It was a school zone. Someone was driving recklessly. I’m not sure how it happened, but soon two cars had their windows rolled down. One man yelled, “It’s a school zone!” The other replied sarcastically, “Was the light on?” The other promptly informed him, “Yes, and there is a cop back there, you moron.” That did it! The reckless man spewed profanity and told the first guy to mind his own business as he drove off. Why do I tell this story? When we want someone to change their behavior, we have to leave them a way out.
People don’t like to be wrong. Even if you are the type of person who can own up to mistakes, it’s tough when someone is coming at you in such an accusatorial tone. When faced with, “How could you make such a poor decision?” or “You really screwed that one up,” we tend to become defensive. The accuser may be right, but you don’t even take the time to think through whether they are right because you are feeling attacked. Immediately chemicals run to your brain and urge you into fight-or-flight mode. If you need to correct a behavior, the way you approach someone will make all the difference in the world.
Choices. In escalated situations it is best to use choices. This technique works well when dealing with belligerent customers (or even employees) or if you are in a situation where you feel that if it gets further out of hand, people’s safety could be at risk. When you tell someone what to do, such as, “Slow down, it’s a school zone” or “Stop yelling at me,” a rebellious spirit kicks in, and most likely they will not comply. They don’t want to look like they’ve lost control of the situation. Instead, you can use choices: “Sir, I can help you with this return if you stop yelling, or I can ask you to leave” or “I’d love to help you, but if you keep using profanity, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” We even used this technique in loss prevention: “We can do this the easy way and walk back to the office, or we can do this the hard way where I call the cops.” When you offer choices, they are in control. They get to choose between the options and control the outcome.
Questions. Helping people to arrive at the outcome of the situation without telling them where you want them to end up allows them to save face. For instance, if someone is making a decision on a project that is going to put multiple projects at risk, you can say, “I can see where you are coming from. Can we play this out further? What will happen to the other projects if this project falls behind schedule?” Rather than saying their idea is ridiculous, you are letting them poke holes in their own idea. A warning, though: use this technique sparingly, and carefully craft your questions, otherwise the person you are talking to may feel like you are patronizing them.
Take the Blame. Okay. So I wasn’t sure how to label this one, but it essentially goes like this: in the above scenario the first guy could have said, “Hey, I’m sorry that I’m frustrating you with my slow speed, but it’s a school zone, and I don’t want to get pulled over by the cop.” The second guy would have quickly changed his tune because he wasn’t feeling attacked. In this technique, you put this situation back on yourself. You apologize and talk about your feelings. Don’t think this works professionally? Perhaps you have someone who inaccurately filled out a spreadsheet you were supposed to use to build a project schedule: “I apologize that my project schedule was inaccurate. I was having trouble understanding the estimates. It must be me, but can you help me understand what these numbers mean?” They may never admit to you they screwed up, but most likely they will fix it.
People avoid trying to feel like a failure or an idiot, and they don’t like to be made a fool! If you are dealing with someone who needs a course correction, remember to let them save face. Be polite, and don’t accuse. Your goal is to resolve the situation, and the best way to do that is to approach it together.
Jana Axline is president and leadership coach at Axline Solutions. Through her leadership musings she hopes to inspire audiences to grow as leaders and ultimately achieve who they were created to be. For more information visit Axline Solutions.