Three C’s of Credibility
Credibility comes from the root word “credo,” which means “I believe.” Credibility refers to the believability of speaker or sender in communication. We are constantly making assessments about the credibility of communication in our everyday lives; it isn’t just about public speaking or leadership, it’s about everyone.
The study of credibility in communication began 2500 years ago with Aristotle, who looked at persuasion in orators. His concept of communication was known as rhetoric, and his term for credibility was ethos. Ethos, or credibility, was one of three “modes of persuasion,” as he called it. That is, ethos was one of three main ways that an audience was persuaded to believe a speaker’s claims. The other two were “logos,” the logical appeals of the speaker, and “pathos,” the emotional appeals.
Aristotle taught that ethos contained three main assessments of the speaker by the audience. One assessment was to question whether the speaker knew what they were talking about; did they have “good sense?” Another area that the audience evaluates is where the speaker is trustworthy and honest; did they have “good character?” The third area was assessing whether the speaker had the audience’s good in mind; did they have “goodwill” toward the audience?
Centuries later, social scientists looked at the same sorts of perceptions toward the communication sender, but used the concept of credibility. In scientific terms, credibility and ethos are considered “isomorphic,” meaning they are so nearly alike as to be identical. It just so happens that when credibility was studied, as recently as 70’s – 90’s, they came up with three main constructs, the same as Aristotle did in 500 B.C. I call these the three C’s of credibility.
- Competence: Aristotle’s “good sense.”
- Character: Aristotle’s “good character.”
- Caring: Aristotle’s “goodwill.” (I define it as “intending to do good to the other aside from an egocentric profit motive.”)
I make a distinction between Character, which is the perceived trustworthiness and honest of the sender, and Integrity, which is the actual trustworthiness and honesty of the sender. We know that there can be differences between perception and reality, and this terminology difference is one way to keep track of that.
Credibility is what I call a perceiver phenomenon, meaning it originates with the receiver in the communication exchange. The perceiver is the one who awards or revokes credibility. It is similar to the cliché, “Respect cannot be demanded, only earned.” A speaker-sender should not enter the communication event assuming they have credibility with the audience-receiver. Of course, they can, but they may be sadly mistaken. The fact is, they do not have credibility, that is, believability, until the audience believes them, until the audience gives them credibility.
It is helpful here to bring in other terms in our language which share to same root word of “credo,” such as credential, credit, accreditation, and creed. Each of these terms share the common dynamic of someone believing something about another, or not, based on what they see. We are not awarded a credential until the state agency, or other awarding body, approves. Same thing with credit and accreditation.
Like a bank loan officer assessing the financial history of an applicant, the client does not have credit until the loan officer says so, until he or she has looked over the documents and awarded them credit based on how much they believe the person will pay back that loan. What do they assess? The ability of the person to repay the loan (like competence, the ability to provide good information), the trustworthiness of the person taking the money (like character, perhaps looking into their criminal background), and the intentions of the person applying for the loan (like caring, or the person’s intentions to do good). They evaluate in a similar way, and the basis of the credit operates the same way as credibility: the client does not have it simply because they say they do; they have it because the loan officer awards it.
The same holds true for audience members, who are the loan officers in the relationship. It is important for speakers to realize that they do not have credibility with the audience because they wish it, or assume it, or think their advanced credentials and degrees demand it. No, they are given credibility when, and only when, the audience awards it to them.
Secondly, it is important for receivers/audience members to realize the power they have in this area. They are the “loan officers” in the exchange. They should never willingly give credibility to the sender unless and until the criteria for believability have been met. Receivers should realize that they have the power to award or revoke credibility to the other in the exchange, and like belief in other areas of life, the control over that can only come from the receiver. It cannot be coerced or forced. Others can demand respect all they want, but only the receiver is the only one who can award it.
It should be noted, that since communication is an exchange between people, and most people want to be believed, that we are all assessing one another’s credibility. Credibility goes both ways.