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The one phrase that can transform your effectiveness at work

Two words, used alone or prefacing a question, can help you connect better with your coworkers and boss.

The one phrase that can transform your effectiveness at work
[Photo: Christina @ wocintechchat.com/Unsplash]

The “language police” have a point: words matters. There are plenty of verbal habits or throwaway phrases that can undermine our credibility and ability to communicate.

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Conversely, there are also words that throw open the doors to better communication. Few people know this better than Alexandra Carter, negotiation trainer for the United Nations and director of the Mediation Clinic at Columbia University Law School, and author of Ask for More: 10 Questions to Negotiate Anything. Carter started using the phrase “tell me” when she was trained as a mediator in the early 2000s, and she was astonished at the information it revealed.

A powerful phrase

Carter used the phrase in mediation and negotiation situations to find out the needs, wants, and views of the parties involved. When she said, “Tell me what you need,” or “Tell me more about the problem,” she got answers that were wholly from the person’s point of view and gave deeper insight into what they were thinking and what their priorities were, she says.

So, Carter began using the phrase in other areas of her life. She used it with her bosses and coworkers to learn more about their needs and views in the workplace. She says that when she asked her boss a “tell me” question about what she needed most of from the people working for her, her boss opened up in surprising ways. “She would say things to me like, ‘I work earlier than other people because I like to get home to my kids, and so it’s really important to me that my associates are in the office early.’ Bingo. I was then in the office early every day,” Carter recalls. She learned more about the targets that were important and how her supervisor valued a particular writing style.

“Once I started doing it, it was magic. I couldn’t believe how much more I was getting done at the office, how much better I was doing in terms of negotiating for myself, and then also how much closer I felt to the people around me in my home,” she says.

Why “tell me” is so powerful

Carter likens the phrase to casting a giant net into the water to see how many fish you can catch. There are several reasons why it’s so effective. It gives you the other person’s view. When you say “tell me” either in an open-ended or directed way, such as “tell me what you think the problem is,” the other person is free to share their most pressing views without being influenced by a leading question. You learn the other person’s definition of a situation or problem, Carter says. And, sometimes, that’s not what you think it is.

Carter’s book published during the pandemic, when there were restrictions on gatherings, so her book-related speaking events and speaking engagements were canceled. While she might have asked them if they wanted a webinar instead, she knew from experience that yes-or-no questions often get “nos.” Instead, she asked a variety of “tell me” questions about how the organizations were planning on supporting employees and equipping them to deal with the crisis.

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“When I did that, almost every single client that had canceled an in-person event opened up and said, ‘Gosh, we aren’t doing anything for our folks right now. What can you offer?’ And so I ended up doing a ton of virtual negotiation programs that really helped people,” she says. “They were a mutual win for everybody involved.”

“‘Tell me’ is more than just a prompt. It almost compels the other person to open up to you. It’s the broadest possible question to give you the most information,” she says. And that gives you the best possible insight into the challenges you’re facing.

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About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books

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