Andrew Sobel, coauthor of Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others, says certain phrases can turn around business conversations that have gotten off to a wrong start.
What can you do when a business conversation goes wrong?
You're one minute into your pitch, but already you're getting hit with resistance to your idea. Two staffers are interrupting with objections. They're starting to pick your proposal apart. Your boss, impassive, isn't rescuing you. Tempers are rising. You tense up and talk faster. It's not going to end well. But it can end well if you act within the first five minutes, and use these seven simple words: "Do you mind if we start over?" Perhaps you preface them with, "I think we've gotten off on the wrong foot. There's some information here that I was unaware of." You've stopped their onslaught, and now you can shift the momentum by asking a follow-up question: "Can you say more about your concern?" or "I had not seen that data can you share it with us now?" This will give you breathing room to regroup and re-calibrate your approach.
When is it time to apologize?
You should apologize if you have lost your cool or been insensitive. You should also apologize if the other person feels slighted, offended, or bullied even if you don't feel you acted that way. It's called empathy! Just say, "I'm sorry my remark offended you." Or "I'm sorry that my tone came across as belittling."
Other tips for pushing the conversational reset button?
Often, we are put on the defensive in a conversation. When that happens, we think that by out-smarting the other person by having more facts, by arguing more energetically we will prevail. But it rarely happens. That's because there is little you can tell people that will change their mind, but there's plenty you can ask. Questions are often more powerful than answers a point made by the Fortune-100 CEO who told me, "When someone comes into my office to try and sell me something, I can always tell how experienced they are by the quality of the questions they ask."
Thoughtful questions are a great way of resetting a conversation and engaging someone who is on the attack or not listening. If someone says, "That's a terrible idea!" try asking "What do you think will work in this situation?" If someone attacks a principle that you hold dear, turn it around and ask them, "What do you believe? What's important to you?" If you feel the conversation has degenerated into arguing or if the other person is distracted and disengaged ask, "What issue do you think we should be focusing on right now?"
What's your advice when anger creeps into the conversation?
Don't escalate by reacting to the anger. Create a pause in the conversation by taking a deep breath and then asking a question to make the other person feel respected and heard, such as "I sense you're upset. What's troubling you about this?" When emotions flare, our reptile brain takes over and hijacks our thinking brain. You can prevent this by slowing the conversation down.
Twitter@DawnHouseTrib Andrew Sobel, author.