This post is part of our Weekly Tips series.

A colleague called to vent last week about her frustration with a client. Our discussion reminded me of a three-word phrase that I wish I remembered to use more often when I’m frustrated, annoyed, aggravated, etc.—in other words, when I’m triggered.

Side note: I like three-word phrases a lot because they’re easy to remember. And I like starter phrases because they help me get on the right track, even if I’m not sure what to do next.

The three-word starter phrase I suggested for my colleague is, “Help me understand …”

As in:

  • Help me understand your perspective on this.”
  • Help me understand why you did/chose xyz.”
  • Help me understand what’s behind that policy/procedure.”

I like this phrase a lot for three reasons:

  1. It reminds me to stay curious rather than get stuck in places like judgment, indignation, and self-righteousness. And while these are some of my favorite hang-outs when I’m not being my best self, they aren’t the most trustworthy or productive locales.
  2. It nudges me to get into dialogue with the person/people who are the source of my irritation, rather than stew in my own juices or gripe to third parties. (My own go-to habits in baser moments.)
  3. As my colleague aptly pointed out when I mentioned the phrase, “Help me understand …” is neither accusatory, nor blame-taking, so it helps us avoid those two common extremes.

Tone matters, of course. You could come across as more snarky than curious, especially if you aren’t actively managing your emotions. One best practice I’ve found is to (appropriately) express your own emotional reality first—as in, “I have to admit I’m frustrated. Help me understand …” This add-on will (1) help release at least a little of your tension and (2) build intimacy by virtue of your disclosure.

I really pissed someone off a few months ago, and I sure wish this person had found a way to use this phrase with me—for selfish reasons (it would have felt a lot better), and for the benefit of our relationship (I think our conversation would have been a lot more productive).

While I know I can’t change how anyone else shows up, I know I can improve the odds by giving exactly what I wish to receive. So I’m considering myself officially reminded on the “Help me understand …” front.

Perhaps this tip will help with your relationship karma, too.

Make It Real

This week, aim to use the phrase “Help me understand … “ at least three times—whether you’re triggered or not—as a way to get it into your lexicon.

Learn More


Discover more self-management best practices to use when you’re triggered, from our friends at Trusted Advisor Associates, or brush up on other helpful conversational phrases in Chapter 6 of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook.

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Andrea Howe

As the founder of The Get Real Project, I am the steward of our vision and our service offerings, as well as a workshop leader and keynote speaker. Above all else, I am an entrepreneur on a mission: to kick conventional business wisdom to the curb and transform how people work together as a result. I am also the co-author, with Charles H. Green, of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook (Wiley, 2012).