March 9, 2015
You’re in the middle of a meeting, disagreeing over an essential strategy. People are sticking to their guns, and the temperature in the room is rising. Voices get raised, and things are starting to get personal. What do you do? Here’s the best antidote I give my clients: watch the tenses.
Are people talking in the past tense, dwelling on what happened before? That’s the tense of blame—of crime and punishment. (Rhetoricians, who study the art of persuasion, call past-tense argument “forensic rhetoric,” because it deals in forensics—whodunit.) People hearing an argument getting all forensic naturally tend to go into a defensive crouch, rhetorically speaking.
Or are they using the present tense? This kind of disagreement tends to focus on values: good and bad, who’s good and who’s bad, who’s a team player and who’s not. The present tense is great if you’re delivering a sermon, but it can be divisive in a meeting. I’ve even heard it lead to name-calling.
You rarely hear angry people use the future tense. Why? Because the future is the tense of choices, decisions. Choices, after all, affect the future. When a debate is over the probable outcome of a decision, the conversation can develop a momentum that leads to a useful end. Participating in decisions brings employees together and gives them a common cause.
You knew that. But the next time you find yourself in a confrontation, try switching to the future:
“Yes, it’s good to know the history. But let’s talk about how to solve the problem at hand.”
Or: “This isn’t the time or place to lay blame. How are we going to get these numbers up?”
Or: “You defined a good manager well. But we need a fix here.”
Readers of my book, Thank You for Arguing, tell me that switching to the future is the most effective tool out of the more than 100 persuasion techniques I offer. Try it and tell me what you think.