Atop the Empire State Building


A few years ago, I was in New York City with my client. We were both there for workshops, and difficult ones at that.  Emotions were running high amongst participants, and people were anxious to see the outcomes and results – a good portion of which my client would need to own and drive. We had a good relationship, and she viewed me as very credible. However, I saw several things I wanted to help coach and advise her on that I didn’t feel I had earned the right in our relationship to do just yet. At one point in the day, I could see her fading and looking overwhelmed. It was during a portion that didn’t require either of our participation or attention.  I asked her if she wanted to get fresh air.

 Once outside, she mentioned that in all the times she had visited New York, she had never been up the Empire State Building.  Say no more!  I led her on a walk to the building and we got into the queue for the elevators.  While we were making our way on the walk, I asked her how she was feeling about the meeting and how things were progressing. She offered that she was frustrated but didn’t say much – and I didn’t push her.  I shifted the conversation to talk about her kids and her time spent working in the Peace Corps.  I shared personal stories from my life and adventures, and we laughed together.  When we got to the top, we both stood at the railing looking out.  And without hesitation, she started pouring out all her concerns and frustrations.  I think in large part because we weren’t looking at each other – and the enormity of Manhattan helped her get perspective.  I didn’t pressure her. She felt more relaxed with me.  She was able to stop and breathe.

 We stood side-by-side looking out and I intentionally didn’t look at her. I listened and gave her the space to share as much as she needed.  When she was done sharing, she began asking me questions. How would I approach the situation?  What are things she should be considering?  I shared a personal story of an experience where I struggled with similar circumstances – and how I set forth to navigate through trial and error. I gave her considerations and started asking her questions. We spent a good 45 minutes standing there and helped her strategize an approach.  Something that never would have happened if we had stayed in the meeting or sat across from each other in her office. 

 After that day, I could count on my phone to ring every Friday morning at 10am.  Although we didn’t have a standing appointment, she would regularly call for coaching on how to approach and navigate situations she was facing.  Six months into our working together, she faced a significant health issue and even asked advice for how to process the information and share the news with others.  At some point atop the Empire State Building, I shifted from a consultant to a trusted advisor. 

 You can’t demand trust from others. You must earn it through consistency and credibility.  Establishing credibility is the foundation for trust.  From there, you can work to cultivate it and open the door for a completely different client experience and impact.  Lisa Evans with Fast Company walks through a four-step formula you can use to gain and grow anyone’s trust:

  • Establish credibility: competence is the first step in establishing trust – and is often formed through initial impressions. Credibility is formed through a combination of what you say and how you perform.  Credibility doesn’t mean that you don’t make mistakes.  It does mean that you thoughtfully address them and are clear in how you plan to resolve them. 

  • Demonstrate Warmth: Help people be more relaxed taking time to engage in information conversation and connecting about things apart from work. Talking about family, interests, or even sharing a story can help someone feel more relaxed and open to a work discussion. These non-work topics are things that you typically discuss with friends.  From a neuroscience standpoint, you are helping the brain establish rapport and evoke the feeling of camaraderie – which makes the person feel you are more approachable. Exchanging dialogue about our personal adventures helped my client feel more relaxed and open with me.

  • Reduce status difference: go for a walk together or meet in a coffee shop to break organizational hierarchy. Changing the setting can give someone a different comfort level and allow them to further open up.  I didn’t intentionally set out for the Empire State building to get my client to open up.  But doing so was a significant turning point in our relationship.  Now, I’m mindful to bring that approach to other clients.

  • Make yourself vulnerable: Tell colleagues a personal story, have a meal or go out for bonding and allow someone to see you in a non-work context. The relationship gets transformed because of the experience together – and helps people feel they know you on a more personal level. Showing someone the whole person makes them more open to interacting with you.  Sharing my own stories of professional challenges, I faced helped make me more real to my client. I wasn’t trying to be perfect, I was trying to show her that anyone can struggle and persevere.  Be mindful to express vulnerability after you establish credibility – so you are building upon the foundation of trust.

What is one thing you can do to change the approach to a conversation with a stakeholder?

Trust, Coaching, EmpathyKaren Eber