How To Demolish Your Credibility


Credibility: the simplest of actions can put a whopping dent in your reputation

The glass that my latte came in had an obvious three centimetre chunk missing from the rim. Now, I’m a ‘glass half full’ kind-of-a-gal, but it’s difficult to concentrate on the contents when you’re worried about cutting your lip!

I’d met a friend for lunch in an upmarket cafe. Recently bought by new owners, they’d given it a makeover and reopened it under a new name. My friend and I were keen to ‘give it a spin.’

It never ceases to amaze me where some people must have their heads

It must be an an extraordinarily dark place if they can’t see something as obvious as a chunk missing from a glass — into which they’re pouring coffee.

And they clearly didn’t think through the implications of presenting this glass to a customer. They’re not concerned about the meta-messages they’re sending, or the impact on their credibility.

What’s a meta-message?

Meta means above or beyond.

A meta-message is something that’s communicated above or beyond an intended message.

It’s something that’s not said explicitly but can be inferred or implied. It could be the overall impression that’s communicated.

Meta-messages often happen because people don’t think through their actions

A very simple example (that, regrettably, we’ve probably all experienced!) Can you relate to this?

I phoned a company and listened to a banal recording requiring me to make countless decisions about who I might need to speak to, input a gazillion numbers and listen to hideous music and advertising.

They interrupted this auditory abuse every few seconds by a recorded voice reassuring me, “Your call IS important to us. Please hold the line and an operator will be with you shortly…”

Are they trying to keep me entertained while I wait, or wind me up? As my blood pressure rises, I keep reminding myself that it’s ‘not the customer service person’s fault’.

This self-talk, I rationalise, will stop me going ballistic at some unwitting customer service person who’s perhaps just starting their shift.

27 minutes later I talk to a human being who asks me what the problem is. I wonder, “why on earth did I spend all that time searching for my customer number and inputting information that clearly wasn’t important?!?”

Sometimes I look around to see if I can spot a secret camera in the office (a là The Truman Show) watching me rant, rave and gesticulate live on national television, as people on the other end of the phone try new and innovative ways to wind me up!!

Meta-message - it's fine that you have to wait.

The meta-messages sent by this company:

  • We say you’re important — but we don’t mean it.
  • We have more important things to do than speaking to customers.
  • Customers have more time on their hands than we do, they can wait.
  • We can’t be bothered organising our phone and/or customer service systems properly to save you time.
  • We and our time are more important than you and your time.

One time — out of frustration — I called the phone line for new business at the same organisation. Surprisingly, someone answered in three rings — an actual human! The meta-message I took from that is that new customers are important, existing customers aren’t! Credibility down the gurgler!

It’s a compelling example of how to lose credibility

The example illustrated above sends a powerful — and dismissive message to customers. Regardless of intention, their words (albeit on the automated telephone system) and their actions don’t match. I think some organisations have no idea what Customer Service is. And they haven’t thought through the message the customer receives through their inactions, lack of response and behaviours. If they have, that’s an even worse meta-message!

‘Who you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.’ Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Some meta-messages are remarkably obvious

Other meta-messages might be quite subtle and less easy to detect, depending on how finely tuned your senses are. So, for instance, you might notice your nearest and dearest is a little under the weather, even though they might say they’re OK. But you might not know this about someone you’ve just met, because you haven’t had the opportunity to observe their typical demeanour.

Let me give you another example of a negative meta-message:

Here’s the scenario: You enter a business and head to the reception desk. You lean on the counter, smile at the receptionist and say, ‘Hi’ in a friendly tone. The receptionist ignores you for about 20 seconds while she finishes typing something. Then she looks you up and down, greets you with an insincere, ‘lips only’ smile. She asks you curtly what your name is and who you’re there to see. Then she continues to ignore you while she phones the person you’ve requested. You’re not acknowledged or invited to take a seat.

What are the meta-messages?

  • Her ‘work’ is more important than you.
  • You’re just an interruption as far as she’s concerned, not the purpose of her job.
  • The ‘smile’ is part of the job description and not genuine.

If this is the first impression of the company, you might wonder what else you can expect from them. The credibility of the company has already taken a hit from your perspective. If the company is aware of her behaviour and has done nothing, then that’s another meta-message; they’re prepared to put up with it.

Another example (I have so many I should write a book!)

helping a colleague who doesn't want your help

A colleague tells you about a problem he has. You respond by giving advice about what he should do, even though he didn’t ask for it.


  • I’m smarter than you.
  • You’re incapable of sorting out your own problems.

There are other ways of handling this situation that send different meta-messages

These might involve:

  • Giving him your full attention and listening empathetically.
  • Asking about how he might have already tried to resolve the issue.
  • Reminding him of other times when he’s resolved something and enquiring how he did that.
  • Asking what ideas he’s already had that might solve it.

This response would send different meta-messages:

  • I’m listening to you.
  • I respect you, and I recognise you’re talented and that you know at some level how to resolve this.

You tell people you trust them, but always check up on them. What speaks louder, your words or your actions?

Sometimes you may not be aware of the meta-messages you’re picking up

You may just feel that something is ‘not quite right’, ‘doesn’t add up’ or you have a negative gut feeling about a person or a situation. Pay attention to those sentiments and check them out. You may be glad you did.

Now think about the meta-messages you might be sending

Do you commit to helping others out, but then fail to show up?

Do you often agree to social activities — and then cancel at the last minute?

If so, what are the meta-messages that people pick up from your behaviours or non-actions?

  • You’re unreliable?
  • They shouldn’t trust you?
  • You lack credibility and integrity?
  • They’re not that important to you?

In the longer term, you may notice people no longer asking you to help them out, or organising to meet you. You’ll have lost your credibility with those people. You can bet that they no longer trust you. They’ll think you don’t care or that others are more important. And of course, if you don’t care about them, why should they care about you?

They’ll quietly move on.

What does it say if you make time to go out with your friends, but won’t make to time for a romantic dinner with your partner?

What’s the meta-message if you pull out your phone and plonk it on the table as you and your friend or partner meet for lunch? What are the meta-messages the little boy in the title photo is picking up?

It’s much easier to maintain your credibility than it is to retrieve it, once lost.

Back to me — and my latte

The meta-messages I received from that one interaction were:

‘They know there’s a large chip in the glass. (how could anyone not notice it!) but they can’t be bothered giving me another good one.’

  • ‘You’re only a customer.’
  • ‘We’ve got more important things to think about.’

That was my first experience of the cafe under the new owners. As far as I was concerned their credibility was ruined. I asked for a replacement latte in an un-chipped glass. Even though it was lunchtime, I didn’t bother trying their food…

You can’t always control meta-messagesReal People Skills - eBook

It’s probably obvious by now that anyone in an organisation can sabotage it with inappropriate meta-messages. Likewise, you don’t always know what message someone will take from an interaction. But, as you develop more self-awareness your social awareness will also grow, and so will your EQ. You’ll become more attuned and send clearer, more congruent messages that make a statement about who you are.

You’ll discover more ways to influence people in my eBook REAL People Skills. Or join me on NLP Practitioner Certification Training

Tags: Communication skills, Language, Perception, Self-awareness, Thinking and mindset


  1. joseph dermot hartzenburg

    well written, spot on, see it often and unfortunately a not too uncommon relational practice in corporates, communities, families schools and more.

    very pertinent reminder for growing our own awareness of how we build and maintain credibility.

    thanks Steph

    • siteadmin

      Thank you Joseph. It’s a sad indictment on an increasing lack of awareness. While businesses of all kinds are spending heaps of money to try and attract new customers, they’re failing to take care of the ones they already have! And individuals are unaware of their lack of integrity.


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