The Daily Politics Show: The Language of Trust (Part 1)

Recently, I had the surreal experience of appearing on the BBC2 ‘Daily Politics’ show with political analyst, Jo Coburn, grilling me on the topic of trust. This surprising five minutes of fame was triggered by a recent Academy of Executive Coaching (AoEC) survey on the language of trust in politics which revealed the following conclusions:-

  • 83% of those surveyed were more likely to trust someone who used simple language than someone hiding behind complicated wording
  • 57% were also more likely to believe someone giving short, concise answers than those going into more detail

In addition, the survey identified the following ten most commonly used phrases that arouse suspicion when used in communication:-

  1. If I’m honest
  2. Let me be clear…
  3. Believe me…
  4. The honest truth is…
  5. The fact is…
  6. To be fair…
  7. In terms of…
  8. The real issue is…
  9. I understand what you are saying but…
  10. In all honesty….

The above phrases when spoken by leaders and politicians cause instant distrust, backfiring spectacularly by suggesting the exact opposite of their intended effect. The survey also found that the three qualities that are most important to how trustworthy a leader appears are:-

  • Emotional openness
  • Calm rationality
  • Benevolence

The Daily Politics Show

Jo Coburn was interested in how these findings play out when applied to the field of political leadership. The Brexit referendum gave us some interesting case studies. On the one hand, we had our ex-prime minister, David Cameron, pleading with voters by prefacing many of his statements with ‘Let me be clear’, ‘Let me be very clear’ and ‘Let me be absolutely clear’. Often these statements were followed by impenetrable economic jargon to justify the ‘remain’ argument. In contrast, in one TV debate Boris Johnson managed to squeeze in the phrase ‘take back control’ seven times in fifteen minutes. ‘Take back control’ worked as a language of trust because it was short, direct and emotive.

Similarly, in the US election, Donald Trump mastered the art of the short, emotive and simple communication when he led chants of ‘lock her up’ and ‘drain the swamp’, not to mention issuing a simple ‘stop it’ direct to camera when addressing the issue of migrant attacks in the wake of his election as President. One voter summed it up by saying, ‘Donald Trump talks like we talk around our kitchen table. He is ‘one of us’ and that’s why I voted for him’. What this shows us is that, whereas in the past we wanted our leaders to be distant, cold bastions of authority, we now seem to prefer them to be more like us – simple, human and imperfect! We have given up believing in the all-powerful, all-knowing heroic leader because, in a world where nothing can be hidden, we’ve seen far too many emperors with far too little clothing.

How about our current party leaders? How do they shape up against the findings of this survey? Theresa May’s most popular soundbite is probably ‘Brexit means Brexit’. On the one hand, this phrase scores well because it is short and it uses simple language. On the other hand, it scores less well in that it is vague and impenetrable. It creates the impression that Mrs. May is hiding behind a tag line. On the other side of the house, Jeremy Corbyn rose to the top of the labour party on a tide of popular votes hailing him as an authentic leader from outside the previous labour establishment. His use of language is simple and he marries this with a strong image as ‘one of us’ – someone who travels second class on the train and sits on the floor when there are no seats available. One of his more memorable phrases was ‘I want a world of peace. I am not interested in bombs’. This scores very highly against the survey findings because it is short, simple and emotive. It speaks to the heart not to the head.

Finally, let us turn to the topic of benevolence as a factor in building trust. I think we are all familiar with the idea that leaders need to be competent and have integrity if they are to be trusted, but this extra dimension of benevolence becomes critical in a world where nothing can be hidden and there is no deference to authority. Benevolence means wishing well for others. It involves care, compassion and kindness. It involves being a human being first and then a politician second. Where can we look for our political inspiration when it comes to benevolence? It is tempting to look abroad to figures such as Nelson Mandela or Ghandi, but more recently, on our own doorstep, we have had a shining example of a kind political leader. That is the legacy that Jo Cox has earned after her untimely death, because when this MP spoke she spoke the language of benevolence. It was Jo Cox who said, ‘we have far more in common with each other than things that divide us’. That is benevolence in action, but her death demonstrates that political leaders who wish to show benevolence in an era of division, anger and intolerance will need to be very brave indeed.

John explores the three pillars and nine habits of trust in his new book, ‘The Trusted Executive’ which has been shortlisted as the CMI book of the year. Available to order now via Amazon UK.

 

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