Whether it’s arguing politics with your uncle, offering difficult feedback to an employee, or trying to persuade your better half to do more around the house, it’s tempting to approach tough conversation logically. You offer clear evidence and compelling arguments and the other party will quit missing deadlines, voting for lunatics, or forgetting to take out the trash. Unfortunately, a mountain of evidence shows the real world doesn’t work that way.
Facts rarely win arguments. People are often too defensive or invested in a particular identity to dispassionately weigh evidence and take on board tough criticism. The key to making tough conversations actually productive isn’t logic, it’s empathy.
Most of us have had enough discussions blow up in our faces over the years to understand that’s true (even if we wish it weren’t), but it still begs one big question. What does that empathy look like in practice? I’ve passed along advice on this topic from lawyers, behavioral scientists, and even hostage negotiators over the years, but perhaps the most actionable answer I’ve come across yet comes via a recent HBR post from Darden School of Business professor and author Jim Detert.
Rather than offer abstract principles, Darden simply advises those hoping to make their toughest conversations more fruitful to avoid a handful of common words, like these:
Stuck as we are in our own heads, it’s natural enough to forget that your view of things is just that — your view of things. Other people see the world very differently. And what’s ‘obvious’ to you may be very far from obvious to others.
Detert reminds readers that one of the quickest ways to enrage people is to imply your view of the situation is the only objectively right one. And that’s just what you do when you use the word ‘obviously,’ or its close cousins ‘clearly’ or ‘beyond a doubt.’
“Not surprisingly, when your words (inadvertently) suggest that any divergent views are stupid or inconsequential, others may feel railroaded or insulted,” he writes. “If you’ve really made your case persuasively, there’s no need to potentially derail the outcome by stating your own views about how obvious or beyond a doubt something is.”
Unless you’re talking about the sun rising in the East, ‘always’ — and its opposite ‘never’ — are exaggerations (and even the sun will someday supernova). When you use these words to discuss your employee’s tardiness or your spouse’s forgetfulness, you’re exaggerating. The other party is sure to resent the fact and object.
“Exaggeration will undermine your overall credibility and lead to a debate about frequency instead of substance,” cautions Detert. “If your intent is to get someone to start or stop doing something, keep the focus on that.”
When you’re the boss, it’s your job to tell people what they should be doing, right? It’s tempting to think so, and your advice or direction may even be completely correct. But if you’re more interested in getting the other party to change than you are in reminding them of your authority, then avoid this everyday word. A less direct approach is more likely to be effective.
“People feel judged by ‘should’ statements — as if they wouldn’t come to the right conclusion without your input — when they’d prefer to decide for themselves what to do,” notes Detert, who advises that “phrases like, ‘You might consider’ or ‘One possibility is’ or ‘Have you thought of?’ increase your odds of having the conversation and influence you seek.”
Find this list of no-go words useful? Then check out Detert’s complete article for quite a few more.