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These 3 words are powerful conversation starters

True understanding and the ability to solve problems come from asking a singular important question.

These 3 words are powerful conversation starters
[Photo: Amy Hirschi/Unsplash]

My five-year-old son schooled me in geometry this week.

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He kept telling me that a cylinder is a 3D rectangle, and I kept saying it wasn’t. He would say, “IT IS! MY TEACHER TOLD ME IT WAS!” And I would respond with something like, “I believe you, but it’s not. Maybe there was more context? Maybe you misheard her?”

After a few rounds of back-and-forth, he started crying and said, “I feel like you don’t want to be my mom anymore!”

I just about died.

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How did he hear “I don’t want to be your mom anymore” in an argument about cylinders?! It felt awful, but it was a good reminder that so often the words we say have no actual bearing on what the tone and subtext behind them convey.

When I was saying, “I believe you, but it’s not. Maybe there was more context? Maybe you misheard her?” what he heard was:

  • You’re wrong. I’m right, because I’m an adult and I know more.

  • I don’t actually believe you, but I think I’m saying the right thing to appease your feelings.

After stopping the conversation to tell him I loved him and am so happy to be his mom and nothing he could ever do or say would change that, I said, “Maybe I’m wrong.”

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He went and got a piece of paper (a rectangle) and curled it around to make a cylinder. “See, a rectangle becomes a 3D cylinder.”

I was speechless.

Luckily, my son felt safe enough to voice his feelings to me in the moment, but how often are we in this exact same situation with others where the communication disconnect isn’t so clear?

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My job is to help Zapier customers figure out why something they’ve built isn’t working. When their emails arrive in my inbox, they’re usually frustrated and annoyed at having to reach out. They’ve likely already tried troubleshooting the issue themselves, and contacting customer support is a last resort.

Zapier customers are really smart. They’re building complex workflows, and often working with apps that I may have never used before. While solving the customer’s issue is always the end goal, I know I’ll never get to a resolution if I don’t first seek understanding.

  • What is the customer trying to accomplish?

  • What assumptions does their end goal depend on?

  • What needs to happen in order for this to be successful?

  • Has this worked previously? What’s changed?

Gathering context and confirming my understanding with the customer is essential.

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After my son showed me what he meant, I apologized to him and told him I was wrong to discredit his assertion so quickly. I told him, “Everyone is wrong sometimes. Even your mom! I’m proud of you for persisting in what you knew to be true.” While a cylinder is not exactly a 3D rectangle, we now had a shared understanding.

I wonder if the emotional roller-coaster could have been avoided if I had taken the same strategy with him as I do with the customers I work with. Instead of telling him he was wrong and pushing my assumptions and experience on him, I simply could have become curious and said, “Tell me more.”


This article originally appeared in Zapier’s blog and is reprinted with permission.

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