Phrases that foster or block engagement. Which do you use most?

Published on March 2, 2017

In an act of brilliance, my young son’s father encouraged him to replace his default "I can't remember" response to questions about his day, with “let me think about it”.

Witnessing the extraordinary shift in conversational dynamics that followed reminded me of similar engagement halting phrases that clients sometimes unconsciously use, and the alternatives that have helped them develop their conversational leadership.

But first, let me explain how my son's change in phrase turned out to be a conversational game changer. His old response of "I can't remember" was an unintended engagement blocker. The inquiring adult either worked harder to engage him, or gave up, no doubt feeling that their desire for connection with him was not to be satisfied, not through conversation anyway. And that is fair enough, for both sides.

Yet now, the seemingly innocuous little phrase “let me think about it” signals to the unsuspecting adult that he needs just that – time to think. Rather than pursue him with the usual barrage of further questions, the adults around him are learning to give him an often-denied gift in conversation – a pause. My son now literally thinks about their question and then shares his response. And there you have it, continued connection and engagement.

So how does this play out in our professional lives? How do we replace the phrases that block engagement with alternatives that foster connection? How do we become more conscious of the impact of our conversations?

It all starts with intention.

A former coaching client had a habit of frowning when people asked her what she perceived to be "stupid questions". Her default phrase in response to such questions was a derisive "Are you serious?"

When I asked her what impact she wanted to have in such exchanges her first response was flippant, yet honest: "I want them to go away!" We've probably all had moments like that when we're up to our eyeballs in demands and we're running as fast as we can, so our tolerance for problem-oriented questions is low.

What followed however revealed who my client really is and the ethos of how she leads today. She realised that her default phrase could indicate to the other person that she thought of them as being idiotic, and this was far from the impact she wanted to have as it was deeply incongruent with her values.

With this increased awareness of her impact, she changed her approach to such discussions in a way that was aligned to her value of respect for people. She learnt to pause, connect with her breath, and ask the person a little more about what they were concerned about. Her intention was connection and respect, and the result was greater understanding of her clients and vastly improved relationships. An added bonus was the decrease in stress that came with behaving aligned to her values and no longer getting triggered by less than eloquently phrased concerns. Today, she leads high performing teams and is well regarded for both her leadership and the quality of her client relationships.

I’ll leave you with a little tip to experiment with, not dissimilar to the conversational technique my client used several years ago, without really knowing it’s significance. It’s a gem from Judith E. Glaser’s book “Conversational Intelligence – How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results”: ask questions for which you have no answers.

Yes, you read correctly, you get to park the need to be the expert or the leader with all the answers and enter the conversation with the intention of listening to answers you hadn’t expected. You may just benefit as much as I did from my son’s answer of “let me think about it” and all that followed.


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