Credible and Trustworthy Language Equals Workplace Success

Tonya Reiman
February 20, 2013

Tonya Reiman

Body Language Expert, Author of The Power of Body Language & The YES Factor

Mind your Business with Authentic Tools of Persuasion


Whether you answer directly to a manager, a CEO, or prospective and long-time clients (or if you’re job searching – looking for any of the above), trustworthiness and credibility are two of the most powerful tools that you can wield.

Of course, the best way to establish trustworthiness is to prove that your work habits are trustworthy. But what if a new situation places you on a professional chopping block? How can you prove that you are credible and trustworthy to a stranger, or to those who haven’t yet had the opportunity to gauge your performance?

Let’s consider a typical job interview, in which you are the interviewee. You might believe that the most important component will be the words that you use. That couldn’t be more untrue. Surely, you wouldn’t want to go off on tangents regarding your grandmother’s propensity for garden gnomes, but you should consider that job interviews follow the same breakdown as most face-to-face communication. Words themselves carry a very small percent of the communication load, while a large portion of communication effectiveness is carried by tone, tempo, volume, and inflection. And the rest? Body language. That’s right – your nonverbal cues are the most powerful - incredibly responsible for your success or failure.

Of course, a job interview is only the beginning of a successful job or career. As we proceed, I’ll discuss tactics that you can employ that will set you apart in the areas of trustworthiness and credibility, whether it’s your first day on the job, or the first day of your tenure.


Your Trustworthiness Quotient; Their Risk Management

You know you’re trustworthy. You know you’re capable of doing the job well, and on time. But how can you convince your coworkers, your boss, your clients?

When someone judges you as trustworthy, they have decided to consider taking a risk on your behalf; they have calculated the odds, and are willing to bank on your cooperation.

Naturally, you want people to take that risk, so let’s talk about how you can prove, or at least make an initial impression on behalf of, your trustworthiness.


Does your Face Hurt? It Could be Killing Them.

The messages conveyed by human faces, and the reactions to those messages, are older than spoken language. Before words, primitive man read faces to make quick decisions to trust or panic, approach or back away. He also formed quick opinions about the strengths and weaknesses of the owner of that face.

Alexander Todorov, assistant professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton, and Nikollas Oosterhof, a research specialist, have conducted a number of visual experiments in order to define the qualities that contribute to a trustworthy face. This study had little to do with expression, and more to do with genetic features.

The trustworthy face is one with an upturned mouth (u-shaped), wide-open eyes, distinct cheekbones – generally, a more feminine look.

The untrustworthy face sports a down-turned mouth (frown), eyebrows that point downward in the center, and superficial or concave cheekbones. Note that this description adheres to models of the masculine, dominant male.

Non-trustworthy faces were shown to activate a part of the primitive brain known as the amygdala. It’s a primitive response because it involves fear without reasoning. We, as human beings, see an untrustworthy face, and experience a level of fear, even if that fear is unfounded.

Humans see a face and make a judgment in less than one second. That judgment might be based on past experiences with that exact face or faces like it, or it could be a result of preconceived notions regarding facial features and trustworthiness. Either way, the conception is quick, and it’s not going to change any time soon.

Hold on there, Joan Rivers. Before you riffle through the yellow pages, looking for plastic surgeons, consider that though your facial features are not easily changed, facial expressions that convey trustworthiness are easily learned, and free.


It’s Just an Expression…or is it?

The single most effective expression to convey your trustworthiness? A smile. A group of researches from Cardiff University, along with Arvid Kappas of Jacobs University Bremen, studied the smile, and its affect on its viewers.

A genuine smile not only stimulates your own sense of confidence, but it tells those around you that you are approachable and cooperative. A genuine smile is not a learned behavior, but a physiological response to happiness. A manufactured smile is a learned coping mechanism – one of the oldest forms of “faking it.” And according to the smile study researchers, smile-viewers can tell the difference.

The results of their study showed that a smile viewed as genuine had a long onset and offset, with a short apex. In other words, it came on slowly, spent only a short time beaming, and faded away slowly.

Conversely, a counterfeit smile came on quickly, lasted a longer time at its peak, andturned off quickly.

A genuine smile isn’t difficult, in fact it’s effortless, when you are conveying genuine feelings, and are confident and credible in what you’re saying. Keeping the dynamics of a good smile in mind when you’re nervous can increase your chances of conveying your trustworthiness to those around you.

Don’t make the mistake of maintaining a neutral expression when conveying ideas or promises to colleagues. The study referenced above found a fake smile to be more effective in conveying trustworthiness than a dry, emotionless expression.

And for goodness sake, don’t purse your lips – either in tension, or in an attempt to appear shrewd…you’ll end up being shunned professionally, and professionally shunned.

Raise your eyebrows and open up your eyes enough to appear perceptive, without the too-many-brow-lifts look or the I’ve-just-seen-the-ghost-of-Elvis look. Remember, too, that squinted eyes look sinister. A furrowed brow is off-putting. A relaxed, open face tells your audience that you’re completely confident and relaxed with the information you’re delivering.


Good Paralanguage – a Reliable Parachute

If you want to portray yourself as trustworthy and credible, it’s important to understand that the way you speak is more important than the words you say. As referenced in the beginning of the article, your speed and intonation can change the way that your words are perceived, and in turn, how you are perceived.

  • Monologues that are riddled with empty pauses, repetitive words and phrases, throat clearings and coughs (as stall tactics), and unnecessary words, are not perceived as believable. Know what you’re going to say, and believe it – then it will come out as naturally as it feels in your head.
  • Use an average tempo when speaking. Too fast, you’ll lose your listeners. Too slow, you’ll have them wondering if you missed English 101.
  • Improper inflection can convey a meaning that you didn’t intend, detracting from your trustworthy quotient. Consider this example sentence: 

  I saved the account.

  Now, consider how its meaning changes when different words are emphasized:

o I saved the account. (I saved it, as opposed to that other guy saving it)

o I saved the account. (I didn’t just maintain it, I rescued it from certain demise)

o I saved the account. (I saved our biggest account)

o I saved the account. (I didn’t just save one transaction, I saved future transactions)

  Notice how emphasizing different words changes the meaning of the sentence. Use inflection to convey your    thoughts properly, and you’ll portray yourself as aligned with your text, and your view.

  • Convey your trustworthiness and credibility by avoiding cold, monotone speech that doesn’t properly represent the passion that you have for your line of work.
  • And finally, match your tone of voice to the subject matter. If you’re telling your bosses that an account has been lost, a hint (or flood) of melancholy will tell them that you understand the weight of the situation. And on the other hand, when you’re telling your bosses about a new account, convey the joy that you feel. Your bosses will know that you can be trusted with heavy situations – they will know that “you get it.”

Good paralanguage is all about turning thoughts into spoken words, effectively and accurately.


Let me Hear your Trustworthy Body Talk

In the immortal word of Olivia Newton John, that’s what your colleagues, managers, and future clients are looking for. They will be receptive to your nonverbal cues, even if you aren’t aware of the fact that you’re sending them out.

The easiest way to manipulate body language is to make sure you are on top of your game. Know your job, intend to do it well, and your body movements should speak for your commitment.

But in case you need a bit of help in the convincing department, take note of some actions that can have a profound affect on your level of success:

  • Nervous Behavior: A heightened blink rate, weight shifting, fidgeting, lip chewing, shifty eyes, and rapid hand and arm gestures all tell colleagues and clients that something is making you uncomfortable. If they can’t guess what’s making you nervous, they’re going to assume that you’re deceptive in your speech – and that equates to untrustworthiness, in their view.
  • Barriers: Distancing yourself from the words that are coming from your mouth means that you probably don’t believe them yourself. Hands on your face, an ankle rested on the opposite knee, or papers clutched to your chest all create barriers and hurt your trustworthy quotient.
  • Eye Contact: Too little eye contact makes recipients feel ignored or lied to, while too much makes them feel threatened or challenged. Don’t look through your subjects. Don’t stare over their heads, or off to the side. Make eye contact consistently within the eye/nose triangle, but do not linger or stalker stare them down like a pit bull picking a fight.
  • Appearance: Stained cuffs, missing buttons, a five-o’clock shadow at eight a.m. – are you kidding? An unkempt appearance speaks measures to those who work with you, and to those who might be considering working with you. If you can’t manage your appearance, how can you be trusted to handle financial matters? Don’t forget your car, your purse, your wallet. The neatness of all of these sends messages to coworkers about the level of trust they can place in you.
  • Using sex to sell: Sure, sex sells, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone take this tactic into the workplace. Too much skin might gain a captive audience, but even if you are passionate and confident in your subject matter, and your job, no one will want to invest time or money in you – they may not even be able to repeat one word you’ve said.
  • Handshake: Use a firm handshake. A weak, clammy handshake says, “nervous, concealing something.” A bone-crushing armshake says, “I’m overcompensating for a weakness.” Follow the golden rule: Shake as you wish to be shaken.
  • Personal Space: Strive to maintain a 1.5 to 5 foot (average 3 feet) distance between you and your audience. If you stand too close, you can be viewed as an aggressor. If you stand too far away, you can be dubbed as distant (from your recipient and your work).
  • Hands: Open your palms. Politicians use open palms to say, “I come in peace.” Open palms send a message that you have nothing to hide, that you are honest, and that you can be trusted. Use both palms up and palms down to get your message across.
  • Mirroring: Imitate the sitting or standing positions of your coworkers, boss, or client. This tells them that you’re understanding their position (literally and figuratively), and that you share their comfort level.


Want Control? Start with Self Control

People are reluctant to offer trust to those who cannot show a high level of self control. A trustworthy and credible employee or businessperson practices self control, and surrounds him or herself with like-minded people.

Michelle van Dellen, psychology professor at the University of Georgia, asks us to consider three studies supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse:

  • In the first study, subjects were asked to think about a friend with good self control, then about a friend with poor self control, both while squeezing a hand grip. The subjects were able to squeeze the grips for longer periods of time when thinking of friends with strong self control.
  • The second study asked subjects to watch videos of different people presented with plates, each containing a carrot and a cookie. After watching people that chose the carrot, the subjects practiced better self control in subsequent tasks. And conversely, made poor self control choices after watching people who chose the cookie.
  • And finally, subjects were asked to play a computer game, in which a greater amount of self control would result in a better score. Previously submitted names of the subject’s friends were flashed subliminally (undetectably, at 10 milliseconds per flash) on the screen while the subjects were playing. When the names of friends with good self control were flashed, the game scores were higher.

This theory doesn’t remove personal responsibility (Would you jump off a cliff if Jimmy did?), but it does account for the affect that social circles have on our behavior. Your mother and father were onto something when they tried to choose your friends in high school. Studies have shown that eating disorders, drug and alcohol use, paranoia, anxiety, and depression occurrences all increase when friends in a subject’s social circle demonstrate these behaviors.

The moral of the self control story? Choose your friends, in and out of the office, wisely. Your trustworthiness will increase with elevated self control. Additionally, outsiders (included the powers-that-be at work) will assess your social circle and make judgments about your trustworthiness.


Defining Credibility for Incredible Success

What is credibility? The simplest way to define credibility would be to use two words. Credibility is the sum of Trustworthiness and Expertise.

If you are trustworthy (or if initial impressions point to your trustworthiness), and you can display your expertise, you have a good chance of scoring credibility. We’ve already discussed the perception of trustworthiness, so let’s discuss how you can make your expertise evident:

  • Know your Stuff: You can’t fake knowledgeable answers. And if you try, your credibility will wilt before it blooms.
  • Confidence: Don’t answer questions with questions, mumble, or hesitate. Don’t answer questions that warrant lengthy answers with amputated versions. If you want to be seen as an expert, your answers need to align with those of experts.
  • Humor: When you’re confident in your subject matter, you can make room for humor. It’s difficult to tell a joke when you’re stressed or nervous. A successful chuckle will convey that to your colleagues. Believe it or not, slight self deprecation actually builds credibility as it shows that you can laugh at yourself.
  • Enunciation and paralanguage: Finely crafted language and well-spoken words tell listeners that it isn’t the first time you’ve been around your field’s block. Find a good balance between rehearsed robotics and amateur fodder. Steer away from slang, except for lingo that will be recognized exclusively by people in your field. People will know you care about your performance if you take the time to assign worthy words to it.
  • Personal Experience: Schooling, degrees, and certifications are important, but for many, credibility is earned through real life experiences. Tell of some of those experiences, and you’ll be viewed as experienced.

In order to be viewed as credible, remember to utilize your trustworthiness tactics and make your expertise evident.


Workplace Psychology – Establishing Trust

Tactics to increase your trust quotient can lead to promotions and pay raises, or if you are your own boss, more visibility and higher revenue. But I also want to discuss how the trustworthiness and credibility tactics that you use can psychologically affect those who witness them.

When you understand why Mr. Schnitzel trusts you, or doesn’t trust you, you can use that information to forge new business relationships.

  • Be Likeable: It’s more than being friendly.

o It’s helpful to either be naturally attractive, or to take the time to improve your appearance. It’s   been known for centuries, but not always accepted, that attractive people are assumed to be talented,   intelligent and kind. Maybe it’s not fair, but it’s true. Consider the plight of Susan Boyle. Within seconds of   her first appearance on the big stage, she was pre- judged to be talent-less. She hasn’t even been   nominated for the 2010 Brit Awards – she’s just not “cool” enough.

o People who have things in common with you (golf, politics, handbag fetishes) will trust you more readily.   They consider you to be safe and without the risk of unfamiliarity. People like people who are like them.

o When you compliment people, they will pay attention and trust you to come up with other things that they   want to hear. People want to be with people who like them.

o Familiarity is safe. Humans feel safe around familiar faces, particularly those that have brought positive   experiences in the past. Familiarity in the workplace is a factor that will score automatic trust (unless   you’ve blatantly proven yourself untrustworthy).

  • Be Consistent: Chose a View and Stick to it. Coworkers and clients want to know that you are unwavering in your commitments. It’s easier for them that way, because they don’t have to spend time considering whether or not you’re up to the job – they know right away that you are, because you’ve proven it through past behavior. Make your passion for the commitment evident. If colleagues know that your commitment comes from within, and not from outside sources, they feel confident that your commitment is a mainstay, and worth investment.
  • Reciprocity. When you give something away – a free sample; an extra hour of work; an honest, unsolicited assessment of a situation – you put the receiver of that gift in a position of obligation. Not only does that person feel that you have increased your trustworthiness by offering your services, they feel indebted, and will likely return a favor of greater value (a raise, a longer lunch, a private break- room with a sauna and personal manicurist?).
  • Scarcity. When your boss or your client believes that trustworthy people like you are in short supply, they will be eager to fight for what you’re offering. Historically, when humans have been threatened with the loss of freedom of choice, they become fearful and crave that freedom even more. Set a level of trustworthiness that soars above the standard, and you will be the next hot thing.
  • Authority. From birth, we are reared to respect authority. We also crave authority because it’s an easy way to get what we want (we trust those who are in charge, because it means less personal responsibility for us). When you establish trustworthiness and credibility, you tell your colleagues and clients that you posses the power, the know-how, and the experience to take care of them.


Trustworthy Is as Trustworthy Does

Conveying your trustworthiness and credibility in a business setting is more complicated that simply saying, “I’m trustworthy.” If it were that simple, every Tom, Dick, and Cherie would have a corner office. Its success is dependent upon your ability to tell those in your profession, and those who benefit from your profession, that you are worthy of a risk, and deserving of their investments of time and money.

Through the practiced use of body language, and awareness of your influence on others’ perceptions of you, you can open doors of opportunity. You can fish yourself out of those difficult situations that might otherwise have been lost to nerves or uncertainty. You can erase doubts from minds and steer people in the right direction – your direction.


For information on how to book Tonya Reiman for your next event, visit


Self-Control is Contagious, Study Finds:

Psychology: What Makes a Face Trustworthy or Untrustworthy?:

Facial Dynamics and Indicators of Trustworthiness and Cooperative Behavior:

Different Types of Communication and Channels:


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