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The Art of Starting Over

By Andrew Sobel

Has this ever happened to you? Youre talking to a client, or perhaps your boss, and you realize the conversation has gotten off on the wrong foot. You might have learned new and unexpected information from the other person that renders everything youve said irrelevant. You might have walked in with an assumption that was not true. You find youre not connecting, or you said the wrong thing, and tension and anger start to creep into the exchange. It doesnt matter what happened. What does matter is that a potentially productive business conversation has become awkward and stilted, or even worse, heated and combative.

You have three options for what to do next:

  1. Continue trying to make your point. The tension and awkwardness will likely escalate, and youll find that you and the other person are further apart.
  2. Bring the conversation to an abrupt end and leave. Both of you will be left with a bad taste in your mouth.
  3. Salvage the situation with the judicious use of seven magic words: Do you mind if we start over?

This is one of  many questions in the book, “Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others,” which explores dozens of questions that light fires under people, challenge their assumptions and help them see problems in productive new ways. There is a grand total of 337 power questions to help readers succeed at work and in life.

Back to starting over: “Power Questions” co-author, Jerold Panas, recalls the time he walked into the office of a wealthy benefactor named Allan to ask for a million-dollar donation to his alma maters college of engineering. Though he knew better, Panas failed to gain rapport and explore Allans true interests before jumping in with the big request. When he was severely rebuked for his presumptuousness, Panas realized he had made a serious error and dug himself into a deep hole. He got up and excused himself, left the room and 10 seconds later knocked on the door and asked the power question, “Do you mind if we start over?”

Allan smiled and invited Panas to sit down. They started over, and after approaching the revived conversation the right way, Panas discovered that Allan was interested in making a major gift, but to the universitys theater program, not the engineering program.

Try it yourself. The next time a conversation gets off on the wrong foot or veers off track, reset with this powerful question and try these tactics:

  • If youre in the wrong, apologize. Take responsibility for the conversations derailment. You might say something like, Ive gotten off on the wrong foot and Im really sorry. Do you mind if I begin again? I havent done this justice.”
  • If youre not in the wrong, and the conversation has simply strayed into unproductive territory, ask in a way that doesnt place blame. Try: Can we step back from this? What should we be talking about?” Even if the other party made the initial faux pas, its still OK to say youre sorry the conversation went awry. Youre not taking blame; youre just acknowledging regret that things took a bad turn and that the other person is upset.
  • Smile. It goes a long way toward smoothing any ruffled feathers. More than words alone, a genuine smile that reaches the eyes can evoke a powerful response. It shows that your intentions are pure, and when people realize that, the vast majority are willing to give you another chance.
  • When you start over, really start over. You dont have to actually leave the room and come back in, like Panas did, but draw a sharp line between the bad conversation and the new one. A good way to reset is to ask the other person a question and draw them back into the conversation as an active participant. It could be something as simple as, Can I ask how you’ve been thinking about this?” or Lets step back for a second. Can you share your view of the situation?” Of course, starting over isnt just for the workplace. It can work just as well to defuse a budding argument with your spouse, family member or friend.

Its a bold  move to restart a conversation from scratch; it feels awkward. Most of us are not accustomed to swallowing our pride, admitting in real time that we screwed up and asking if we can make it right. Next time a conversation goes wrong, try it. Not only will it salvage the moment, it will pave the way for a more authentic and productive relationship in the future.

Andrew Sobel is the most widely published author in the world on client loyalty and the capabilities required to build trusted business relationships. His first book, the bestselling “Clients for Life,” defined the  genre of business literature about client loyalty. His other books include “Making Rain” and the award-winning “All for One: 10 Strategies for Building Trusted Client Partnerships.” For 30 years, Andrew has worked as both a consultant to senior management and as an executive educator and coach. His clients have included Citigroup, Xerox, Ernst & Young, Booz Allen Hamilton and Towers Watson. Andrew is a graduate of Middlebury College and earned his MBA at Dartmouths Tuck School.


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