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What to Say to Get Your Way
The Magic Words That Guarantee Better, More Effective Communication
By John Boswell
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2010 John Boswell
All rights reserved.
You've Got the Power!
Recently, while on jury duty, I was sitting in the waiting room reading my New York Times when a very large — okay, fat — woman tried to squeeze by me. She was carrying a big, heavy bag and, as she stepped over me, she hit me in the head with it.
I was about to say something, but she sat down and glared at me as though that was exactly what she was hoping for. Discretion being the better part of federal courthouse valor, I decided to say nothing and went back to reading my paper.
A few minutes later she got up to go hand in her jury notice. As she headed back to her seat, I was ready for her; I had scooted my seat back about a foot. But as she passed by, she hit me in the head with her big, heavy bag again.
There was one empty seat between us where I'd been keeping my unread sections of the paper. But this time, as she glared at me, she also plopped her bag down right on top of my newspapers.
Now I felt I had to say something, but the words that came out of my mouth were so far out of left field it was as though they were coming out of some other person.
What I said was, "You're welcome to read my paper if you'd like."
For a moment a confused look crossed her face, as if she didn't know what to say next. Once she collected herself, however, and after a couple of false starts, she smiled and said, "Thank you. That's very nice." Then she picked up The Arts section and began to read.
What power! Just like that I had taken a potentially inflammatory situation and poured water on it, turning it to my advantage in the process. But what was even more significant, I believe, is what I didn't say, which could have been anything from "Excuse me, your bag is on my newspapers" to "Get your goddamn bag off my papers, bitch," which, given the venue, might have ended up getting us both thrown in jail.
Why "You're welcome to read my paper" came out of my mouth instead, I really don't know, although several years ago — in an effort to curb my it's-all-about-me approach to life — I came up with a number of rules for myself (such as saying hello and nodding to fellow passengers when they got on "my" elevator and slowed me down). In the same vein, I have two major rules for riding in a cab: Don't tell the cabdriver how to go and don't tell the cabdriver where to go (not as in a destination but as in "to hell"). Instead, upon exiting, I force myself to say something nice like, "Thanks for the ride" or "Have a good day."
The thing about these two rules is they have absolutely nothing to do with the cabdriver and everything to do with me. Opting for patience over my temper just makes me ... feel better. For a moment, and only very slightly, it brightens my day and gives me a sense of control, no matter how false or fleeting that control actually is.
Any way you slice it, words do matter, and the words you choose matter a lot. And words not only matter, words hurt. (The single greatest disinformation campaign of childhood is the "sticks and stones" rhyme.) They are like barbed arrows, which, once beneath the skin, not only begin to fester but are difficult to take out and often leave a lasting scar.
Once the wrong words come out of your mouth, not only can't you put them back in, they almost invariably provoke an even more hostile response. A war of words is like violating a nuclear nonproliferation pact: "If you bomb me, I'm going to bomb you back twice as hard."
Sometimes saying the right thing is just a matter of being nice. About ten years ago two women self-published a book called Random Acts of Kindness, which went on to become a bestseller. Around the same time, a novel by Katherine Ryan Hyde titled Pay It Forward also became a bestseller and was subsequently made into a movie. Together they formed what became known as the kindness movement, with its essential karmic message being: What goes around, comes around, but even if it doesn't — kindness is its own reward.
Since we all sort of know this anyway, then why is being nice, not saying the wrong thing, and saying the right thing in its place so hard? Because we are human. And because we are human we don't always think before we act. And because we are human we have feelings. And because we have feelings, our feelings can get hurt. And when our feelings get hurt (the whole fight-or-flight thing), we lash out.
The problem is compounded by the fact that lashing out can be very intoxicating: "Boy, I put him in his place," "That'll teach 'em," "Now she knows who's boss." But that kind of high is usually short-lived, followed by an emotional low or just plain feeling bad.
So how can we help ourselves say the right thing before the wrong thing comes out of our mouths? Well, one thing we can do is try to develop a more conscious awareness of how our words and actions affect others.
Good luck with that! Unfortunately most of us, including me, don't walk around with this kind of self-awareness even when we try. Worse, when this kind of awareness does occur to us, it's usually after the fact.
I believe, however, that by following a few simple guidelines and some specific examples, both of which this book offers, we can train ourselves to say the right thing most of the time.
We should also be well motivated. What this book is really about is getting ourselves heard by not arousing the listener's hostility while using different words to say basically the same thing. It is essentially about not being our own worst enemy, about getting out of our own way.
Another thing you might want to think about is memorizing some of the phrases in this book. That's not as daunting or as irritating as it may sound. There are only a finite number of phrases that get you the results you want. Simply flip through this book and see if anything strikes a chord. If so, then maybe this book could be helpful.
Back to my jury duty story. Did I really have any power over that woman? I think the answer is yes. By saying the right thing to control the situation, I controlled her, and by controlling her I controlled the outcome. In fact, we had a nice nodding relationship over the remainder of the two days. When they finally dismissed us at the end of the second day, our paths crossed once again and I had the opportunity to tell her what I was really thinking:
"Have a good day."CHAPTER 2
Six Degrees of Conversation
If the whole idea is to get yourself heard, then it's not just what you say, it's also how you say it. Your tone, your inflection, your body language — all adding up to the way you come across — can make all the difference in the world.
My most frequent conversational transgression is using a tone of voice that sounds like a combination of annoyance and contempt. I call this tone of voice "the implied idiot," meaning I don't have to actually say a parenthetical "you idiot" at the end of a statement for the listener to get my drift, as in, "Why would they possibly agree to that (you idiot)." It can be a conversation ender, but more often it just pumps up the volume.
In addition to the strategies and examples proposed in the following chapters, here are six suggestions for keeping your conversational "attitude" at a minimum and dramatically improving your chances of getting yourself heard.
1. Think ahead (before the words jump out of your mouth).
2. Listen more (thereby talking less).
3. Pay attention (actually hear what someone has to say).
4. Listen empathetically ("I'm hearing you").
5. Slow down (if you speak too fast).
6. Lower your voice (if you really want to be heard, whisper).
A Short Letter of Agreement
There are times when you would like the protection of a contract but the matter is too small (or not worth the expense to take to a lawyer). You must consider the old bromide "He who represents himself has a fool for a client," and since I'm not a lawyer myself I will not attest to the ironclad validity of what is written below. But if the point is to get something on paper, then I suggest the following format.
The purpose of this letter is to confirm the understanding that has been reached between [his name] and myself, [your name], with respect to __________________. Our understanding is set forth below.
1. [Name] agrees ...
2. [Name] agrees ...
[as many numbered paragraphs as you need]
Please sign and date both copies of this letter, which will then constitute a binding agreement between us. Please return one countersigned copy to me.
Sincerely, [your signature] __________________________________________ Date: ______________ [his name]CHAPTER 3
Use "I" (Put It on You)
It may seem odd to suggest starting a sentence with the vertical pronoun, otherwise known as "I," without having it sound egotistical. Indeed, it can be when attached to certain verbs, such as "I am" or "I did."
But when attached to certain other verbs, like "I feel" or "I think" (as opposed to "you are" or "you do"), it has the reverse effect by putting the burden of responsibility on you. Not only does it eliminate the aggressive accusatory tone, but no one can take offense with how you personally feel or how you personally think.
What follows are a few examples — both the wrong way and the right way — of taking it off them and putting it on you.
Applying for a Job/Cover Letter
Enough books have been written on how to write a résumé to fill an entire library. What is often underplayed, however, is the importance of the cover letter or cover e-mail. If the job has attracted a lot of résumés, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that 80 percent of the applicants will be eliminated just from the letter alone. In fact, the main purpose of a cover letter is to keep from eliminating yourself.
If there is one place where spelling/punctuation count it is the cover letter/résumé. One typo can be an excuse to throw out the whole package.
When it comes to what you should include in your letter, remember this: Whoever's reading your résumé probably has more in common with you than you think. Just like you, your boss-to-be hates when his or her time is wasted, loves to be flattered, and appreciates a warm, kind, and humble tone from a potential employee.
Understanding your potential employer's psyche is the first step toward your perfect cover letter. To show that you don't intend to waste anyone's time, keep your letter brief and prove you've carefully read the job posting. This means parroting back the job title and requirements in a creative and thoughtful way (so your new boss can be sure you're not a robot-drone).
Next, do your homework and use what you've learned to dish out a compliment. Does your potential company have a Web site or product? Find something specific about the company/product/mission statement that intrigues you and, in one sentence, convey your enthusiasm to your potential boss.
And finally, if the job calls for it, show some personality. A job opening in the FBI doesn't merit a joke-riddled cover letter, but a job in the arts may deserve a humorous line or a remarkable turn of phrase. Don't be afraid to make your résumé stand out if you're applying to a position where your personality will be one of the most important items on your skill-set list.
Most people agree that there are way too many e-mails out there. Respond only to e-mails that demand a response and consider everything else informational.
The biggest problem with e-mails is that they are too easy to send and, as an unintended result, often come across as harsh or curt. If you can afford the time, write the e-mail, then come back later and reread it, and only then hit Send. At the very least, review it carefully not just for mistakes but also for tone.
Always address an e-mail to the person by name and always close by including your own name.
Always include a subject. The subject line can be a chance to draw attention to an e-mail, particularly if it is lighthearted or humorous. If, for instance, you are asking someone out for lunch, the subject can be "Lunch" or something like "Big Opportunity."CHAPTER 4
Put It on "Them"
Not always, but on occasion, it's wise to make clear that you must defer a decision to a higher power (like your boss, not God). Say a lazy but dear friend is trying to get hired at your company and asked you to pass along his résumé. Now he wants to know why he hasn't gotten an interview. It's better to admit your place in these matters. "Unfortunately, I have no influence with HR" will save your friendship, whereas expressing your personal opinion ("Actually, Hal, you're too dumb and lazy for that job") is a relationship ender. Use this tactic only if it's true that another party — "them" — not you, is actually better suited to deal with the question or request.
Every once in a while you'll also come across the opportunity to place blame on nothing (or the unruly whims of Fate, if you prefer). When the rare chance comes up, think about using one of the following phrases.
"Please" is generally considered a polite way to ask for something. But it can also be used in a way to take the hard edge off of your response to someone who is provoking you.
For instance, if you say, "Don't order me around" or "Stop ordering me around" to someone, even if she in fact is ordering you around, it puts her on the defensive and she is likely to come back with a denial — "I'm not ordering you around" — which just invites a new argument ("Yes, you are." "No, I'm not.").
However, just by putting "please" in front of the same statement ("Please don't order me around"), even if you get the same response, the defensive posture has been exorcised ("I'm not ordering you around, but what I'm trying to say is ...").
Interestingly, it doesn't work the same way for the "magic words" "thank you." If, for instance, you say to someone, "Thank you for not smoking," you might get punched in the mouth. On the other hand, if you say, "Please don't smoke," she may still not like it, but you are probably going to get compliance.CHAPTER 5
Can/Could & May/Might
Remember the old sales technique: make them think it was their idea. Well, changing a demand or accusation to a "can/could" or "may/might" question is kind of like that: It offers a choice to the person you're conversing with, while gracefully imposing your preference on him.
By adding "can/could/may/might" to a sentence, you appear less forceful and more open to a conversation. This technique also ensures that you don't put the person you're conversing with on the defensive, which will make you more likely to get what you want in the end.
Giving advice is tricky. Even if someone is asking for your advice, it doesn't necessarily mean he wants it. Oftentimes, he is just looking for support or for you to confirm or at least acknowledge a course of action on which he has already decided.
As a general rule, don't give advice unless it is asked for, but if you do, first acknowledge in some way that it is unsolicited, such as, "Not that you've asked for my advice, but ..."
Don't generalize. Try to keep it to the topic at hand and on solving the problem, and above all else don't use your advice as an opportunity for commenting about the person who has solicited it.
Start out with something like, "I'm not one to give advice but ..." or "What you might want to consider is ..." Focus only on the solution. If, for instance, the issue is punctuality, you could say, "You might want to consider setting your watch a few minutes fast, or making it a point, rather than arriving on time, to get there five minutes early."
Accepting a Job
The key to accepting a job, whether over the phone, in writing, or in person, is to keep it direct, short, and sweet. Words like "delighted," "pleased," even "thrilled" are good, but avoid any phrase, such as "You won't regret it," that would give someone any reason for pause. It should go something like this: "Thanks very much for offering me a position as _________. I'm delighted and I accept. The terms we discussed are fine and I look forward to starting at your earliest convenience. I'm excited to be part of ..."
If there are conditional or extenuating circumstances, state them as directly and as succinctly as possible:
"As you know, the salary you have offered is less than what I need in order to make ends meet. Are you at all open to further discussion?"
"I feel it is appropriate to give my current employer a minimum of two weeks' notice and I will be able to start immediately after that."CHAPTER 6
Essentially, this entire book is about avoiding confrontation. However, during tense moments we often reach for provocative clichés that escalate a heated conversation to a full-fledged argument. The following pages contain some phrases that are tempting to use (because they do it in the movies) but aren't actually as effective as their less glamorous, less dramatic alternatives.
Excerpted from What to Say to Get Your Way by John Boswell. Copyright © 2010 John Boswell. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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