Language is a key factor in both causing and resolving conflict. A useful phrase that helps resolve and reduce conflict is “Can you help me understand”.
Example: “Can you help me understand how you think that would help our reputation?”
It is all too easy to attack another person by asking why. When another person does something you do not like or don’t agree with, you might feel the urge to bombard them with questions like, “Why did you do that?” or “Why did you think this was okay?” or “Why should I trust you again?” This interrogative approach can make the other person feel like they are in the spotlight and on trial for behavior that they may or may not even know how to explain. When you use why it tends to put the other person on the defensive and shut down productive conversation instead of building better communication and a collaborative relationship.
We’ve found that a much more effective approach is to start with the question, can you help me understand, as in “Can you help me understand what motivated you to do that?” or “Can you help me understand what led to that decision?” Rather than demanding a response and setting up a one-way exchange, the way why questions often do, asking “Can you…?” invites the other person to say more and sets the stage for a more collaborative discussion. Professor Paul Argenti from Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business states that “authentic communication requires curiosity and empathy.” Even when you are frustrated by another person’s actions or can’t possibly understand why they are acting a certain way, it always benefits you to initiate a conversation with curiosity and a genuine openness to understanding. People want to feel heard and be understood and asking a question from a place that invites that understanding can make all the difference in whether you will have a quality conversation or just more defensiveness and frustration.
Notice how the question also encourages collaboration by defining a role for each of you. Their role is to help you, and your role is to listen for understanding. This makes it less of a one-way exchange, and instead demonstrates that you share responsibility in the discussion.
The phrase, “Can you help me understand,” also helps equalize the relationship. The other person did something that you do not like so they might enter the discussion feeling that their status has diminished. When you put them on the defensive with why questions, you reduce their status even further. However, when you invite the other person to do something that can help you understand, then you re-elevate their position by making them feel helpful and valued. From there, you can continue the conversation as equals, even if it is still a difficult discussion.
Words have power, so making small changes to the way you ask questions can radically transform your relationships.
One caveat to the question of “can you help me understand?”, especially when discussing diversity, difference, or identity, is to be thoughtful about what you are really asking from the other person. Be careful to not place the burden of explaining or educating you on someone else if you have not done any of the expected groundwork for that conversation first.
Director of Programs