This is the second in a series of five posts on short (seven words or less) powerful phrases. Each phrase distills the essence of a key part of approaching trust-based relationships in business.
Why focus on short phrases like this? Because the concise expression of several emotionally powerful concepts packs a punch. Such phrases feel profound. They catch the listener’s attention. They force the listener to reflect. They are short enough to remember every word, and therefore to resonate in the mind of the listener.
Today’s Phrase: (Four words)
“At the risk of…”
What then follows is a short list of your fears about what will happen if you say what you are about to say. (And usually your fears are shared by the others in the conversation).
When to Use It
- A key technique for calling out the “elephant in the room,” the thing that everyone is thinking about but no one feels comfortable saying
- As a way of announcing an emotionally risky statement, thereby defusing the risk.
- “At the risk of revealing my complete ignorance about this organization – what does the acronym QRP stand for in this paper?”
- “At the risk of delving way too deep into personal relationship issues – it feels to me like there’s a bit of a breakdown in communications between you and Susan…”
- “At the risk of grossly misreading your reaction, Susan, you seemed a little startled by that last part of the conversation?”
Why It Works.
These four little words pack an emotional punch well beyond their weight. They work because of the relationship between Transparency, Vulnerability, and Risk-taking, and because of the power of Ironic Over-statement.
Transparency. The opposite of transparency is opacity. When interactions are opaque, there is room for all parties to imagine all manner of bad motives, monsters lurking under the bed. When someone chooses to be transparent – to reveal their true motives, to shine a light on the ‘monsters’ – we relax. We feel more intimacy with that person, and our mistrust fades away. By speaking of the ‘elephant in the room,’ we deprive the elephant of its emotional power over us.
Vulnerability. By choosing to be the first to challenge the ‘rule’ about not speaking of the elephant, you are overtly taking a risk – the risk that every fear you listed may in fact be true.
- But paradoxically, stating those very fears out loud in the form of a caveat (“at the risk of…”) robs them of their power – you have already acknowledged out loud the worst of your fears.
- Having done so, the worst that others can say is, “Well, yes, that does reveal ignorance / get too personal / misread me.” In which case you simply say, “OK, got it, won’t make that mistake again.” You have converted an elephant into a mere checked-as-completed task.
Risk-taking. All trust starts with someone taking the risk. If you always wait for the other person to take the first risk, you are passively defaulting your power (the analogue in sales is “aggressively waiting for the phone to ring”). These four words not only announce your intent to take the first risk, but mitigate the risk you are taking (see the bullet points in ‘vulnerability’ comments above).
Ironic Over-statement. Note the adjectives and adverbs in the examples above: complete ignorance, way too deep, grossly misreading. We all know the lesson of Watergate: the cover-up is always worse than the crime.
By ironically over-stating our fears, we are immunizing ourselves against the Watergate error. No one can mistake your intent for a flimsy excuse, a lame apology, or an almost-but-not-quite admission. It evokes a response of, “All right, OK, we got it, let’s move along” – which is precisely what you want.
Next Blogpost: Short Phrase #3 of 5: “Help me Understand…”
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