Does Your Nonverbal Behavior Box You In? 12 Tips for Improving Your Body Language

Does Your Nonverbal Behavior Box You In? 12 Tips for Improving Your Body Language

I had just finished speaking at an event and a number of people came up to the stage to talk and to ask questions that they didn’t want to ask in front of the entire group. After a few moments I was approached by a woman who began rapidly asking me a number of questions. Before I could finish answering one question, she would hit me with another question.

This behavior aside, what was more bothersome was a number of her nonverbal behaviors that became increasingly annoying. The whole time we were talking, she wouldn’t look at me in the eye. In fact, she kept looking at my ear. I found myself wondering if there was something crawling out of my ear or something else that seemed to hold her attention that I had missed when I had dressed myself earlier in the day. Then I observed that she kept turning her body toward the door and then looking away like she was getting ready to leave. While I was answering some of her questions, she frequently looked down at her watch. Finally, she moved uncomfortably close to me and that’s what did me in. I thanked her for her questions and moved to speak with the person who had been standing behind her.

While she may have had some logical reasons for her behavior, it was disconcerting enough that it negatively affected my interaction with her. If you want to communicate more effectively, avoid misunderstandings, establish rapport, and build trust in both your personal and professional relationships, it’s important to understand the nonverbal messages that you and others are sending. When we are unaware of the messages we may be inadvertently sending in the way we speak and act, we may sabotage the effectiveness of our conversation.

In order to help you become more aware of your behavior and what you might do to improve your nonverbal communication, I would offer the following tips to improve the unspoken messages that you send to others.

1. Manage your facial expressions. Your face is often reflective of what is going on in your head. If your facial expression is unexpressive or emotionless, the other person in the conversation may interpret your expression as a sign of disinterest even if you have what we call a “thinking face” or a “resting face.” Try smiling as you look at the other person and portray an interested and positive demeanor. Smiling projects goodwill and warmth. It is not uncommon for your smile to be reflected back to you by the person who is on the receiving end. We know that the way we feel is often projected onto and felt by others. Offering a positive expression will be felt by your listener.  

2. Maintain eye contact. A good rule of thumb is for you to give or reflect the frequency of eye contact that a person gives you. Poor eye contact can communicate a lack of interest. On the other hand, if you give too much eye contact, the other person may become uncomfortable with your constant stare. Keep your eye contact relaxed, not over the top, or extreme. You want to put people at ease, rather than creating uneasiness by the way you look at them.  

3. Listen to your tone of voice. I like to say that tone is the music of the mind. In other words, a person’s emotion is often projected in the tone of their voice. In this way you can discern the tenor of what a person is feeling and thinking. This is often where disconnects will occur. People will convey one thing with the words they select, but the tone of their voice will communicate an entirely different message. It’s important to remember that the tone of the message is stronger than the words used. Monitor your tone carefully to make sure you are delivering the message you intend to send.

4. Maintain good posture. Whether you are sitting slumped or sitting straight, if your arms are open or crossed, you are transmitting a message. People who lean back in a chair or away from the person speaking can be interpreted as disinterested or as being arrogant or overly confident. Sit up and lean slightly forward to demonstrate your interest in the other person and what they are saying.  

5. Use verbal reinforcement. Without interrupting, you can demonstrate your interest in what people have to say by vocalizing agreement and support by making statements such as, “hmmm,” “yes”, “interesting,” “really,” or “nice,” as a way of communicating your attentiveness in what they have to say or share.     

6. Watch how you breathe. When we become anxious, angry, or frustrated, we tend to breathe more quickly and shallowly. When we are tired, we are more likely to sigh. Sighing is often taken as a sign of annoyance or disinterest. Try breathing more deeply while concentrating on being relaxed. Doing so will calm and relax your demeanor as you are speaking with others.

7. Manage your gestures. Those who are more assertive often gesture when speaking. They may point, chop, accentuate a point, invite, or even draw pictures in the air front of themselves when they speak. Notice the intensity of your gestures when speaking. You want to make sure that your gestures are not so emphatic or distracting as to take away from your spoken message.  If you don’t monitor your gestures, then it is not uncommon for the words in a message to communicate one thing, but the gestures to communicate something else. Your gestures should emphasize or reinforce your message rather than detract from it. I remember one time when someone came into my office and in the excitement of sharing her message she began gesturing so wildly that she knocked a vase of flowers over on my desk. My attention was diverted to saving the papers and notes that were on my desk and the meaning of her message was lost in my irritation at the situation.

8. Provide ample space. When standing with people, be aware of your proximity to them. Some people have no space limitation, while other people require much more personal space to feel comfortable. If you take a step toward someone and you notice them start to lean, turn, shift, or step away from you, recognize that you are probably too close to them and take a step back. You will probably notice them relax. When this happens, you will know that you have managed the physical proximity effectively.

9. Watch how you shake hands. If you are in a formal setting where you are meeting people that you don’t know, avoid the “dead fish” or “fingertip” handshake which can signal insecurity. Likewise, avoid the “vise-grip” squeeze that usually projects arrogance. Finally, avoid shaking people’s hands in a way that feels like you are pumping for oil. This type of handshake is often interpreted as an overreach or over-exaggeration of how you portray yourself. Take the person’s hand firmly but don’t squeeze, and move your hand up and down two or three times. If you need to practice shaking hands to feel more comfortable, then do so.

10. Vary your tempo. Don’t speak too quickly. Make your points in a distinct and deliberate way, pausing occasionally. Pausing allows the other person’s brain to process what you are saying and to ask questions if they need clarification. Don’t speak so softly that people have to strain to hear what you are saying. If you continue to do so, they will end up tuning you out. Finally, don’t speak too slowly. They will lose interest and disconnect from what you are sharing.

11. Give your full attention. This is easier said than done. Most of the time we only hear about 50% of what people say because we are too busy thinking about what we are going to say next, how much we really disagree, or we end up thinking about something that is entirely unrelated to the topic at hand. When we are not fully present, people can tell and will feel the lack of connection and they will usually disengage or will not give you their attention when it is your talking turn. Either way, neither party will fully understand the other.

12. Manage your energy. We all exude energy. Notice if people seem to project coolness, disinterest, enthusiasm, excitement, negativity, or some other feeling. You can manage your own energy by identifying an emotion that you want to portray and then holding that emotional word in mind as you communicate. If you observe others for their emotional energy, you will begin to notice their demeanor and how it impacts how their message is delivered and received. 

Your nonverbal behavior, the way you speak, act, and express emotion, helps you establish rapport and personal connection with others. Likewise your unspoken messaging can establish trust and acceptance with other people. Your pervasiveness and credibility is also improved as you use your verbal and nonverbal skills to increase the power of your message.  

Share with me below your experience with strange or unusual body language.  

Do you struggle with communicating effectively? Do you need to improve your emotional intelligence?

Join me for my complimentary webinar, “3 Must Know Principles for Increasing Your Emotional Intelligence.”

We will walk through practical ways to defuse defensiveness in others as well as yourself. You will learn the 5 values that create the majority of workplace challenges and disruptions.

How Well Do You Do Empathy? The Secret to Understanding and Connecting with Others

How Well Do You Do Empathy? The Secret to Understanding and Connecting with Others

This summer my son, Matthew, and some of his mountain-biking friends decided to ride their bikes down a fairly steep hill. Matt, on a dare, decided to go first. As he sped down the hill, he hit a small dirt mound that catapulted him 10 feet in the air. He came over the handlebars and landed on his shoulder, severing his clavicle from the growth plate on his right shoulder. When I finally arrived on the scene, I knew something was terribly wrong when we removed his t-shirt and could see his clavicle sticking up under the skin.

After waiting hours in the emergency room, we were finally able to see a doctor in the ER. Wisely, the doctor chided him for not wearing a crash helmet as he told him how lucky he was to only break his shoulder. He then previewed for us what it would take to surgically repair Matt’s shoulder. As we headed to the car shortly before midnight, I said to Matt, “Well, at least you didn’t crack your skull!” My wife quickly and sarcastically responded with, “That was some really good empathy, dear.”

Being able to empathize with another is the apex of being a great listener, but as I demonstrated, it is not that easy to do. Rather than demonstrate empathy, we are quick to judge or offer advice. Because we care about the situation or the person, we might ask what we think are caring questions.  Using the example of my son, other questions I thought of asking him were, “Why didn’t you wear your helmet?” or “What made you think you had enough experience to take that hill?” Both of these questions aren’t really very caring at all. The underlying message in the first question is, “You were an idiot for not wearing your helmet.” And the message in the second question is, “You didn’t have enough experience to run a hill that steep. You were stupid for attempting it.” Our negative judgment or criticism, along with our advice, shows up at light speed and comes out of our mouth before we even have time to stop and think about the impact that our words have on others. Such statements as these add insult to injury and do not make the other person feel like they are understood, nor does it make them feel like they want to talk about anything.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is often defined as the ability to understand the feelings of another and to imagine the thinking behind those feelings. It is about understanding another person from their point of view. Consequently, being able to empathize with another requires that you recognize and suspend your own thinking in order to understand the person that you are listening to. This requires that you listen nonjudgmentally while trying to understand the other person.

You can do empathy by making a reflective statement of the emotions you are seeing in the other person, as well as trying to understand the thinking behind those feelings. For example, in the case of my son, rather than saying, “At least you didn’t crack your skull,” I could have said, “I can see that you’re upset you got hurt and are sad about not being able to do everything you planned for this summer. I imagine you’re especially upset about not being able to go to Africa on your humanitarian trip.  Would you like to talk about it?” Making such a statement would have allowed him to share more of what he was thinking and feeling in the situation rather than shutting him down.

How Not To Do Empathy   

Common phrases to avoid are those that are associated with judgment or criticism, words such as “at least,” “because,” or “but.” The use of the phrase, “at least” is commonly used to highlight the consequences but ignores the person’s feelings such as, “At least you didn’t break your head.” The word “because” often shows up as justification for the offered advice, as in, “You shouldn’t have attempted that hill because look what happened.” Finally, “but” is sometimes used to highlight what action was taken that did not yield the desired results, as in, “I asked you to do this, but you did not follow my direction.” Unfortunately, these phrases come to mind easily, seemingly with little thought on our part, and do more harm than good.

How to Do Empathy

When I was first asked by one of my mentors to make an empathetic statement to someone who was disappointed there was no butter for the freshly baked rolls, I said, “I can see that you really like butter.” My mentor laughed as he explained that I have made a judgment about the rolls rather than making an empathetic statement. Try as I did, I didn’t do very well. My mentor then said, “Here is how empathy sounds: There really is nothing like warm, sweet melted butter on warm rolls, is there?”

In an attempt to make empathy easier, try asking yourself this question before making any kind of a statement:

“What would this person have to think and feel, in order to say or do that?”

Taking the time to answer this question forces you to observe their feelings and try to understand the thinking behind their feelings. Then you must formulate what you will say. If you will use your answer to this question as the basis for an empathetic statement or question, then you will not make the mistake of offering criticism, judgment, or advice.  

Here are some additional keys for improving your empathy with others:

Focus your attention on others. Pay attention to the feelings, actions, and words of others. You have to be able to see what is going on in order to make an empathetic statement.

Get out of your head. If you are preoccupied with what is going on with yourself, you will never be able to be present with another person. Answering the question above is designed to move you out of your head and into the realm of the feelings and thinking of the other person.

Suspend your negative judgments of others. We are less likely to be empathetic if we are judging others or their behavior. You must suspend your judgments and criticisms of another and their behavior if you are going to understand what is really going on with them.

Practice deliberately. Be present with the other person for the sole purpose of listening and empathizing with what they are sharing. Don’t worry if you don’t reflect their feelings and what is behind them accurately. They will usually correct you if you are inaccurate in your attempt, but they will greatly appreciate your efforts.

Overcome inequality. Research suggests that people who are of a higher socio-economic status have a harder time relating to others of lower status. At work, those who are higher in leadership or managerial responsibilities are often less connected to others. It is interesting that our power and position may impact our ability to recognize and understand the feelings of others. Taking the time to empathetically listen to others will help us stay connected to those who contribute so much to our personal and professional success.

Empathy is a skill that is easily improved if practiced. Our ability to demonstrate that we understand another’s feelings and thinking will increase our ability to gain information and to create those personal connections that are often missing in our conversations with others both at home and in the workplace.

Do you struggle with communicating effectively? Do you need to improve your emotional intelligence?

Join me for my complimentary webinar, “3 Must Know Principles for Increasing Your Emotional Intelligence.”

We will walk through practical ways to defuse defensiveness in others as well as yourself. You will learn the 5 values that create the majority of workplace challenges and disruptions.

Can You Help Others to Understand a Different Perspective? Seven Steps for Increasing Understanding

Can You Help Others to Understand a Different Perspective? Seven Steps for Increasing Understanding

Being in the business of leadership development, I frequently encounter individuals who believe that they know everything about a topic. This assumption of “I’m right, and you’re wrong,” has such a limiting effect on a person’s ability to learn or even consider other viewpoints that it is well worth our reflection. On some level we all fall prey to this assumption because we only know what we know. Consequently, any bit of information or idea that hasn’t crossed our mind before may be quickly rejected because it is outside the realm of our experience.

I had such an encounter years ago while teaching a critical thinking class. At some point during the class, I said, “You know that we really don’t know as much as we think we know.” I could tell that this statement created somewhat of a stir in the class. A few minutes later, my suspicions were confirmed when a student, named Jay, in an attempt to prove me wrong, responded with, “I know everything about something!”

“You do?” I answered.

 “I know everything about writing my name,” Jay answered.  

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Absolutely!” Jay said.

“Do you know how to write your name in Greek?” I queried.  

Jay thought for a minute and admitted, “No, I don’t.”

“Well, call me when you can.” I replied.

Another half hour went by and Jay raised his hand again.  “I’ve got it!” He said.

I asked, “Are you sure?”

With confidence, Jay replied, “Yes. I know everything about writing my name in English.”

“How many times did you write your name in English last year?” I asked.

With a frown, Jay responded, “I don’t know.” “Well, let me know when you do.” I said.

Yet another half hour went by. Being very determined, Jay raised his hand and offered, “I know everything about writing my name in English once.” “Are you sure?” I asked him.


“Do you know how much ink you use when you write your name in English once?” I offered.

Feeling a little deflated, Jay said, “I don’t know.” End of the challenge.

Notice that in order to be “right,” Jay literally narrowed the scope of what he said he knew, so he could claim to “know everything about something.” Being right feels like a wonderful place to be, even if you’re only right in your own mind! The challenge for all of us is to recognize that everyone has something to offer because their thinking, their life experience, and their view of the world is quite simply not our own.

Here are some steps you might take when interacting with those who need or want to be right and don’t seem to be open to any ideas outside their own.

1. Notice the direction of the conversation. We like to imagine that there is a line in every conversation that we hold. When people go below that line, they will usually engage in some form of fight or flight. This behavior results from their perception that they are about to lose something, so they naturally defend themselves to avoid losing what is most important to them. The challenge then is to lift the conversation above the line. You can easily do this by asking questions. This is an effective strategy because the person has to give up defending their viewpoint and stop and think to answer your questions. This suggestion requires that you be both an observer and a participant in any conversation.

2. Don’t run from “hot” emotion. When people perceive that they may lose the argument or what they want, they might become defensive or highly emotional. When this happens, don’t run from the encounter; rather ask yourself, “What is it that is so important to them?” In listening to them, if you can’t figure out the source of their defensiveness, ask them, “What is so important to you and why?” The only way you will come to mutual understanding is to engage with them and not be put off by their emotional reaction. You also don’t want to fight fire with fire. Remain calm, think, and try to understand their point of view.

3. Ask questions.Turn the spotlight on the person who seemingly has to be right. Ask them as many questions as necessary to thoroughly understand their point of view. Here are some questions you might consider:

“What experience leads you to that conclusion?”

“Can you give me an example?”

“Why is that so important to consider?”

“Help me understand how that applies in this situation.”

Ask these types of questions until you feel that you have completely understood their view. The power in asking questions and listening to the answers allows the person to express points of view that are important to them. Such behavior is very validating. When you listen to others’ answers, it essentially communicates, “I care enough about your thinking and experience to try and understand.” However, you must be sincere about hearing what they have to offer. If you patiently and honestly attempt to understand the person’s concerns, thoughts, and experience, you will eliminate their need to be right. Asking questions will give you the power of understanding.

4. Listen for values. “Hot” or negative emotion is usually a symbol of a violated value, whether that is real or their perception. It really doesn’t matter; it is real to them. You have to learn to listen beyond a person’s negativity for what is really important to them. You can do this by asking yourself these two questions: “What do they want?” and, “Why?” We call this, Asking for the Why behind the What. The What is their goal or objective, but the Why is the value of what is most important to them.  

5. Ask them to engage. Once you have listened to them, invite them to listen to you. You can do this by using a simple Attention Check. An Attention Check is a statement of intention followed by a question that solicits their engagement or participation in the conversation you want to hold. It might sound like this: “I really appreciate your point of view. I wonder if you would be willing to listen to my experience as we decide how we might best address this challenge. Can we do that?”

Notice that such an attention check affirmed their point of view and then asked them to consider your experience. Because you took the time to ask them questions and sincerely listen to their response, you have built sufficient respect that they will be more willing to hear your perspective.

6. Use data to make your point. The facts in any situation give rise to the conclusions or opinions that we develop. Being pervasive in the presentation of your opinion requires that you provide evidence that supports your point of view. When you provide evidence for your idea or proposal, you are establishing creditability, exerting appropriate influence, and using facts or data to bolster the strength of your ideas. Without supporting evidence, the act of sharing different ideas can turn into a war of words or a struggle of power that diminishes respect and weakens your relationship. Identify relevant data and use it to make your point.

7 Craft a solution. If possible, use the best of your ideas and theirs to create a solution to a problem that is mutually acceptable. This is not easy because it might require some compromise to achieve what everyone wants. However, being willing to create a solution that is mutually beneficial will go a long way to creating respect, building the relationship, and achieving superior results.

Once you have shared your views or experience, then summarize both viewpoints to demonstrate your understanding. Once this is done, you are ready to ask, “What shall we do?” Hopefully, your partner will now be willing to include and consider your point of view.

Learning to deal with those individuals who believe that they are always right is not easy. No matter how strongly a person believes that their perspective is the only perspective, there are usually other interpretations one can make and additional data that has not been explored or discovered. The challenge is for you to manage these types of conversations with the intent of creating a more effective solution. You can do this by giving other people space to think and learn. If you approach such situations from the perspective of learning and discovery, you can usually create a more viable solution than if you try to enforce your view on others.

Do you struggle with communicating effectively? Do you need to improve your emotional intelligence?

Join me for my complimentary webinar, “3 Must Know Principles for Increasing Your Emotional Intelligence.”

We will walk through practical ways to defuse defensiveness in others as well as yourself. You will learn the 5 values that create the majority of workplace challenges and disruptions.

Do You Follow the Facts? Three Tips for Strengthening Your Conversations

Do You Follow the Facts? Three Tips for Strengthening Your Conversations

Recently I was discussing with a friend the importance of facts or evidence in conversation. My friend told me the following story about a wayward son. It seems that his son was staying out all hours of the night and coming in early in the morning. The situation was creating some conflict with my friend’s other teenage children. Finally my friend confronted his son and told him that if he wanted to continue to live in the home that he needed to come in by 12:30 am on the weekends and by 11pm on the weekdays. His son agreed to these parameters.

That very night, my friend’s son did not come in at the appointed time, so the father waited for the son to return home. When the son came through the front door, his father greeted him by pointing at the face of his watch. The son returned his father’s gesture by holding both of his hands out, with his palms up. On his hands were what appeared to be oil, dirt, and some kind of black powder. Neither of them said a thing. My friend told me that he was so upset at his son’s failure to keep his commitment that he had decided not to say anything until the next morning. 

At breakfast my friend asked, “Son, what happened last night to our commitment?” The son replied, “Dad, I am sorry about that. I was on my way home, and I came across an elderly couple whose car had slid off of the road in the snow. When I pulled over to see if they were alright, I noticed that they had a flat tire. It took me quite a while to change the tire and get them out of the snow.”

My friend told me how glad he was that he had kept his mouth shut and not accused the son of poor judgment. He also shared how surprised he was that our thinking just seems to come out of nowhere and always assumes the worst in many situations.

Using data or facts in conversation is essential to helping your listener understand the logic of your thinking and in the creation of solutions to our problems. The facts determine the choices we make. However, there are a couple of things that you need to remember about sharing the facts.

First, the facts are verifiable information that is readily available to your scrutiny. That means that your thinking or the interpretations you make are not facts simply because you thought them. Your thinking is derived from your observation of the facts to which you assign some meaning. It was very easy for my friend to observe that his son didn’t come in at the agreed upon time. From that evidence, it was easy to create the interpretation that his son didn’t care about keeping his commitment. However, my friend’s interpretation was inaccurate.

Second, we must remember that sometimes we just don’t have all the facts; consequently, our assumptions or interpretations may be incomplete or inaccurate. Nevertheless we often see our interpretations as the facts when there is really no supporting evidence other than we thought what we did.

Given that distinguishing between facts and interpretation is not always easy, here are three suggestions for using facts or data in conversation.

1. Discover the facts.  We need to be better at listening and identifying the facts. The facts may include the facts of a situation, for example, you can verify that you are reading in the seventh paragraph of this article.

Facts may also include the data and the consequences of the situation. Such a statement might sound like, “The report was three hours later than when we told the client they would have it.” The client’s response was, ”We wonder if we can trust you going forward.” It is factual that the report was late, and the tardiness was negatively mentioned by the client which was the consequence of being late.

Additionally, there are the facts of expectation versus actual occurrence. For example, the following statement demonstrates facts of what was agreed upon versus what actually happened: “The report was due by 3:00 pm, but it was not delivered to the client until 9:00 am the next morning.” This is how we use the facts in conversation most frequently.

Then in conversation, you begin with the facts, and then follow with your interpretation. In the example above, the speaker could have shared the following interpretation: “I’m thinking that you might not have been aware how important it was to keep our commitment to this client.” Following this sequence allows your listener to see the logic of your thinking. Remember to begin with facts, and then follow with your interpretation of those facts.  

2. Decipher the facts. Sometimes people will offer their opinion as if it were a fact. You need to be more discriminating about what fact is and what is opinion or interpretation. This is not easy if you are not used to making the distinction.

Often the news in the media we hear or read is not really supported by any substantial evidence other than it may be the opinion of persons of reputation who are offering their opinion as a fact. That still does not make the opinion a fact.

Likewise sometimes people will offer a partial fact, a fact accompanied with a falsehood, or a fabrication that is represented as a fact. Making the distinction between what is fact and what is not, may require some additional research or scrutiny on your part. Because we don’t often have the time or make the time, the quest to identify the facts may not occur. So we either end up accepting judgment or opinion of others as fact simply because we don’t have the time to do the research, or it may just be easier to accept something that coincides with your own view. Taking the time to more carefully examine what is purportedly the facts will help you to become a more careful thinker and will allow you to scrutinize the thinking of others as well as prepare to hold a difficult conversation.  

3. Defend the facts. If you are looking for the facts you want to search for all of the data. To this point, you ought to gather and marshal all of the details that support the other person’s point of view. This results in an increased objectivity on your part because it forces you to think from another’s perspective. As painful as this might be, it will greatly increase your perspective.    

Additionally, you may find it helpful to engage in an in-depth, fact-finding process before exploring a pressing problem for which you are trying to create a solution. People may have a collection of differing or incomplete data which leads them to different conclusions.  Discovering what each person believes to be the facts may be helpful in understanding their interpretation of a particular challenge. The more you attempt to understand everyone’s perspective, the easier a solution may be created. Once the facts can be agreed upon, the challenge begins when people make different interpretations from the same set of facts. Being willing to defend a comprehensive view of the facts is a great start for understanding any situation.  

Taking the time to discover all the facts and decipher what is really fact and what is interpretation will help to establish a foundation for holding any difficult conversation. Also looking for all of the facts, even those that don’t support your view or opinion will help you to understand the perspective of others. Creating shared meaning about data and interpretation and your different views is the first step for talking about difficult issues and for creating solutions that are mutually agreeable.

Do you struggle with communicating effectively? Do you need to improve your emotional intelligence?

Join me for my complimentary webinar, “3 Must Know Principles for Increasing Your Emotional Intelligence.”

We will walk through practical ways to defuse defensiveness in others as well as yourself. You will learn the 5 values that create the majority of workplace challenges and disruptions.

Leaders, How Do You Begin Your Conversations? Nine Phrases NOT to Use

Leaders, How Do You Begin Your Conversations? Nine Phrases NOT to Use

I really believe that what begins well ends well. It is important to begin a conversation in such a way that allows the other person to hear and think about your message. Recently, I sat and observed a senior leader begin his conversation with two directors by stating, “As you are probably already thinking….” One director looked at the other and then at their leader and said courageously, “You know when you say that it scares me to death?” The other director chimed in by saying, “Yes, it just makes me hope that I am thinking the same as you, and if I’m not, I really wouldn’t be inclined to tell you.” Their candid feedback really helped this leader recognize how important it is to begin a conversation in a way that doesn’t make it difficult for the person to respond, disagree, or add their perspective

As a leader, it is important to think about what kind of information you want to give or receive from your listener. The way you begin a conversation, particularly a potentially difficult conversation, will have everything to do with how the other person responds. In an attempt to be a more collaborative leader, some will employ what they think is a softer approach which can end up feeling somewhat manipulative.

Here are a number of phrases or words that any leader would do best not to employ in beginning a conversation.

“I’m sure you’re already thinking about this.”

If someone hasn’t thought about this, do you really think they would candidly say, “Well actually, I haven’t thought about this?” If they did admit they haven’t thought about the topic, they might violate the expectations of the leader and make him or her question the intellectual capacity of their listener. No one will run that risk. They would probably choose to say nothing or just go along. Instead, if you really want to know what someone is thinking, all you need to do is ask them. If they feel safe, then they will give a candid response, allowing you to gain their perspective without tainting their response.

“Tell me if I am wrong…”

This statement creates the presumption that the leader is right and creates a difficult hurdle for the other person to overcome. Not many would dare to say, “Yes, I have to tell you that you are wrong.” That is not going to happen. When a leader begins this way, it is like saying, “I just want you to do this.” If you want to know what the other person thinks, make a statement of what you think and then ask them what they think. For example: “I think we need to spend more time addressing our clients’ needs. What do you think?” You could then follow up with the question, “How do you think we might best do that?”  Asking such questions allows the person to think and respond and provides you with insight into how they are thinking.

“I don’t mean to offend you…”

This is what people usually say before they offend someone. So this phrase is really a setup to offend the person. It is like you are giving yourself permission to be disrespectful. If you think that a person might be offended by something that you have to tell them, then you should really think about how you might deliver your message in a way that is respectful. If you are giving feedback, it is important that the person understands the information in order to make the appropriate changes in their behavior. Beginning a conversation in this manner offends them before you have even delivered the message.

“My understanding is…

This statement has the effect of saying, “Whatever your understanding is, you’re not understanding or I wouldn’t have to tell you what you should understand.” Ask the person what their understanding is first. Once you know what they understand and what they don’t, then you can offer them some additional data that you would like them to know and apply. You could use this statement once you have asked them questions and you want to clarify. However, I wouldn’t begin the conversation this way. Ask before tell.

“That is a creative idea, but…”

Anytime you use the word “but” in a sentence, it negates everything that went before it. If you heard the above statement, you would almost expect to hear something like, “That was a creative idea, but it’s the stupidest thing I have ever heard.” When people hear “but” they know that everything that follows is going to be a negative response. Rather than use “but”, you would be better off to use “and”, “and yet”, or “to build on that.” These phrases allow a person’s idea to stand and allows you to add another bit of data that needs to be considered.

“I need you to…” or “You need to…”

This comes across as a command or a demand which can be very demeaning. We don’t command people; we work with them. Rather than make such a statement, you would be better off to ask for their assistance, such as, “Would you have some time to help me right now?”  or “Could you help me with…?” Asking questions as a means of making a request is much more respectful to a person and communicates value for their contribution. Also, don’t be afraid to use the words “please” and “thank you.”

“I’m not the one that thinks this, but…”

If you are not the one that thinks something, then is it really your place to say it? This statement almost feels like the introduction of some sort of gossip or hearsay that could be questionable. Or it could be interpreted as coming from someone else that may be questionable. If you take such a tack, you really open the door for the person to discount what you have to say. If you have feedback to give, provide it and hold the conversation about what needs to change, don’t attempt you soften a message that you need to deliver in this way.

“Of course, as you know…”

This statement is a corollary to the first phrase above. If you are telling them something that they don’t know, they will not admit it. Then they will not ask you questions about what you are saying because they won’t want to admit what they don’t know. If that is the case, then you stymie their ability to make sure that they have clearly understood. Again, it would be better to ask them questions than to assume they know and then tell them what they don’t know.

“Are you open to some feedback?”

I remember when one of my first managers would say this. In my mind, I would say to myself, “No I am not open to your feedback!” When you begin with this question, the person hearing it would naturally assume the worst and then resist the message that you would like to give.

There is a much easier way to begin a conversation. I would suggest that you use an Attention Check to gain the attention of your listener. It might sound something like this, “I would like to talk about how we could do some fabulous work together. Can we talk for a minute?” An Attention Check is nothing more than making a statement of intention followed by asking for their permission to hold the conversation.Beginning a conversation by engaging your listener is a great way to initiate any conversation.

By avoiding the phrases discussed above, you can hold more effective conversations and ensure that your listener will be more engaged and open about the information that you seek.

Do you need help learning how to have difficult conversations? I would love to help you. Click here to book a free consult with me. 


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