Part 1: Winning trust from a hostile audience

“I need to understand why I would lease machines from you when I just spent millions of dollars on similar machines last year? What do I do with the machines I’ve already bought? Our last meeting didn’t address this question, so I hope you’ve got something better this time.”
– Unhappy Executive

The above comes from a real meeting I had several years ago with a senior manager. It was a reasonable question, but not one we had anticipated — I hadn’t attended the previous meeting, so I’d never met this person before and in hindsight we may have taken too long to follow up with him.

This is the first in a 2-part series that discusses how to tackle situations like the one above. This first part talks about an important but often overlooked concept, namely, Trust. Next week’s article looks at how we can use trust that we’ve earned, as well as how to avoid squandering it.

Part 1: Trust
An earlier post discussed the idea that in conversations with people we don’t know well, or on topics that chart unfamiliar territory, we’re dealing with the croc brain — our rapid fight, flight or freeze response — and first impressions are crucial to success. But, within the context of verbal communication, what’s needed to make a strong impression, especially in low-trust situations, like the one above?

The croc brain operates instinctively, if it decides to act, we’re often bound to follow its lead. In situations where we’re operating with low-trust, rather than try to fight the croc brain, it may be better to work with it; invoke its instinctive response to our advantage.

This technique is central to the approach, Oren Klaff describes in his book Pitch Anything: An Innovative Method for Persuading and Winning the Deal, and it’s what I used to turn the executive around in this case.

Oren describes encounters like the one I was in, as two “frames” colliding — my frame vs the executives. When frames collide there’s a brief struggle for control, before one emerges victorious. The winning frame takes the lead, and the losing frame follows.

Here’s a dramatic example from Oren’s book:
Bill reached into a rare Jean Cocteau ceramic bowl sitting on his credenza and plucked out a large red apple. As he did, he asked me to hold on another moment while he asked Gloria to e-mail someone he had forgotten to call. Turning back to me and his underlings, he propped one foot against a desk drawer and took a large bite from his apple …

While he was chewing on his bite of fruit, I tried to get some kind of frame control. “Look, guys, I only have 15 minutes, so I’m going to get right to it. This is the deal I’m working on,” and I quickly briefed the group on the project.

I could see that Bill was hearing every third word—he was more interested in his apple than in the opportunity I’d come to offer.

That was when I saw the golden opportunity. After years of dealing with similar—but not as difficult—social situations, the idea formed in my head … I said, “I need a glass of water. Excuse me” and raced for the kitchenette I had seen on the way in. There I grabbed a glass of water, a paper towel, and a plastic knife. I thought, If this doesn’t work, Bill is going to grab this knife and kill me with it.

I walked back in but didn’t sit. I said, “Listen, Bill, I hope that isn’t how you do deals,” nodding toward the apple that already had a bite out of it. “In a real deal, everyone needs a piece. I’ll show you what my deals look like.”

I reached for the apple on the desk. “May I?” Not waiting for an answer, I took the apple, cut it in two, and took half for myself. As I returned the half-apple to the place on the desk where Bill had set it, you could hear the roar of silence. The do-boys Martin and Jacob were stunned, and Bill was staring at me with mean and squinty eyes. I took a bite of apple, chewed it quickly, complimented its flavor, and commented a little more on how our deals always have been split fairly with investors. Then I finished the pitch, acting as natural and as informal as if I were having a conversation in my living room with friends.

The three of them listened to every single word from that moment on.

In my case, when I walked into the room with the executive, our frames collided and he attempted to take control by pointing out that we were unlikely to have anything for him that was worth his time — we were going to have to convince him to listen to us, and he didn’t expect us to get very far.

My equivalent of carving up apple in office was to start rearranging his desk without a word of warning; handing him his personal organiser so I could make room for my laptop, right next to his, and intentionally sitting next to him, instead of opposite, as I cracked my laptop open and started walking through the work we’d done “as if I was talking to a friend”. My heart was racing during this whole exercise, but it worked. Rather than call me out for moving his stuff around, he backed down, at which point I had control.

Ultimately the executive listened, understood and appreciated our effort, and we were asked back for a follow up to discuss a few specific scenarios he was interested in.

There’s a lot more to this approach than I’m describing in this post; Once you take control you have to give it back, you have to be respectful, etc. And you do need to use that control wisely.

Next week’s post will talk through a few more details on what to do with trust once you’ve earned it, in a situation like this.

How would you deal with similar situations? Leave a comment below, I’d love to hear from you.



  1. Interesting. This has resonance with something I call conversation aikido.

    Aikido is the ‘non-martial’ martial art, according to many practitioners. The basic premise is that when someone tries to strike or grapple with you, you use that energy against them. That starts by getting out of the way of the direct strike, aligning yourself with the direction the energy is going, then pulling the energy around in a circle and redirecting it to where you want it to go.

    The apple trick took the obnoxious energy of the self-indulgent clown and amplified it. The laptop trick you pulled ignored the attack, and then sat facing the same direction as the executive was facing.

    So is it using the croc brain or avoiding the escalation?

    1. really good point Mike and I loved the analogy to Aikido. Perhaps it’s a bit both;

      Avoiding a more crucial conflict by winning a smaller concession, so as to assert authority on the primary matter at hand.

      E.g. A stranger walks into a chieftains tent and treats it like his own – surprised by the move, the chieftain allows the violation. Does it follow he has to temporarily elevate the status of the stranger, to someone worthy of his time, in order to save face for allowing the violation?

  2. would this work if the other person does not trust you ? it is an interesting approach.. How would you tackle this situation, had it been several people across a conference room, would you have to gain the trust of one or all ?

    1. For multiple people you’d ideally want to win over the leader in the room, which hinges on being able to identify this person quickly— not always obvious.

      I think mistrust would be harder to overcome than low-trust. A lot of the success here hinges on what you’re bringing to the table and how critical it is to the decision makers in the room.

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