Discussion Toolkit

Saying the right thing at the right time can be difficult. Prepare yourself with a handful of phrases that will help you keep the conversation going in the right direction. In this week's column, Michele Sliger offers a few of her own phrases to help you build a discussion toolkit.

Many of us often find ourselves wishing we had some magic phrases that would make conversations more productive and less difficult. I'm sure we've all had our share of experiences where we've thought of the right thing to say several hours after the conversation or meeting ended. (That's frustrating!) Wouldn't it be great if we had a toolbox full of just the right phrases, the perfect questions, and the best ways to start, guide, or end discussions? We could just reach in and grab the most appropriate lines to help us in almost every situation. Below are a few lines you can use to help build your own basic discussion toolkit.

For Personal Conflicts

And how is that working out for you?

This is a great rejoinder to use when you first want to make sure there's a problem on the table and that the other person recognizes it. After the person offers a lengthy explanation of how things are done, asking how it's working for him will lead either to a quick end of the discussion ("Everything is working out fine, thank you very much"-"Well that's great, I guess I'll be going then.") or a genuine interest in doing something differently ("It's not working out as well as I'd hoped, to be honest"-"Okay, let's see if I can help.").

What did he say when you told him that?

This response to a complaint helps prevent team members from expecting you to be a go-between, and it can also help extricate you from having to listen to gossip. Usually folks are focused on handing the problem to you, and when you hand it right back it can take a minute for them to realize the ball is back in their court. This isn't to say that you should leave your associates to handle difficult conversations all by themselves if they aren't prepared to do so. Leaders do have a responsibility to help staff learn precisely how to sort these things out for themselves and how to find the right words and the right approach.

I've noticed that . . .

This is an objective and non-confrontational way to begin a discussion. State what you've noticed, and then listen. Whether you've noticed that an individual is really stepping outside her job description to help others on the team or that an individual has a problem getting to work on time, starting a conversation with a presentation of things that you've observed to be true opens the door for the other person. She can respond with delight that you've noticed her hard work-or gripe that she has to be all things to all people. She may have an explanation for her tardiness or a promise to do better.

What are you going to do next?

It's always good to leave a discussion with an understanding of how each person is going to take the information she's learned from the meeting room back to her desk and apply it in the business. Asking what the next steps are creates a future line of action items and milestones that can be followed so that the problem is tracked through to a resolution.

For Meetings

Would you summarize that into three or four bullet points for me?

Some people solve problems by talking about them out loud. Often team leaders find themselves being the sounding board for such monologues. Help your team members learn how to summarize issues by asking for verbal bullet points. This also keeps meetings moving. The question can be addressed to the whole team by saying, "Who can summarize what Pat has just shared?" Follow up with, "Would someone like to share a different viewpoint?" In this fashion, you can make sure that others have a say as well.

Is this discussion helping us achieve our purpose?

All good facilitators ask this question in meetings when the conversation around a topic seems to be spinning. Help your team members achieve some traction by reminding them of the goal of the meeting. If the consensus is that the conversation is directly related to achieving the purpose, then make sure it can be resolved by asking additional questions, such as: Can we solve this problem right now?; Is this the right group to make this decision?; How much more time do you want to spend discussing this topic?

What else?

This question keeps a brainstorming session going in a meeting and can also be asked to make sure that an individual has really gotten everything off his chest. When the brainstorming seems to be winding down-or your watch says you're running out of time-end this portion of the discussion by asking, "Anything else?" It's a subtle shift, but the effect is to shut down the discussion. It indicates that it's time to move on.


I appreciate . . .

Here's a phrase we don't use enough. Let people know when you are grateful for something they've said or done. Being recognized is a great reward, and training yourself to look for the positive things and not just the problems will make your management style well-rounded. If someone is appreciating you, don't forget to say, "Thank you."

That sounds hard.

Remember that you don't have to solve every problem brought to you. Sometimes people just need to talk and be heard. They need someone to bear witness to what they are going through. Dr. Alan Wolfelt calls this "companioning," which means you are there to listen with your heart and not analyze with your head. Also, reflective listening is always appropriate: "This is what I heard you say . . ."

Yes, and . . .

Use this phrase instead of "Yes, but . . ." It might be difficult to do at first and takes some practice, but this is a beneficial phrase for allowing a conversation to continue. By saying "Yes, but . . ." you are effectively telling the other person that you are discarding everything she just said and presenting your idea as the only real option. This can create frustration in the other person, who may feel like you've just dismissed her instead of acknowledging and exploring her idea. Responding with "Yes, and . . ." says, "I've heard you, and I'm willing to continue this discussion with you," without agreeing with her statement. For example, you can say "Yes, giving everyone Friday off would be nice, and I'd be concerned about how we'd meet our deadline if we did that." This gives the other person the opportunity to respond with an alternative; and the conversation continues. Of course, you could simply take the next option.


This is such a hard word to say for so many of us! Yet I've found this should often be at the top of one's discussion toolkit. William Ury, author of The Power of a Positive No, said in his book tour that Warren Buffet, investment manager and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, has said that he says no all day to the investment proposals that pile up on his desk. "I only have to say yes four or five times in my life to the right things, and I'm a billionaire!" The trick for the rest of us is to learn how to say no with respect and to provide alternatives-if appropriate-in order to keep the negotiation going. Try following your no with phrases such as "Instead . . ." or "However . . ."-for example, "No, I can't work late tonight. However, I would be able to put in extra time on this next week."

Now you have a few phrases and questions that you can stow in your own discussion toolkit! What else can you think of that might be helpful? Or maybe I should say, "Anything else?"

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