Has this ever happened to you, someone “pushes your button” (yes, we all have them) and you just react? You don’t think, don’t choose your words carefully, and sometimes don’t even hear all the other person says. You just instinctively go into defense mode by going on the offensive. And it becomes a heated argument.

My hand is up saying “yes”, as I’ve certainly done it many times, too many to count. If you don’t admit you’ve done it too, I probably question if you have a grasp of reality. Among your friends and family, everyone knows what the buttons are for each person, and trust me on this, they push them intentionally.

I’ve also witnessed similar actions play out in the workplace, and often the person who jumps into defensive mode is a leader. Guilty again. I’d like to help you learn from my mistakes so that you don’t need to repeat them.

First, you need to recognize that your button was pushed. Easier said than done for most of us because it’s instinctive, we do it unconsciously. If you’re a leader, it’s important that you know yourself and you maintain calmness in tough situations. If you feel your blood pressure starting to rise, take a deep breath and instead of going offensive in defending something, respond with questions. Yes, questions. Why? Because questions are the best way to engage in a conversation, not conflict.

Here are my three favorite questions for your leadership toolbox to use when needed.

What do you mean by that?

You will hear some outlandish statements, full of emotion and frustration. Someone might say something like, “We don’t care about people anymore at our company.” Instinctively you want to challenge the person, to tell them they are wrong and why they are wrong. But that won’t help. You need to find out what’s behind their statement. This question will get to the “why”, they said it. You might learn something you didn’t know. Or it might lead to a healthy conversation. No matter what, the temperature in the room will drop just by engaging with this question and not defending.

Can you give me an example?

This question can be used directly in response to a statement or as a follow up question, often to the question above. Either way, this question does two things, 1) lets the other person know that you want to know more because you asked, and 2) it forces them to provide specifics by giving an example. If they don’t have specifics, don’t gloat, find a way to engage further to understand their “button pushing” statement.

Why do you think I/we did that?

Most leaders can get better at explaining the “why” behind decisions and policy changes. We see the big picture, but often fail to explain it, assuming it’s obvious to all. This leads to those statements that will push your button because after all, you’ve spent time thinking it through. This wasn’t impulsive. This question helps you learn what they know or understand. It might provide you with an opportunity to share the options considered, and while they might not like it, they can better accept it.

Questions are gentler and will help you engage in conversation, which is much better than conflict.

A gentle answer turns away wrath, but harsh words cause quarrels. Proverbs 15:1 (TLB)

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