The Source of Credibility

An article in the Daily Mail trumpeted the effectiveness of talking louder to win arguments.  That’s not surprising, and if winning arguments is all you are concerned about, stop reading this and GO DO SOME SHOUTING!

The shouting strategy is one way you can win arguments and lose credibility at the same time. Over time, winning arguments the loud way is likely to diminish the potential for collaboration and mutual commitment with others.  This diminishment will show up in lowered assessments others make of your effectiveness in those potential areas of collaboration.

Think about the contrast between people you know who are highly credible to you in specific domains of activity, and those who are least credible.  What distinguishes their conversation?  The most credible are most likely not overbearing and loud.  They don’t bluster, threaten or blackmail. We give our highest assessments of credibility freely.  The highly credible are living evidence of the old advice to “walk softly and carry a big stick”.  What is the “big stick” of credibility in conversation?

The Assessments

The big stick, the crux of credibility, comes down to how we make and offer assessments in conversation. We make assessments constantly, mostly without much consideration (do you hear a warning buzzer?). Assessments roughly fall into two categories – grounded, and ungrounded.

Here are two assessments made by Ellen, a Receiving Supervisor, talking to her worker John.  Which one is grounded; which one is ungrounded?

“I can’t believe what you’ve done, John.  That handcart is a disaster waiting to happen.”

“They way you loaded that handcart is dangerous. The heaviest items are highest up. They taught us in Science in school that raises the center of gravity of the loaded cart, making it more likely to tip over.”

Where is the grounding? The key bit Ellen included in her grounded assessment was what we call an Assertion.  An assertion is an independently observable and verifiable fact. Ellen offered an assertion from the domain of physics about the cart’s weight distribution and consequences of it.  Many people have had enough school and practical experience to independently observe and verify Ellen’s assertion. John could ask around and quickly learn that Ellen’s assessment about his cart is shared by competent observers.  How does this affect his assessment of Ellen’s credibility in cart-loading?

Ungrounded assessments are what we commonly call opinions.  When Ellen criticizes John’s cart-loading competence, she offers nothing to John to help him understand or act on the criticism. He may feel a sting, but he may load the next cart exactly the same way, wondering what was wrong with Ellen that day.  In this scenario, the only way for John to learn is to experience the cart tipping over.  Even though Ellen’s ungrounded assessment is correct, does it ever raise John’s assessment of her credibility in cart-loading even if the cart does tip over?

Opinions in and of themselves offer no grounding. If someone offers you a choice between two designs and you say “Design A is prettier”, no assertion is present.  Your standard for “pretty” may be unique to you; people would assess your assessment as “subjective”.  The worst kind of ungrounded assessment is the universal, general one.  Sally says, “John is a bad guy” to Ellen.  If you were Ellen and you heard that, what would your first reaction be?  It could range from “I better be careful around John” to “why do you say John is bad?”  What if Ellen already has ongoing conversations with John in several domains, and all are productive and enjoyable? The surest bet is that Ellen will have a lowered assessment of Sally’s competence at character assessment… Sally has diminished her credibility to Ellen in that domain at the least.

Borrowed Assessments (and the Information-empowered Customer)

When you listen for assessments, you will observe that people often invoke authorities in them. Authorities can be government figures, talking heads and commentators, professors, published authors, or well-known personalities.  For example, an acquaintance says you should try a new diet because Oprah recommended it.

Are assessments referencing authorities grounded?  Not unless the reference includes the grounding offered by the authority!  In scientific journals, references matter because they point to the underlying research findings of the authority being cited.  Not so much in our day-to-day conversation. For that hot new diet, I might want to know some underlying facts, like what% of people get what kind of results, dependent on what variables and with what side-effects.  Oprah is a likable personality, but… I’ll check back with you after I’ve checked it out.

Referencing an authority’s ungrounded assessment is just spray-painting your own ungrounded assessment with a better source “Brand”.  People who borrow ungrounded assessments in their arguments can enjoy a certain elevated credibility with others – until they are questioned about their underlying grounding by a careful listener.  Borrowing assessments may seem like a free pass, but like speeding, if you do it all the time, you are likely to be stopped one day and written up for a big ticket. There are no shortcuts to sustainable credibility.

It’s interesting how “mass marketing” traditionally leaned so heavily on spokespeople to build brand. Next time you see a spokesperson ad, see if it offers any grounding or simply the reassurance of the known figure. If ungrounded, that ad is just a highly polished case of a borrowed ungrounded assessment.  The effectiveness of that old tactic is on the downswing as more people have access to information they can use to ground their own assessments.  This phenomenon is at the heart of the “age of the informed buyer.” Sellers, pay heed. Ground your claims. Well.

To reiterate, the crux of credibility is how we form and offer assessments in conversation.

The criteria for a credible assessment are:

1) Locate the assessment – declare the domain.  Avoid general, universal assessments!

2) Ground the assessment.  Effective grounding is directly relevant to the concern/s we are addressing.  If the concern is for physical safety, offer grounding specific to that, not a sidetrack on aesthetics.  Effective grounding enriches conversation enabling new possibilities and more effective actions in the future, respecting the concerns of the participants.

Can credibility be that simple? Yes, just don’t confuse credibility with trust. I guarantee you will be amazed as you listen to conversations and the assessments offered in them, and gain a new approach to designing better outcomes in your conversations both personal and professional.


You can always choose to design your future.  Strategic Venture Consulting’s Conversation Driven Business(TM) can help you expand and improve your organization’s future by designing its network of conversations and increasing its conversational competence.

(c) 2013 Strategic Venture Consulting / Robert Kimball all rights reserved.

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