Living in the Washington, DC area, I am painfully aware of how inflamed our public discourse is today.  Just look at the rhetoric flying between the two parties in Congress over a potential government shutdown.  In business interactions it’s easy to see how simple matters often get blown out of proportion.  Language isn’t the only culprit but it can certainly play a role in whether the recipient of messages hears and understands what the sender intended.  Inflammatory language puts people on the defensive.

All too often we hear with our hearts, that is, our emotions, and are not able to fully process ideas with our minds.  Using words carefully can help to diffuse tense situations and calm people down so that they can get down to the business of working things out.   Here are some of my favorite neutralizing words and phrases:

Words That Neutralize

1) Perplexed. This is a great way to express disappointment or even anger in a non-threatening way.  Instead of saying, “I don’t understand how this could have gotten so out of control and what should we do,” you could say, “I’m perplexed at how we got to this point,” or “I’m perplexed that we aren’t able to come up with a solution to this problem.  What do you think is the next step?”

2)  WOW.  This short word can be very powerful in a non-threatening way.   The dictionary defines wow as  an exclamation of surprise, wonder or amazement.   It is not a judgmental word. So when someone tells you have made a mistake, instead of saying “No I didn’t,” you could say “Wow, that is surprising to me.  I thought I had done this correctly.”

3) Help Me Understand. These three words can go along way in allowing the other party to tell you what’s bothering them so you can move forward.  Instead of saying something like “How could you have so underestimated our budgeting needs,”  which will put the respondent on the defensive, try instead to say, “Help me understand how this budget discrepancy occurred…”

4)  How is it that? These three words are much less threatening than the more simple “why.”  “ How is it that you decided to move in that direction?” will be perceived as less hostile than  “Why did you do this?”

5) The Third Person. “It would seem to me that…” or  ”It looks like this report has some serious omissions.”   By using the third person, you can speak to the situation without assessing blame or judgment on the parties. You are taking personality out of the equation and focusing on the issue.

Next time you find yourself in a tough spot, try some of these words to see if it helps the conversation move forward rather than degenerate into a shouting match.  Do you have other words and phrases that can neutralize tough situations?