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Conflicts are bound to arise in the workplace. There are times when you have to point out a mistake or ask a probing question that puts your colleague in an uncomfortable position. In moments like these, a simple miscommunication can turn into a mishegas.

When I find myself heading towards a potential conflict, I rely on one of my favorite phrases to disarm the situation:

Help Me Understand

With these three simple words I’m able to forge powerful problem-solving partnerships and talk about tough subjects in a respectful way.

Let’s break it down word-by-word so I can help you understand why this phrase is so effective.  

Help

Being critical or judgmental is a sure-fire way to start a conflict. That’s why it’s so important to lead with the word “Help”. It sets the right tone by conveying positive intent. When you ask for someone’s help, you empower them to contribute. It’s a rhetorical judo move that takes a potential conflict and flips it into a collaboration.

Me

People become defensive when they feel they’re being targeted—and who can blame them? Using the word “Me” shifts the focus of the conversation away from the other person. The phrase “Help me” takes the hot spotlight of blame off of your colleague and frames them only as the source of the potential solution, not the source of the issue.

Understand

You send a powerful signal when you tell someone that you want to “Understand” their point of view. It demonstrates that their thoughts matter and that you’re genuinely interested in what they have to say. People are more likely to work with you when they feel that you respect their opinions and value their input.

 

Examples

Now let’s look at a few examples of Help Me Understand in action, and compare the difference.

I don’t understand why you think we should pull our offer.”
Yikes! This sounds like an accusation. You’re implying that your colleague’s logic is flawed and they need to justify their position.

Vs.

Please help me understand why we should pull our offer”
Ahhh much better. This is clearly coming from an ally who wants clarification.


Please explain why this project wasn’t completed on time.”
This sounds like a command. You’ve given your colleague a task—one that needs to be done to your satisfaction.

Vs.

Please help me understand why this project wasn’t completed on time.”
Now this sounds like someone who respects their colleague and wants to solve the problem.


“Your email about compensation doesn’t make sense to me.”
You’ve just identified your colleague as the cause of the confusion. It feels like you’re playing a blame game, and it won’t be well received. 

Vs.

Please help me better understand your email about compensation.”
Now this sounds like someone who wants to collaborate and get a positive outcome.

 

When To Use

In my experience, Help Me Understand is the most effective when it’s used in these five situations:

  1. Clarify a generalization or vague comment
  2. Confirm the reasons behind a decision
  3. Confront someone on a mistake
  4. Request additional information
  5. Reset a heated conversation

And this is just the tip of the rhetorical iceberg.

There are a countless number of scenarios where Help Me Understand can be the starting point to a more productive and positive dialog—and not just at work.

Try using the phrase in everyday situations outside of the office: on the phone with your friends, at the family dinner table, and any time you talk to a teenager (kidding, not kidding). You’ll be amazed at the positive reaction you’ll get from this versatile and useful little phrase.