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Andrew Sobel

Quality Insider

What to Say When Things Are Going Badly

One simple question can get the conversation back on track

Published: Monday, April 23, 2012 - 12:47

Has this ever happened to you? You’re talking to a client, or perhaps your boss, and you realize the conversation has gotten off on absolutely the wrong foot. You may have learned new and unexpected information from the other person that renders everything you’ve said irrelevant. You may have walked in with an assumption that was just not true. Or you find you’re not connecting, and tension and anger start to creep into the exchange. It really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that a potentially productive business conversation has become awkward and stilted—or even worse, superheated and combative.

What do you do next? You have three options:
1. Continue trying to make your point. The tension and awkwardness will likely escalate, and you’ll find that you and the other person grow farther and farther apart.
2. Bring the conversation to an abrupt end and exit stage left. Both of you will be left with a bad taste in your mouth.
3. Salvage the situation with the judicious use of seven magic words: Do you mind if we start over?

This question is the Saint Bernard rescue dog that brings a warming barrel of brandy into the conversational arctic. People are forgiving. They want things to go well, and this question disarms them and eases the way to a new beginning.

This question is only one of many that Jerry Panas and I have included in our new book, Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others (Wiley, 2012). We explore dozens of questions that light fires under people, that challenge assumptions, help to see problems in productive new ways, and can inspire people to bare their souls (which, of course, strengthens the bonds in the relationship). And we wrap up the book with a list of additional questions, which brings the total to 337 power questions to help people succeed at work and in life.

But back to “starting over.” My coauthor, Panas, recalls the time he walked into the office of a wealthy benefactor named Allan to ask for a million-dollar donation to his alma mater’s college of engineering. Though he knew better, Panas failed to gain rapport and explore Allan’s true interests before jumping in with the big request. When he was severely rebuked for his presumption, Panas realized he had made a serious error and dug himself into a deep hole. He got up and excused himself, left the room, and 10 seconds later knocked on the door and asked the power question, “Do you mind if we start over?”

Allan smiled and invited Panas to sit down. Start over they did, and after approaching the revived conversation the right way, Panas discovered that Allan was interested in making a major gift—but to the university’s theater program, not its engineering program!

Try it yourself. The next time a conversation gets off on the wrong foot or veers off track, reset with that powerful question. The following pointers may also be of help.

If you’re in the wrong, apologize. Take responsibility for the conversation’s derailment. You might say something like, “I’ve gotten off on the wrong foot, and I’m really sorry. Do you mind if I begin again? I haven’t done this justice.” Or, “The reason I’d like to start over is that I put my foot in my mouth. Can I give it a second try?”

If you’re not in the wrong, and the conversation has simply strayed into unproductive territory, ask in a way that doesn’t place blame. Try asking, “Can we step back from this? What should we be talking about?”

Actually, even if the other party made the initial faux pas, it’s still OK to say you’re sorry the conversation went awry. You’re not taking blame; you’re just acknowledging regret that things took a bad turn and that the other person is upset.

Either way, smile. It goes a long way toward smoothing any ruffled feathers. More than words alone, a genuine smile that reaches the eyes can evoke a powerful visceral response. It shows that your intentions are pure, and when people realize that, the vast majority are willing to give you another chance.

When you start over, really start over. You don’t have to actually leave the room and come back in; but draw a sharp dividing line between the bad conversation and the new one. A good way to reset is to ask the other person a question and draw them back into the conversation as an active participant. It could be something as simple as: “Can I ask—how have you been thinking about this?” or “Let’s step back for a second—can you share your view of the situation?”

Of course, starting over isn’t just for the workplace. It can work just as well to defuse a budding argument with your spouse or any family member or friend.

It’s a bold, gutsy move to restart a conversation from scratch. Yes, it feels awkward. Most of us are not accustomed to swallowing our pride, admitting in real time that we screwed up, and asking if we can make it right. But the next time a conversation goes wrong, try it. Not only will it salvage the moment, it will pave the way for a more authentic and productive relationship in the future.

Discuss

About The Author

Andrew Sobel’s picture

Andrew Sobel

Andrew Sobel has worked as a consultant to senior management and as an executive educator and coach for 30 years, and he is an acclaimed keynote speaker. He is the most widely published author in the world on client loyalty and the capabilities required to build trusted business relationships. His first book, Clients for Life (Free Press, 2002), defined an entire genre of business literature about client loyalty. His other books include Making Rain (Wiley, 2003), All for One (Wiley, 2009), and Power Questions (Wiley 2012).