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'Can I challenge you on that?'

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By David RichmanNational Director, Eaton Vance Advisor Institute

Our phraseology can often make the difference between inspiring others to action or not. Now, you may be thinking, "Wait a minute, I thought subtext is usually conveyed by tone of voice, inflections and body language." You would be correct. Words also influence subtext. Many people would debate this notion.

In fact, at a recent dinner party, we had a spirited discussion following our friend sharing a story about a former counseling mentor who was fond of asking patients, "Can I challenge you on that?" after hearing what she thought was based on some erroneous assumptions or beliefs. This led us to discuss the connection between subtext and word choice.

A strict definition of subtext would suggest that subtext is the underlying message implicitly understood by the listener or reader. In other words, everything beyond the text. If you were responsible for creating that definition, then think what you would hear — no matter how calm the tone of voice, inflections and body language — if I were to ask, "Can I challenge you on that?"

The mere use of the word "challenge" creates confrontational subtext and is likely to cause you to become defensive. Consider alternative phraseology:

• "Do you mind if I ask you a question about that?"
• "Can you tell me more about that?"

Do you sense any confrontational subtext now? Likely not.

Your greatest opportunity is in finding a way to understand where the other person may be coming from. The magic happens when he/she feels that you are genuinely interested in his/her thoughts and deeply listening. If you are framing questions with confrontational subtext, you may never have the opportunity to open them up.

Bottom line: Test your word choices and phrases. Will they inspire others to act?