People will surprise you. When you least expect it, someone will bring up a topic that seems to come out of nowhere. Surprises often can make you feel attacked and trigger your fight or flight instincts. This first reactive inclination may cause a problem or make matters worse. Instead of countering, try engaging by using these phrases to give yourself a chance to take a breath and focus on a neutral or positive outcome.
- Here is what I heard you say. Is that correct?
Before you engage on the subject, make sure that you understand. Using the active listening technique of repeating back what you heard serves two purposes: it confirms that you are on the same page as the speaker, and it gives the speaker a chance to think about what they just said. When using this phrase, be as neutral in your response as you can. Rather than express your immediate reaction, or focus on the implications of the words, try to seek clarity. This phrase is particularly useful when someone has said something offensive. They may not realize what they’ve done, and you are giving them a chance to reverse course.
- Help me understand more about your last comment.
Surprise conversations often start with a declarative statement such as, “I hate that politician,” or “Here’s what I think about that issue.” These can be particularly difficult if you disagree with the statement. Rather than jump right into a debate, it is helpful to explore the context. Why did the topic come up at that moment? What is the real priority that underlies the statement? In seeking to understand the speaker, you express interest, you focus on what matters to them, and you can seek common ground for a more productive discussion.
- What role do you need me to play?
A loved one surfaces after a long day at work, or a colleague bursts into your office. They launch into a diatribe and clearly feel strongly about the situation. Before engaging on the topic itself, you want to know what they want from you. Do they want a sympathetic ear so they can vent? Are they looking for help to problem solve? Do they want validation? If this person is important to you, don’t guess at why they are speaking to you. Ask.
- What outcome are you looking for in this conversation?
This question is an important way to interrupt an unexpected conversation that feels controversial and risky. As a follow on to exploring your expected role, asking the speaker to express their intentions can give both of you clarity about the stakes. Do they want to change your mind, have a lively debate or learn something new? Is there an underlying issue that the speaker wants to introduce? Have they considered the risks and consequences of bringing up the topic in this way and at this time? This phrase helps flag to the speaker that the topic may be controversial, and it encourages them to proceed mindfully.
- What you shared is important, and I need to process.
You have the right to refuse to engage. Rather than shutting the speaker down completely, this phrase indicates that you care about the speaker while also asserting your boundaries. It opens the door for a future discussion at a time and place that might be better suited to the conversation. You may want nothing further to do with the topic, but this phrase is less confrontational and more likely to succeed at ending the subject for the time being.
Whether it is a loved one, a colleague or a relative stranger you’ve just met, an unexpected conversation can often go off the rails very quickly if you simply react. Having these phrases and questions in your back pocket to interrupt a confrontational situation can steer the topic towards a calmer, thoughtful engagement that serves to preserve and protect your relationship and your self.
© 2021 Jennifer Dalton
Jen Dalton is a personal brand specialist with entrepreneurship in her DNA. Her book, Listen: How To Embrace the Difficult Conversations LifeThrows at You, is an insightful guide into navigating tough talks. She helps business owners and executives define how they show up as leaders, make the most of their strengths and tend to their legacy, growth and visibility. The author of two books, frequent speaker, podcaster and “Purpose Sherpa,” Jen is a critical resource for any person or company that wants to define their brand and differentiate themselves in authentic, credible, and relevant ways to the market.