Has this ever happened to you? You’re talking to your manager, a co-worker or a client, 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 may 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 professional conversation has become awkward and stilted—or even worse, super heated and combative.
What do you do next? You have three options.
- Continue trying to make your point. The tension and awkwardness will likely escalate, and you’ll find that you and the other person are farther and farther apart.
- Bring the conversation to an abrupt end and exit stage left. Both of you will be left with a bad taste in your mouth.
- 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. Try it yourself. The next time a conversation gets off on the wrong foot or veers off track, reset with this powerful question. Following are additional conversation rescue tactics.
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If you’re in the wrong—apologize. Take responsibility for the conversation’s derailment. Consider saying 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 saying: “Can we step back from this? What should we be talking about?” Even if the other party made the initial faux pas, it’s still okay to say you’re sorry that 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. This easy strategy 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 her 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, a family member or a friend. It’s a bold, gutsy move to restart a conversation from scratch. Yes, it feels awkward. Most people are not accustomed to swallowing their pride, admitting in real time that they screwed up and asking if they can make it right. But the next time a conversation goes wrong, try it. Not only will it salvage the moment, it will also pave the way for a more authentic and productive relationship in the future.
For 30 years, Andrew Sobel has worked as both a consultant to senior management and as an executive educator and coach. His articles and work have been featured in a variety of publications such as theNew York Times, Business Week, and the Harvard Business Review.
Jerold Panas is executive partner of Jerold Panas, Linzy & Partners, a fundraising services and financial resource development firm. He is founder and chairman of the board of the Institute for Charitable Giving. They are co-authors of Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business and Influence Others (Wiley, 2012).