“You are an arrogant prick, and I can’t stand having to work with you!”
Not the best way to start an impromptu business meeting, but that’s what I got.
I was working for Dell as a sales rep—part of a three-person team chosen to manage a group of mid-sized business clients. The guy yelling, we’ll call him Jeb (not his real name), was on the same team, and we disagreed on how we should be dealing with a particular customer. Normally, a disagreement about something sales-related is an easy problem to solve, unless the two people absolutely can’t stand each other.
Such was my case with this particular co-worker.
As soon as the door to our small conference room closed, I was assaulted with a barrage of insults: my sales skills were terrible, my attitude was horrible, customers didn’t like me at all, and I was ruining everyone’s chances of hitting quota.
I knew these were mostly false charges. I had been a sales trainer for 7 years and ended the last quarter as the #1 rep in my division. I walked in every day with a smile and generally got along well with people. Some new customers didn’t care for me very much, but some of the customers who didn’t like the previous rep liked me much more; not everyone connects with their sales rep. We were exceeding our quota expectations and looked like we would hit it early.
In the split-second before I threw all of these brilliant facts in Jeb’s face, I made a fascinating, and long overdu, realization: pointing out how he was wrong about everything would simply lead us into another long and unfruitful argument, leaving us both angry and less productive. Instead, I found myself saying “You know, I’ve never really thought of it that way. Can you explain it to me a little more?”
It took every ounce of will power and happy thoughts I had to say these words without clenching my teeth. I smiled a genuine smile and listened politely.
The results amazed me.
Jeb started pointing out exactly what I had done wrong with all of my interactions, explaining in great detail my many poor decisions and statements. He gave sort of a musical quality to his speech, starting off high on tempo and excitement, fading down to low notes, then rising to new vocal heights as he really thought about what was pissing him off. Through it all, I looked him in the eye and didn’t say a word. After about three minutes, the speech changed. He started saying things like “I know you don’t mean anything by…” and “I think you’re a good salesman, but with some of these customers, you rub them wrong when you say…”
Eventually, I went from “arrogant prick” to “new guy on the team still learning where he fits in.” Granted, this wasn’t the best outcome I could have hoped for (Jeb deciding he was absolutely wrong and I had been right about everything) but it was a far cry better than what he and I usually left the conference room with. Since that fateful day, I’ve reused this exact sentence over and over, and the results are always the same: angry details followed by understanding, then a willingness to work together on the issue.
Why does this sentence work?
The answer is simple: you can’t argue with someone who doesn’t argue back.
The moment you ask someone to clarify, and then let them talk, you are actually taking away their ability to argue with you. The person can’t respond to “can you explain that a little more?” with “No!” without sounding and feeling like an idiot. Even if they do, they will probably be embarrassed enough to leave the room anyway (which I suppose is another way to end the argument.)
There is a second, more powerful reason this technique is so effective: our natural desire for attention. One of the biggest reasons arguments get so out of hand is because each person is trying to be heard OVER the other person. When we satisfy this desire, we tend to calm down. We have no need to raise our voice if the other person is being calm.
Lastly, and the best reason why this technique works so well, is that you will actually look stronger and smarter after using it. Weak and scared people always seek to defend themselves, while strong, confident people seek feedback and criticism in order to improve. Whether it’s just the two of you, or a group of people watching, you will look cool and collected—always a good choice.
A final note: this technique only works if you respectfully listen to the other person and DO NOT interrupt. Wait until they feel obligated to ask you for a response before speaking, and don’t sulk or get upset with the person talking; they are being honest with you and you should be grateful this conversation is happening in your presence instead of behind your back.
Jeb and I never became friends. He isn’t a bad guy, just someone with a very different view on a lot of things. We WERE able to work together until I left the company, and we closed some pretty nice deals together—sometimes acceptance is all we can achieve, and that’s okay.
Now, let me ask you a question: what’s a situation in which you feel this technique wouldn’t work? Please leave a comment below; I’d love to hear a little more about it.