How do you discern the motives and intentions of others? How can you tell the honesty and trustworthiness of someone before it is too late? There is no easy answer. Often we learn these lessons from the school of hard knocks.

I am often struck how in human relationships the small things can make a huge difference. Apparently inconsequential actions can reveal otherwise undisclosed hearts and attitudes. Here are some stories that illustrate this.


Someone I knew a few years ago use to run a successful cleaning company in Central London. Among his clients were a number of very wealthy Middle Eastern business people. I remember talking with him how he ended up having such a large number of this group to work for. He humbly replied he himself was not sure. However, he also remembered early in his career, when he was just starting out he was asked to go to an address in Central London to do a cleaning job. While cleaning he found at the back of a sofa £800 in cash. His immediate response was to pass this onto the owner. Ever since then, although he couldn’t prove it, he noticed how he found himself being contacted by a large number of very wealthy clients to do similar cleaning jobs for them.

Someone else I know had a very senior position in a large organisation. Unbeknown to most people his wife was also his secretary. Having such an important role many of those who came to see him were very deferential and respectful to him. However, what he found particularly interesting was the feedback he got from his wife as to how visitors who wanted to see him would treat her.They did not realise she was his wife and so the way they treated her gave valuable information about their inner motivations. I remember him telling me how it gave a valuable insight into some people’s true character. A person’s true character reveals itself in the way they treat people who are of apparently little consequence to them.

A relative of mine in India who was a self-employed business man was a number of years ago swindled by his business partner. When I talked with him about what had happened, I asked him if there was anything looking back he should have paid attention to. Was there some clue that might have given more of an insight into this man’s true motives. He paused and told me about an occasion about a year earlier when he had lent this business partner his motor bike. The business partner returned the motor bike after a week, but with no fuel in the petrol tank. At the time he just assumed it was inconsequential, although my relative’s father did tell him that was very inconsiderate. Looking back my relative had to conclude it was a warning he should have heeded more attention to.

For me, a number of years ago I got into a business deal with someone. He appeared very knowledgeable and astute. He had a seemingly plausible story about his business acumen. Myself along with two other friends were taken in by his apparent skills and expertise only to be badly burnt by his eventual dishonesty. The small things we should have paid more attention to? The occasions when he never offered to pay the bill for meals out or never inviting us over to his place. When we did eventually go to where he lived it was remarkable the disconnect between what he said and how he lived. On the one hand small matters, but in the light of what happened quite significant.

Dan Sullivan talks about the characteristics of someone to consistently do business with and keep in relationship with. The list in many ways so ordinary and unglamorous, but they tell a lot about someone’s character:

Show up on time.
Do what you say you are going to do.
Finish what you start.
Say please and thank you.

What is remarkable is that even though these are so much a part of common sense, they are not common practice.

What examples in your own life are there of small things making a big difference?