The response to an inane remark

Having been in consulting for over thirty years before I retired, clients would on occasion say things that were not the most vetted of ideas. Sometimes the ideas would be too costly, sometimes too administratively burdensome, sometimes too hard to communicate and sometimes the idea may be stretching or breaking the law.

I had a colleague who had a disarming way of digging deeper, putting the onus on himself. This would prevent the client from being too offended by questioning. They may not be right, but they are still the client. My colleague would say “Help me understand….” as he asked why the client thought this was a good idea.

I mention this today as people have been writing about how to push back on people who are parroting untruthful information or conspiracy stories. Depending on the audience, one action is to simply vote with your feet and walk away. Or some version of “I do not believe that to be true” might suffice. Yet, those do not qualify as good rebuttal.

If you choose to rebut, you must get into a dialogue. This is the reason for my recent post on the Chicago song of that name. You do not want a shouting match, if you want to get heard. So, take my friend’s suggestion as a lead in – “Help me understand.” This will allow further conversation to delve further without being too offensive. Remember, people just want to be heard. So, hear them out and maybe they will do the same. This is how Daryl Davis talked over 200 members of the KKK into quitting.

Our blogging friend Clay used as an example yesterday about the North Carolina man who went to jail for four years for believing the conspiracy story that Hillary Clinton was running a child pornography ring from a pizza parlor in Washington, DC and acting on it, by storming the place armed with a weapon. Clinton is not perfect and has been made out to be a bogeyman, but really, a child pornography ring?

If he told a friend this plan in advance, the friend might have said, “help me understand…” and saved this person from himself. After hearing the story, a few simple questions may have diffused the situation. The friend could have said something like “I don’t like her either, but c’mon, a child pornography ring? There is no way that can be true.”

I am not naive to think that this will solve our problems and it may be less effective with the most strident. Yet, if Davis can get KKK members to shed their robes, then it must have some validity. One thing is for certain, returning fire with fire by yelling and name calling, will not get you heard. Just watch any talk show with people of divergent opinions. Those folks are not listening to each other, because you cannot listen when shouting.

Let me leave one final thought. As a father of three adult children now, if you really want your children to listen to you, do one key thing. Lower your voice, even to a whisper. That will get their attention.


38 thoughts on “The response to an inane remark

  1. My father never yelled. In fact, the angrier he was, the quieter he got. He was always soft-spoken, always polite, he never ever swore. The ONE time I heard him say “damn” is when he was teaching me how to drive & I took out the mailbox backing out of the driveway (it was icy & our driveway was on a hill & I slid right into it. But I disobeyed him by using the brakes when he told me not to).

    He had some of the best punishments. He never raised a hand to me ever. But I had to do things like read Lincoln’s essays & then write about what I had read & what I had learned. To this day I revere Lincoln.

    I have been with men who yelled & screamed & carried on & I have never had much respect for that. Men who destroyed the house (mostly my stuff). They were petty tyrants, not to respected. My father, with his quiet strength was built of sterner stuff. Yeah, he could be cruel, I won’t deny that. But he could be the kindest man ever. & his punishments were a great education.

    He passed five years ago … I miss every day.

    • Thanks for sharing your relationship with your father. What a great story. I am glad you noted he was not perfect, which makes his way of handling issues even more wonderful. I love the Lincoln research. Thanks, Keith

  2. Note to Readers: On more than one occasion, I have had to caution clients on the potential violation of a fiduciary duty if they continued down a path. When apprised of the possible change, I might say “I would be remiss if I did not tell you that action might get you in trouble.” The key is to get their attention, but make sure they hear the message. Sometimes, my advice might get ignored, but I never was told they did not appreciate my making them aware of the risk.

  3. I was in market research about the same time. A branch of consulting. I have used the “help me understand” to some extent. Rephrasing what the client has said is useful too. Until a client from New York asked me “Are you putting words in my mouth?” 🙄😉

    • Equinoxio21, great comment. I worked on the client side for about four years. When an executive said of a consultant who used the same technique, “he is just telling us what we told him,” I responded, did you listen to your own advice, then? A good consultant knows those closer to the action often have the best ideas to fix things. It just takes teasing that out and vetting them. Keith

      • I’ve been on three sides of the fence: client, Ad agency, market research agency. Gives you perspctive. And your having been on the client side must have helped you a lot later.
        I like your response to your colleague… it goes together with one basic rule of communication: Tell them what you are going to tell them. Tell them. Then tell them what you told them… 😉
        What branch of consulting were you in?

      • Brian, you do have a holistic perspective. Being on the client side helped my later consulting immensely. I was in benefits, compensation and HR consulting. Keith

      • A good example: when I tested Ad agencies and presented to both the client and Agency, if the campaign was good, no problemo, everybody happy. If the campaign was bad… unlike my research colleagues who always delighted in killing a campaign I had to come with solutions: “The campaign has issues. WE can probaly fix it this way.”
        Your area is fascinating. I should have hired your services when I had my agency…
        Cheers, Keith.

      • Many thanks. It is always better to present a solution to a problem, than let it just die without a life vest. Cheers back. Keith

  4. In my attempts to tone down my anger, thus reduce my Blood Pressure levels; when confronted by something inane on Covid or the War in the Ukraine or why we should not give to a Charity I ask the person to supply me with ‘Verifiable Evidence’ to support their accusation. If it does come back that allows me to question the impartiality and accuracy of the source. If it comes in figures I fall back on my .H.M. Inspector of Taxes training with figures and projections of figures and start to pick holes in the figures.
    It’s not as subtle as ‘Explain to me…’ but if I used that I would only fall into sarcasm (flawed creature that I am)

    If it is solely opinions; there are always History or International Relations theory to rely on.

  5. Great post, Keith! This is why I keep saying you are my gold standard! Interestingly, I was just telling Roger about a professor I had at UVa who once told me that in an argument, it was better to whisper than to yell. When I asked him how that was so, he replied that ‘they’ have to shut up in order to hear what you’re saying … very much like your last paragraph! I’m re-blogging!

  6. Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:
    I have long said that Keith Wilson is my ‘gold standard’ for calmness and reason. In his post today, Keith proves my point … in spades! I try, but often fail, to live up to Keith’s example. Great post, Keith … thank you!

      • My pleasure, Keith! This one spoke volumes to me and I do try to think, when I’m ranting, “What would Keith do?” But, as Roger and I have both concluded, we try but … we are different, we both have tempers that sometimes override our good sense. Still, though, you are a good influence and sometimes reign us in!

      • Thanks Jill. You guys are too kind. I do have conversations with no one when I am out hiking, to vent some of the steam. Keith

  7. These few words can make a big difference. People who follow conspiracy theories are basically used to hit walls and therefore, build a wall themselves. So, when you see clearly that someone runs into the wild with their ideas or their conspiracy theories, these words can open a door. It gives the other one the feeling of being taken serious. Maybe it doesn’t solve our problems, as you said, but it can dissolve some.
    Btw. on Sunday, I saw that Mona Lisa’s smile was played on TV. It was too late to watch it but I was so excited since we just talked about the movie. We watched it yesterday. You were absolutely right, I loved it!

  8. Sometimes a question like, “Why do you feel this way?” can also lead to a resolution since it gives you an idea about what influenced the person to believe as they do … thereby providing you with the opportunity to “adjust” their thinking. 🙂

    Good post.

  9. As you know by now, I love to rant. But I also try to leave an open door in order to start a conversation. If all I get back is ranting, I shut the door. But I also jump on any opening I can find that kerps the door open. Being a social worker, which is a sort of consultant, we have our our tricks. But one of them is to NEVER tell a client what is wrong with them or their thinking, but to help lead them to disvover things for themselves, and show appreciation for their problem solving skills. They become much more invested when they think things out themselves.
    We obviously deal with different types of clients (and I never ranted at them, lol). The thing is, first you have to get their attention. We don’t use soft voices, we use straightforward voices. And we do ask questions, lots of quextions. We never respond to off the cuff answers, but we wait for the clients to think about the questions on their own time. They don’t always do that, but most do, because they want to prove to us they don’t need our help. A satisfied client is one who finds their own way to solve their own problems. It actually makes them stronger.
    As for ranting, the people I rant to are not clients. They are strangers driven by anger or other emotions. I give them the opportunity to vent their emotions. As long as I can keep the door open, we will come to a place where we can speak as acquaintances, if not friends. You may find it unorthodox, but it works for me.

  10. Great stuff, Keith! Succinct and to the point! I don’t talk to you often, but know I’m around through Jilly, my dear friend! Anyway, i really like this post! Carry on, amigo!

  11. I’m seriously going to work on this. “Help me understand.” I’ve been hearing that a lot lately. The former president of Boise State University hosts a radio program on which he interviews writers. He’s always saying, “Help us understand…” and I love that.

    PLUS, I was just having a conversation with co volunteer as we were driving home from a project. He’s very soft-spoken to start with. But he mentioned that when he gets mad, he gets REAL quiet. His voice drops to a whisper and people take his very quiet words very seriously. I need to work on this approach.

  12. Note to Readers: What disappoints me is when elected officials make inane remarks, sometimes without so knowing and sometimes with intent to deceive. That is highly unfortunate as the role carries more weight, than the incumbent is warranted. More people believe them than should. Politicians used to campaign off the rhetoric and govern off facts. In this 24×7 world, too many govern off rhetoric, which is a nice word for BS.

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