The art of starting over: How seven simple words can save a business conversation gone wrong

Has this ever happened to you? You’re talking to a client, or perhaps your boss, and you realize the conversation has gotten off on absolutely the wrong foot. You may have learned new and unexpected information from the other person that renders everything you’ve said irrelevant. You may have walked in with an assumption that was just not true. Or, you find you’re not connecting, and tension and anger start to creep into the exchange. It really doesn’t matter. What does matter is a potentially productive business conversation has become awkward and stilted – or even worse, superheated and combative.

What do you do next? According to Andrew Sobel you have three options:

1. Continue trying to make your point. The tension and awkwardness will likely escalate, and you’ll find you and the other person are farther and farther apart.
2. Bring the conversation to an abrupt end and exit stage left. Both of you will be left with a bad taste in your mouth.
3. Salvage the situation with the judicious use of seven magic words: Do you mind if we start over?

“This question is the St. Bernard rescue dog that brings a warming barrel of brandy into the conversational arctic,” says Sobel, author (along with coauthor, Jerold Panas) of Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business and Influence Others and three other books on long-term business relationships. “People are forgiving. They want things to go well, and this question disarms them and eases the way to a new beginning.”

This question is only one of many the authors include in their book, Power Questions. They explore dozens of questions that light fires under people, challenge their assumptions, help them see problems in productive new ways and inspire them to bare their souls (which, of course, strengthens the bonds in the relationship). And they wrap up the book with an exhaustive list of additional questions –bringing the grand total to 337 power questions to help readers succeed at work and in life.

Back to “starting over”: Sobel’s coauthor recalls the time he walked into the office of a wealthy benefactor named Allan to ask for a million-dollar donation to his alma mater’s College of Engineering. Though he knew better, Panas failed to gain rapport and explore Allan’s true interests before jumping in with the big request. When he was severely rebuked for his presumptuousness, Panas realized he had made a serious error and dug himself into a deep hole. He got up and excused himself, left the room and 10 seconds later knocked on the door and asked the power question, “Do you mind if we start over?”

Allan smiled and invited Panas to sit down. Start over they did, and after approaching the revived conversation the right way, Panas discovered Allan was interested in making a major gift – but to the University’s theater program, not its engineering program!

Try it yourself. The next time a conversation gets off on the wrong foot or veers off track, reset with this powerful question. Sobel offers the following pointers:

• If you’re in the wrong, apologize. Take responsibility for the conversation’s derailment. You might say something like “I’ve gotten off on the wrong foot and I’m really sorry. Do you mind if I begin again? I haven’t done this justice.” Or, “The reason I’d like to start over is I put my foot in my mouth. Can I give it a second try?”

• If you’re NOT in the wrong, and the conversation has simply strayed into unproductive territory, ask in a way that doesn’t place blame. Try: “Can we step back from this? What should we be talking about?”

“Actually, even if the other party made the initial faux pas, it’s still OK to say you’re sorry the conversation went awry,” Sobel notes. “You’re not taking blame; you’re just acknowledging regret things took a bad turn and the other person is upset.”

• Either way, smile. It goes a long way toward smoothing any ruffled feathers.

“More than words alone, a genuine smile that reaches the eyes can evoke a powerful visceral response,” Sobel said. “It shows your intentions are pure, and when people realize that, the vast majority are willing to give you another chance.”

• When you start over, really start over. You don’t have to actually leave the room and come back in, like Sobel’s coauthor did, but draw a sharp dividing line between the bad conversation and the new one. A good way to reset is to ask the other person a question and draw them back into the conversation as an active participant. It could be something as simple as “Can I ask – how have you been thinking about this?” or “Let’s step back for a second – can you share your view of the situation?”

Of course, starting over isn’t just for the workplace. It can work just as well to defuse a budding argument with your spouse or any family member or friend.

“It’s a bold, gutsy move to restart a conversation from scratch,” Sobel said. “Yes, it feels awkward. Most of us are not accustomed to swallowing our pride, admitting in real time we screwed up and asking if we can make it right. But the next time a conversation goes wrong, try it. Not only will it salvage the moment, it will pave the way for a more authentic and productive relationship in the future.”

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About the authors:
Andrew Sobel is the most widely published author in the world on client loyalty and the capabilities required to build trusted business relationships. His first book, the bestselling Clients for Life, defined an entire genre of business literature about client loyalty. His other books include Making Rain and the award-winning All for One: 10 Strategies for Building Trusted Client Partnerships. Sobel is an acclaimed keynote speaker who delivers idea-rich, high-energy speeches and seminars at major conferences and events. His topics include Developing Clients for Life; Creating a Rainmaking Organization; Collaborating to Grow Revenue; The Beatles Principles; and Power Questions That Win New Business. He can be reached at http://andrewsobel.com.

Jerry Panas is executive partner of Jerold Panas, Linzy & Partners, one of the world’s most highly regarded firms in the field of fundraising services and financial resource development. Panas is the author of 13 popular books, including the all-time bestsellers Asking and Mega Gifts. He is founder and chairman of the board of the Institute for Charitable Giving, one of the most significant providers of training in philanthropy. Because of the prominence of the firm and the impact of Panas’s writing, few have had a greater influence in the history of the profession. He is a favorite speaker at conferences and workshops across the nation and internationally. He can be reached at http://jeroldpanas.com.


Given four months to live, family to celebrate best friend’s cancer survival two years later

BLAINE, Minn. – For two-year-old Teagan Stepanek, this Saturday may not seem like an important day, but she’s been enjoying borrowed time with her furry friend Maddie since Maddie was originally given four months to live on Jan. 26, 2011.

On that cold day two years ago, Maddie, a then 4-year-old female golden retriever with stage IV lymphoma, was referred to BluePearl by Teagan’s grandfather, Eau Claire veterinarian, Jeff Stepanek.

Dr. Stepanek owns Ark Animal Hospital in Wisconsin and for cases needing specialty care like Maddie’s, he often refers to BluePearl Veterinary Partners. “BluePearl is kind of like our Mayo Clinic,” Dr. Stepanek said.

Maddie saw a BluePearl veterinary oncologist to begin treatment for lymphoma.

Lymphoma is the most common cancer diagnosed in dogs. The life expectancy can be less than one or two months for end-stage cancer like Maddie’s, but there are treatment options.

“Treating cancer in dogs and cats has become increasingly common with successful results because of advances in veterinary medicine,” said Dr. Brian Husbands, a board-certified specialist in oncology with BluePearl here. “We’re able to extend not only the pet’s life, but also enhance the pet’s quality of life.”

Before current treatment options were available, many pets with lymphoma suffered or were euthanized due to their condition.

Dr. Stepanek’s son, Mike Stepanek, got Maddie as a puppy six years ago, well before his daughter Teagan was born.

“Maddie is a remarkable dog and named after Madeline Island on Lake Superior. She basically goes everywhere with us. She loves going to both family cabins where she can run and swim. She enjoys bird hunting and she even goes sledding with Teagan,” said Mike. “She’s not just my daughter’s best friend; she’s our family’s best friend.”

“As soon as my wife Diana and I found out there was a treatment, there was no question that we would treat her,” Mike said. “And what Dr. Husbands has done is pretty phenomenal.”

According to Husbands, diagnosing this condition early by regularly visiting primary care veterinarians like Dr. Stepanek is imperative to giving pets the best chance of survival when they’re inflicted with cancer. However, in this case, it’s also a testament to Maddie’s personality and determination.

“If caught early enough, we can give pets the tools they need to get better. But at the end of the day, it’s also up to them on how they use those tools,” Husbands said. “Our pets age much faster than we do. That’s why it’s so important to visit your family veterinarian regularly and catch problems early.”

Fortunately for Mike, with his father being a veterinarian, Maddie sees her veterinarian often. When Maddie developed swollen lymph nodes and stopped eating, the Stepaneks knew there was cause for concern.

Husbands says those signs are very common but also recommends keeping an eye out for abnormal thirst, difficulty breathing, excessive urination and weight loss that are additional symptoms associated with lymphoma.

In Maddie’s case, she beat the odds, and according to Mike, every day is a blessing.

One day, Teagan will be old enough to understand she and Maddie have had a lot more time to spend together thanks to science and veterinarians like her grandfather and the specialists at BluePearl.

In addition to having board-certified oncologists at BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Blaine and Eden Prairie, the hospitals have board-certified specialists in critical care, dentistry, internal medicine, neurology, ophthalmology and surgery.