When that business meeting or conversation gets off to a rocky start – whether tense words are exchanged or you just don’t seem to be connecting – it’s time to push the reset button.
Maybe you’re out doing an estimate and you realize the conversation has gotten off on absolutely the wrong foot. Maybe the homeowner has different expectations on when they though the job could be completed. 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.
3 ways to respond
What do you do next? According to Andrew Sobel, an expert on building client loyalty and long-term business relationships, 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 St. Bernard rescue dog that brings a warming barrel of brandy into the conversational arctic,” says Sobel. “People are forgiving. They want things to go well, and this question disarms them and eases the way to a new beginning.”
4 tactics to reboot the conversation
Keep these four points in mind, Sobel says:
- 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: “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 the conversation went awry,” Sobel says. “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,” says Sobel. “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. 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,” says Sobel. “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.”
Andrew Sobel has worked for 30 years as a consultant to senior management and as an executive educator and coach at companies such as Citigroup, Xerox, and Cognizant. His articles have been published in the New York Times, Business Week, and the Harvard Business Review, and other publications. Learn more at andrewsobel.com.