Direct Marketing Article
The Art of Starting Over: How Seven Simple Words
Can Save a Business Conversation Gone Wrong
By Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas
When that meeting or conversation gets off to a rocky start-whether tense
words are exchanged or you just don't seem to be connecting-it's time to
push the reset button. Andrew Sobel, author of Power Questions, reveals the
phrase that can turn it all around.
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 that 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 that 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 Saint Bernard rescue dog that brings a warming barrel
of brandy into the conversational arctic," says Sobel. "People are forgiving. They want things to go well, and this
question disarms them and eases the way to a new beginning."
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 that
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
• 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 that 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
okay to say you're sorry the conversation went awry," notes Sobel. "You're
not taking blame; you're just acknowledging regret that things took a bad
turn and that the other person is upset."
• Either way, smile. It goes a long way toward smoothing any ruffled
"More than words alone, a genuine smile that reaches the eyes can evoke a
powerful visceral response," says Sobel. "It shows that 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
"It's a bold, gutsy move to restart a conversation from scratch," says Sobel.
"Yes, it feels awkward. Most of us are not accustomed to swallowing our
pride, admitting in real time that 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."
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. He can be reached at
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. His firm has served over 2,500
client-institutions since its founding in 1968. Jerry's clients comprise
many of the foremost not-for-profit institutions in the world. They include
every major university, museum, and healthcare center in the United States.
Internationally, Jerry has advised organizations as diverse as the
University of Oxford, The American Hospital in Paris, and Nuestros Pequeños
Hermanos in Mexico, the largest orphanage in the world. He can be reached at