We live in a world of extremes.

It might seem that in such a polarized universe, the best way to get attention is to be outrageous. Shock, fear, and empty promises might capture eyeballs and eardrums. But is it effective for building strong teams for the long term? 

I don’t think so. 

As humans, we are wired to protect ourselves from harm, perceived or real. When leaders impose new directives without explanation or context, or when they criticize poor performance in harsh ways, they often fail to get the results they seek. 

It’s important to hold people to high standards and make sure they account for their activities and achievements—or lack of same. But it’s equally important to make sure they hear you and don’t shut down because they are afraid or angry.  

When tough decisions must be made, unpleasant news has to be delivered, or big changes are on the horizon, going neutral can be the best approach. Neutral is being present and attentive without judgment. Neutral allows time to react with intention. Neutral is actually positive.

So what does neutral communication look like?  Here are a few examples:

  • “In what ways might we…”  This is a phrase that invites the listener to be part of solutions. 
  • “How did you arrive at…” This is a phrase that probes in a less threatening way than “why did you or “why do you…” which can feel like an attack. 
  • “What caused you to…” Similar to “how did you arrive at,” this phrase seeks to explore the reason someone acted a certain way. 
  • “It seems that you…. Have I understood you correctly?” This phrase communicates a desire to connect, hear, and see the other person. By using the third person, the speaker is removing the me vs. you tension. And asking for confirmation from the listener levels the power dynamic. 
  • “Would you be open to…feedback? …hearing about our new direction?”  This is an invitation for conversation, rather than a statement about what the questioner wants.
  • “Help me understand…” I was reminded of this phrase by the wonderful [email protected]. Use this to seek information and communicate a desire to listen without judgment. 

What all these statements have in common is that they are respectful and nonjudgmental. Therefore, they lessen anxiety and tension and minimize conflict. 

Next time you need to have a tough conversation, think about going neutral. 

Do you have other examples of nonthreatening statements that are effective in connecting with and understanding others?