Conversation Killers: Statements That Shut Down Collaboration

By Rebekah Apple, MA, DHSc
August 1, 2017

It’s OK to have conflict during discussions, but it’s not all right to unnecessarily cause it by using language that provokes others.

To start, I will state the obvious: meetings with people from various departments can be frustrating. This is especially true when those around the table have little to do with each other during the regular course of their work days. There is a lack of awareness about what it might take for each person to complete his or her tasks, and it’s easy to feel unappreciated because your goals aren’t recognized. But there are common statements in such meetings that immediately shut others down. This is often the opposite of the speaker’s intention. Fortunately, there are alternative, better responses. 

First, what to avoid saying:

 “What you have to understand is  _______ I rarely see eyes glaze over with dismissal as much as when this phrase is uttered. Your listeners most certainly do not need to be told what they must understand. In fact, they might not need to understand what you’re about to tell them. If they are talking with you, it’s because of needs they already have, and they’re voicing it because they expect you can do something about it. It may be that what they need is completely unreasonable, unfair or out of your realm of ability. But when people hear these words, they immediately feel as though the speaker is condescending … and that’s because it’s true.

Here’s the problem with that.” While there is value in critically looking at things, if your first response to suggestions or plans is negative, the likelihood of anyone absorbing your viewpoint is diminished. There is also the risk of groupthink; everyone else can begin to search for reasons not to pursue the idea, rather than considering it and then making a decision. Particularly when stress levels are high and agendas might be competing, it can be very easy for conversations to devolve into a review of everything that has gone wrong in the past, or how it may go wrong in the future.

Alternatives:

“I’d like us to consider factors that are related, but might not be apparent.” This gives others the opportunity to learn without losing face, and gives you the chance to demonstrate what you know.

“I like the idea of trying something new/different/out of the ordinary. How can we also consider _______ while we do so?” Asking this question demonstrates your desire to be collaborative, not combative. It allows others to closely examine the effects of changes on all areas, without attacking whoever came up with a new idea.

It’s OK to have conflict during discussions, but it’s not all right to unnecessarily cause it by using language that provokes others. Most of us use these statements to be genuinely honest or because of past experience, without thinking how they actually sound – and feel – to those on the receiving end. To fuel cohesion rather than dissent, it’s important to choose starting sentences carefully and let others know you respect them.

Not only does this approach increase your value, but it also can make for much shorter meetings. And that is never a bad thing.

Topics: Management

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