Former CIA agent: 4 powerful, underutilized phrases can help you establish credibility and earn anyone’s trust

 In my career as a CIA analyst turned CEO and business advisor, effective communication in complex and stressful environments has been fundamental. Over the past twenty years, I’ve briefed presidents, policymakers, aid workers, and ambassadors, each with unique agendas and perspectives. By prioritizing honesty and authenticity, and with practice, anyone can learn to earn the trust of powerful stakeholders and secure their support. These four key phrases have enhanced my speaking and problem-solving skills, transforming conflict into cooperation and leading to more successful collaborations and outcomes. Try them in your next high-stakes situation.

1. ‘What information do you need?’ Trying to guess the knowledge someone needs makes communication harder. It’s faster and more valuable to ask directly, ensuring your conversation goes where it’s most needed. I once asked Senator John McCain this question during a foreign policy briefing, and it directed our discussion to his specific needs, rather than my assumptions. While you may not always get a direct answer, asking this question sets the stage for a more productive conversation.

2. ‘Is there anyone else who needs to be part of this discussion?’ This question, essential at the start of meetings with negotiation elements, ensures all relevant stakeholders are involved from the beginning. It prevents the risk of thinking an agreement is final, only to discover others need to be consulted, which can necessitate starting over.

3. ‘Who disagrees?’ Incorporate this question throughout your conversations to address disagreements before it’s too late. At the CIA, we encouraged disagreements to strengthen our arguments, and in corporate settings, this makes strategies more robust. Silence doesn’t mean consensus; actively seek out disagreements to ensure smoother execution of decisions.

4. ‘I don’t know, but I will find out and come back to you.’ One of the most powerful phrases in stressful environments, it’s a practice from my CIA days that I continue in my advisory work. Offering this honest response builds trust, as it shows a commitment to thoroughness and reliability, which has earned me the confidence of four-star generals, ambassadors, investors, and board members. It’s a sign of humility and thoughtfulness that fosters trust and solid relationships.  

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