A Little Phrase with a Big Impact


This is the time of year when stress is running high while patience is running low—especially at work. So here’s a simple tip to help you get what you need from your team, peers, or even your boss without adding fuel to the fire.

It’s basically the Occam’s Razor approach, named after the Franciscan friar William of Ockham, which says that the simplest solution is often the best one. Also called the Law of Parsimony, this principle suggests that we get unnecessary or overly complicated information out of the way. After all, who wants complex when simple will do the job?

Try using the phrase “help me understand” to open the door to dialogue and transparency. For example, if a team member can’t seem to fulfill requests on time, try this:

  • “Help me understand what the hold-up is so we can meet our deadline.”

Using the “help me understand” approach sends the signal that you’re willing to listen to the other person’s perspective without blame or judgement. You might find out that they are waiting for information from someone else or that they’re simply overloaded. Then you can address the root cause instead of just the symptom.

When dealing with peers or partners where you don’t have direct authority, “help me understand” can let them know that while you’re not making demands, you are requesting greater clarity or input from them.

  • “Help me understand where the handoff comes between my team and yours.”

You can also use this phrase when managing up—that is, dealing with anyone who is higher up the corporate ladder than you are. It’s a polite way of probing for more detail when you need it.

  • “Help me understand how I can make this project a home-run success.”

I’d love to hear the go-to phrases you use in your business!

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