.

In order to find answers she's forgotten, she'll probably need to revisit some of her highlights.  In the end, she may spend the same amount of time as someone who rereads the material several times.  But she will be much more likely to remember what she is studying.  Why?

She is using active recall.  A test doesn't just show if you've learned something.  When we recall information, we actually strengthen our memory of it.

Another method, similar to practice testing, is teaching.  It is impossible to teach someone something without first learning it for ourselves.  Therefore, teaching is a very effective learning method.

Distributed practice

It simply means the opposite of cramming.  Instead of memorizing large amounts of information at once, distributed practice spreads the learning out over a period of time, ideally days or weeks. There are two main reasons why this works:

Our brains operate in more than one learning mode.  One of the instructors in the Learning How to Learn course, Dr. Oakley (pictured below), explains that in focused mode, the brain functions like a pinball machine with bumpers close together.  When focusing, closely related ideas come to mind easily but few connections are made to less related ideas.  The diffuse mode, on the other hand, is like a pinball machine with widely spaced bumpers. The brain more easily creates connections between less related ideas.

Barbara Oakley explains the differences between focused and diffuse modes of learning

In the opening scenario, the student is using focused mode to study.  The ideas she learns tend to be linked with each other, but not necessarily with other things she knows. 

When we are relaxed or sleeping, we are in diffuse mode.  If we focus intently on a new topic or idea, when we move on to something else, our brains will continue to process the ideas.  We are more likely to make connections we wouldn't otherwise.  We remember things we have learned better when they are connected to other ideas.

Distributed practice also involves forgetting curves.  Cramming for a test the night before takes advantage of the peak of this curve.  As time goes on, however, everything gradually fades from our memory.  In contrast, if we reintroduce ourselves to a concept before we forget it, the connection becomes stronger and the curve becomes flatter.  We will take longer to forget it next time.  We will need to review it again, but we can wait longer each time.  This is known as graduated interval recall.  With the flashcard app Anki, users can take advantage of this phenomenon to study more effectively.

In light of what we have discussed thus far, it is evident that waiting until the last moment to study is not a good choice.  Learning takes place over a longer period of time, with intense focus work interspersed with time spent thinking about other things (and getting adequate rest), so the long-term results will be better.

More ideas about learning

The two topics I covered above come from a list I found in a paper that Mark links to in his blog post.Dunlosky, J. (2013). Strengthening the Student Toolbox: Study Strategies to Boost Learning. The American Educator, 37, 12-21. The paper contains a very informative table, titled Effectiveness of Techniques Reviewed.  The table lists ten learning techniques and comments on what evidence has shown about each one's effectiveness.  You may want to view it yourself. (It's at the bottom of page 20 in the pdf.)  The author was also the lead author of an academic paper on the same subject, published the same year.Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4–58. This looks like a great place to go next if you have a strong interest in the current state of science on the subject of learning.

If you stop reading here, you still have learned two highly effective methods that will supercharge your learning.  But there are other ways to improve your learning.  Read on to benefit even more.

The following infographic is featured on the Outerbridge blog.  It represents the course's concepts so well, I found it via a link from inside the course itself:

An infographic featuring ten primary points from the Learning How to Learn MOOC

The first three points on the infographic are related to the two learning methods I discussed above. Chunking refers to the practice of learning a concept using its constituent parts.  For example, consider the letters C, A, and T.  Seeing them together, you immediately think of a fuzzy four-legged animal.  Both the word cat and the concept of a cat are chunks.  They are so closely related in our brains that we usually recall both together.  

The more connections we make with a chunk, the better equipped we are to understand and use it.  We begin to group together closely related concepts.  You pet a cat, but not the wrong way.  Cats like to chase mice.  No doubt you can think of many other related concepts.  It is because you clearly understand the concept of a cat.  The concept of a cat is linked to so many other ideas in your brain that you can never forget it.

Overlearning, Einstellung, and the illusion of competence

I found a great description of these related concepts on Danny Forest's blog.  Here's a brief breakdown:

When learning a subject becomes easy, spending time on it has diminishing returns. This is known as overlearning.

The Einstellung effect occurs when we overuse a particular method or technique. To avoid this, continually experiment to find better ways of achieving the same results.

The illusion of competence occurs when we think we know everything about a topic.  Teaching someone else is a great way to test this illusion.


Interestingly, in the paper I cited above, Dunlosky says interleaving is "promising for math and concept learning, but needs more research." Interleaving reminds me of my research on critical thinking.  I discovered that transferable skills generally involve some sort of deliberate comparison.

Learning productively

The seventh and eighth points are mainly related to time management and discipline.  Learning requires focused and effort-intensive sessions, as discussed above in the section on focused mode.  Taking breaks is necessary to let the diffuse mode operate, but without the time spent on focusing in the right way, we won't learn effectively. 

I plan on discussing these two subjects further in the future, but for now you can find suggestions that can help you with both of them in the article How to Keep Yourself Motivated.


Some people place a lot of weight on memorization techniques.  You may find memory palaces fascinating, for example.  A simple example of this technique is associating a new concept with a place in your house.  You can recall an object by picturing yourself placing it in a familiar spot.  In your mind, put it in your bedroom drawer.  If you envision yourself opening the drawer in the future, the object you're trying to recall will come to mind.

Another memory technique is mnemonics. Here's a great example: Since the cerebrum is larger than the cerebellum, the keyword for cerebrum could be drum (a large instrument) and the keyword for cerebellum could be bell (a small instrument).From 5 Mnemonic Strategies to Help Students Succeed in School  Mnemonics work particularly well for ideas that you encounter at rare intervals.  Since you don't use the word all the time, a mnemonic helps you separate similar concepts.  I still use this mnemonic to help me keep the rock formations in caves straight:  Stalactites hang tight to the roof of the cave, while stalagmites stand mightily underneath.

Regarding this technique, Dunlosky comments, "Somewhat helpful for learning languages, but benefits are short-lived."  In most cases, I prefer chunking over mnemonics.  Having a mental shortcut to remember something is not as effective as fully understanding it.  To truly learn something, it may take more time and energy, but if it is worth learning, it will usually be worth learning well.

The takeaway

If someone promises you an effortless way to learn, be very skeptical. Learning most things requires deliberate effort. Spaced repetition is one possible exception. It is because of this brain feature that we are pretty good at learning concepts we are frequently exposed to without much effort. It will take less effort to learn certain things if you are exposed to them frequently.

Realize this doesn't apply to every situation.  Because we were repeatedly exposed to our native language, we may think we learned it easily.  We did, however, put forth a lot of effort.  If you watch a baby or young child closely, you will see how much effort they put into mimicking sounds and understanding what they hear. No one remembers how hard we worked at it, but we all did it.

Imagine two immigrants moving to a foreign country.  Within a few years, one becomes fluent in the local language while the other knows very few words.  If you have spent much time around immigrants, you have definitely seen this.  Why the difference?  It may seem that some people learn languages more easily, but in reality, it comes down to effort.  The immigrant who learned the local language did so because he put forth the effort.

This leads to another, related concept: motivation.  The first speaker put forth the effort to learn because he wanted to.  He probably enjoyed the process.  Certainly, he eagerly anticipated speaking like a local.  What does this teach us?

When it comes to learning methods, effectiveness isn't the only factor to consider.  You should also consider how much you enjoy it.  An ineffective method you use is better than an effective method you don't use.

Mark Koester put it well:

Research has shown that stress is not good for learning and we learn best when we bring positive emotions and moods to our learning. So it makes sense to follow learning methods we like and enjoy, even if they are not scientifically-speaking the most effective.

To have a bright outlook, adopt a growth mindset and keep learning!