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.

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What people are saying

Lydia Sugarman | August 22, 2016 | REPLY
Wow, I thought I was exempt from these mistakes. Then, I read your article and found myself right therein the middle with "It's my understanding". This is a great lesson about using phrases so many of us think are correct, not just in the workplace but every place!
John Stoker | August 22, 2016 | REPLY
Lydia, Thanks for your response. Remember that the tone you use is very important in any of the phrasing that you use. You could use, "It is my understanding..." if you want to summarize what you have heard. You could also say, "Let me see if I have understood..." then summarize what you have understood. If you are sincere, your sincerity will carry the day! j
Darla Neargarth | August 22, 2016 | REPLY
And one of my all time favorites... "I'm sure you would agree..." thereby forcing the listener to openly disagree, if they even have the courage to do so after such an opening!
John Stoker | August 22, 2016 | REPLY
Darla, I am with you. I always hated that when one of my bosses would do that. The obstacle that the phrase created was usually too big to overcome. Who in their right mind is going to say to their boss, "Well I don't agree, and here's why." Then again being able to disagree may be a function of the type of relationship that one has with their boss.
R.C. Dirkes | November 9, 2016 | REPLY
John - In response to the phrase "I'm sure you would agree...," I've disagreed with a couple of bosses over the years. In one instance, the conversation led to my resignation. In another, it led to major policy changes more than once. And sometimes, it led to nothing -- because the boss just wasn't interested in what I had to say anyway. All these instances go to support your advice in the above article - ask questions to learn from your listeners before you start trying to influence them.
John Stoker | November 10, 2016 | REPLY
Thanks for commenting. It is interesting is it not, that people would use these phrases rather than asking you what you really think.
Kerry orr | August 22, 2016 | REPLY
You told us what not to start a conversation with. How about what phrases to start a conversation with? I play tennis and if you think about what not to do, you lose
John Stoker | August 24, 2016 | REPLY
Kerry, What I suggest for beginning a potentially difficult conversation is what we call an Attention Check. An Attention check begins with a statement of intention followed by a question asking the listener for permission to engage. It would sound like this, "I would like to talk about our working relationship. Could we do that?" Notice there are no offensive words in the statement and the statement is general. Then you ask them to engage with a question. If you become a member on our website and go to the conversational recipe section, there is a free lesson on Initiation of a conversation that you can watch for free. Hope that helps. j
David Emenheiser | August 22, 2016 | REPLY
This is a good list and one that many of my past "leaders" would do well to read. Being in a career that often involves extra degrees of technical expertise from others, I often would consult with them asking about how something needed to work by describing the situation and the needs, then reiterating their response with "If I understand you correctly, this ____ needs to happen for us to pull this off. Am I missing anything or am I way off base to start with?". Or I would start the conversation that way, letting them know how I thought I knew how it worked, yet seeking their expertise to confirm that I wasn't missing anything or I that I needed further information on specific parts of the technical plan that they would be responsible for. There are however when sometimes a direct command is necessary. Being in live TV production you just sometimes need to say to an engineer, "We're getting audio breakup from the announcers and I need you to get up to the press box and find out what's going on during the minute break we're going to in 30 seconds." The thank you might not have always been immediate, but at the end of the day there was always a "Thank you" for the entire crew for their and I would also thank the engineer in front of the other crew or the first time I saw him during a calm moment, like a dinner break, for the hustle to get the announcer audio working during the break. The thing is that they all knew that I trusted their knowledge of their jobs and I actually always want feedback from my team even if everything that is suggested wasn't implemented. It all boils down to respect and knowing that you've picked the right people for the right job with the right skill set.
John Stoker | August 24, 2016 | REPLY
David, I agree with your first point. There is nothing wrong with checking out your understanding, but what makes what you did so great is you end in a question. Ending in a question invites others to engage you, and it is a way of saying that their point of view is important to you. Which is great. The TV production environment is difficult because oftimes people become more direct with one another and can become abusive. If you have the right people that is a big plus. Also, if you always take the time to thank people for their contribution, that goes miles to tell people that you value them and do not take them for granted. I think you are handling things really well!! j
jt | August 22, 2016 | REPLY
Is the article's title missing a word? Read closely. "Leaders, How Do Begin Your Conversations?"
John Stoker | August 24, 2016 | REPLY
Great catch. Thanks for pointing that out. Fixed it.
Monica Driscoll-Newson | August 23, 2016 | REPLY
I read this and really liked it! I also found that there are several of the conversation starters that I already have used for a long time. Hopefully this will do me some good in the days to come. Best wishes to all ~
John Stoker | August 24, 2016 | REPLY
Monica, Thanks for responding Monica. Remember however you start a conversation, your tone of voice is critical to being heard. You can get away saying a lot of things if your tone and nonverbal behavior is positive. j
Caitlyn Strohmeyer | August 25, 2016 | REPLY
I'm curious what your thoughts are on "With all due respect..."?
John Stoker | August 25, 2016 | REPLY
Caitlyn, "With all due respect," is about the same as "I don't mean to offend you, but...." Notice when you use the phrase and ask yourself if you are respectful after you use the phrase or not. If not, then it really functions to signal that you are do or say something that isn't necessarily respectful. Why not say something like, "I understand your point, and yet I have a concern about.... What do you think about that?" That way you are acknowledging them and then adding your point. You need to watch how you use the phrase and then make the decision for yourself about how you are using it, and if it is working for you or not. Thanks for asking. j
Dwight L Stickler | August 29, 2016 | REPLY
Guilty as charged on most counts here. My takeaway is the Attention Check. All too often, I have just started going off and many times either led with or inserted most of these phrases during the course of the conversation. Thanks Mr. Stoker for sharing these ideas.
John Stoker | August 29, 2016 | REPLY
Dwight, Most of the time when we begin a difficult conversation, we lead with an interpretation, which creates defensiveness right out of the chute. Using an Attention Check allows you to set the conversation table and invite them to engage with you. This is much more effective when discussing tough topics. Thanks for commenting!! j
Cora Barrios | August 29, 2016 | REPLY
Cora Barrios - August 29, 2016 These are great reminders, not only for leaders, also applicable in both formal & informal conversations. Suggest professional and respectful exchange of ideas & thoughts. I agree with you about starting with a "situation" and then follow with a question. It works for me all the time. Thank you for sharing the information.
John Stoker | November 10, 2016 | REPLY
Thanks for responding. Sorry that I am so slow to respond. J
Nancy Herrmann-Hart | October 11, 2017 | REPLY
Its my understanding is a phrase that should not be on this list as many times it needs to be used to politely clarify what you have been told as attys I know change things and forget.