I can tell you that, for most executives, interpersonal drama is the least fun part of their job.
I spend a lot of time helping people through challenging situations at work. One thing I see time and again is the power of messaging -- the simple phrases we use -- for navigating these situations and preventing them in the first place. Used effectively, the right question or comment, in the right context, can make a huge difference in the effectiveness of your communication and leadership.
I’ve started collecting a number of go-to messages that work especially well in those awkward moments that could escalate into conflict. The following four stand out because they come up so frequently. Try these out, and you’ll see your leadership improve and your interpersonal conflict decrease.
Related: How to Tame Your Nightmare Boss
1. 'Help me understand'
These three words work like magic because they force you to seek understanding before reacting. It’s like saying, "Wait, before I get angry let’s understand what’s really going on here!" You still may not end up seeing eye to eye but using this expression will set the stage for a more constructive conversation. At the least, the other person will feel like you’ve made an effort to understand their point of view, and that can count for a lot.
Let’s say your vice president makes a decision that you don’t agree with. Rather than taking on an adversarial tone or shaking your head in silence, try pulling her aside and asking: “Help me understand the decision you made. What was your thought process?”
2. 'I realize your intent was [something positive], but the impact it had was _____.'
Another useful message for difficult conversations is the “intent vs. impact” technique. Let’s say your sales manager is yelling at reps, and he doesn’t realize the negative impact this is having on morale. Pull him aside for a private conversation and try this message: “I realize your intent is to rally the troops and hit our targets, but the impact of yelling is making everyone feel demotivated. It’s impacting morale. Can you try a different approach?”
This type of conversation is not easy. But by assuming and acknowledging positive intent, you diffuse some of the defensiveness that can come up in these situations. It takes the conversation out of a blame game and into a more constructive zone.
This approach works equally well when you have an impact that you didn’t intend. Let’s say someone on your team gives you feedback about feeling micromanaged. You could say something like: “My intention was to help you with the project, but I see now that the impact was to make you feel micromanaged.” It’s as easy as that.
3. 'That’s interesting. Can you elaborate on this in an email?'
Let’s say there’s a person in your office who triggers you whenever they open their mouth. Perhaps they don’t think through their ideas, constantly challenge yours or just have traits you find irritating. The next time they bring you an idea and you have a knee-jerk impulse to dismiss or criticize it, try this line instead. Acknowledge their idea as interesting, then ask them to elaborate in writing. Depending on context, you could add: “I’m curious what you see as the pros and cons of this.” Or, “Let’s see [other company or person] does it.”
Having them flesh out their idea in writing has a few advantages. It forces them to more fully explain their idea, so you can better understand it. It takes the discussion to a place that feels more objective, rather than getting stuck in the clash of your personalities. Finally, it gets you out of the mode of reaction to a place where you can more objectively choose how to respond. You may find that their ideas are more valuable than you had imagined.
4. 'What I like about that is…'
Another way to affirm people’s ideas is to say: “What I like about that is….” Even if it seems like a bad suggestion, try to find one good thing to acknowledge about it.
Let’s take a silly example. Say you’re discussing how to redecorate the company office. Your colleague Julie says: “How about painting the room orange?” Rather than saying "no" or rolling your eyes, try saying something like: “What I like about that is that you’re thinking outside the box. What other ideas are out there?”
This line also works well when delivering constructive criticism. You may have heard of the "sandwich approach" to delivering feedback. It’s when you share a piece of constructive criticism between two compliments. This line works great as an opener.
Imagine now you’re having an annual review with Julie. You might start the conversation with something like: “What I like about your work is your creativity and out-of-the box ideas” and then proceed to share the areas for her growth.
In my experience, these messages work best when expressed with genuine, positive intentions in an appropriate context. If you use them passive-aggressively to brush people off, they won't work. Give them a try and see what they can do for you.