Why Trust Needs Intimacy

In any organization or group of people where teamwork and the reaching high performance is a potential desire, the topic of trust will inevitably arise. As such I have had the pleasure to engage in this topic several times in my work as an executive coach. When given the opportunity I often lean into the well known Trustworthiness Equation that is part of the well known book The Trusted Advisor. One element of that equation, Intimacy, seems to always create a struggle for those in professional work environment.

Intimacy? With people I work with? With my clients? What are you suggesting Julie!

It’s funny that for whatever reason when I first was introduced to the equation it never dawned on me there was an issue with the use of this word. But I’ve come to now expect it every time when I bring it up in conversation with professionals. The challenge that exists for many is the connotation that Intimacy means Physical Intimacy. And of course once we go there it’s hard to return.

What the authors of The Trusted Advisor are referring to is not Physical Intimacy but Emotional Intimacy.

“OK, so what does that mean Julie?” say my participants faces while I can imagine them googling in the background the two words. And here is where I have allot of empathy for those who struggle here. Go Google “emotional intimacy” and see what images come up. Pictures of love and lovers and images that most of us would agree do not relate to work environment at all.

This presents a huge challenge for many in the corporate setting. Why? Because many of us still work under the implicit rules that emotions are not for the board room.  Having, much less expressing emotions, at work is a sign of weakness.

Here’s the kicker though. Study after study shows how important Emotional Intelligence is to becoming a great leader in today’s business world. And one of the fundamental starting points of high EI/EQ is I am aware of the emotions I am feeling. Can I articulate them? All of them? As there is never just one. I might be angry that my team mate did not do the task they promised he/she would take care of. And I am also disappointed. Afraid of the repercussions that we both might get for failing as a team. Worried about  have to carry the weight of others. There are a swarm of emotions that I am feeling at this moment and all of them need to be considered.

And then there are the emotions on the other side. For the other person. Can I have empathy for the emotions my teammate may also be feeling in this same situation. Some of which are surely the same that I am feeling but for possibly different reasons.

Emotional Closeness (i.e. Intimacy) is our ability to be honest about those emotions. And how that then allows us to enter into a greater range of difficult topics with respect for each other. The last part of respect is the final part of EI/EQ or our ability to self manage our emotions. Self Manage does not equal ignore or don’t speak of, which is what we have generally interpreted it to be. And ignoring our emotions, or worse others emotions, is where we limit ourselves in creating a safe environment where people can begin to trust each other in a manner that is beyond the basic elements of credibility, reliability and self-orientation.

Here is a great personal example where I fail in this regard. I often am the witness to individuals standing up in one forum or another to share something about an experience they just recently had. An insight they learned about themselves or others. And quite often at least one person will start to get “emotional” and then they will start to apologize for being “emotional”. In that moment they are feeling a range of emotions including embarrassment, because this is new for them. However, my reaction is often to say/feel “STOP APOLOGIZING!!!” I get defensive about their need to apologize for being human and that somehow by them apologizing they are propagating the belief that displaying emotions are weak.

But in that moment, that I actually do speak my thoughts, I am not being self aware much less having self management. I’m projecting my fears onto them and inadvertently telling them that their feeling of “embarrassment” is not an allowed emotion to feel or display. I’m inadvertently, though my intentions are pure, potentially creating a space where they do not feel it is OK to express that emotion with me. And as such I have created a topic that they may no longer be willing to talk with me about. I’ve created distance. And distance in this example means less intimacy. Which then impacts my total trustworthiness quotient with this individual.


What would have been better? Lots of options exist here. One just listen and bare witness. Find empathy for their feeling of embarrassment. Possibly acknowledge. And champion them.

“I imagine that you are feeling a little embarrassed as you so bravely share your emotions here with me and others. What can I do to support you in this moment and continue to have the courage to be authentic?”

Listen. Have Curiosity. Understand. Have Empathy. Champion.

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