axiomThe huge temptation for a leader when a subordinate makes a mistake is to launch into the “what were you thinking” spiel, especially when a core value of the organization is violated. But you and I both know that approach can be degrading to the direct report and potentially dishonoring to God.

A little tool I started using to control my passion when confronted with costly mistakes was to begin the conversation with the words, “Help me understand.”

I’d get wind of a student ministries volunteer loading up ten kids in the back of a pickup truck and joy riding around the church campus at high rates of speed “just for grins.” He would be invited to sit on the other side of my desk, and I would say, “Please help me understand what you had in mind here. Maybe you were just trying to transport the kids across campus—you weren’t aware of how fast you were going or someone else reached their foot over and pushed the accelerator to the floor, I don’t know. Why don’t you help me understand what really happened… .”

Or I’d learn that a young sound technician wanted to find out how far he could push one of our sound systems before the speakers blew up. He found out, to the tune of several thousand dollars. Hmmm … “Please help me understand!”

Obviously the main reason I use this tool is to avoid slipping into an accusatory role or inadvertently polarizing the conversation before I fully understand what actually transpired. Certain things don’t make sense to me and seem terribly unwise on the surface, but if the other person is given freedom to help me understand the situation, maybe I can see the situation from another angle. Seventy-five percent of the time, I still wind up pursuing the same course of action in response to the information I learn, but the spirit of the exchange is altogether different. Try these three simple words. You might end up using them as often as I do!

Hybels, B. (2008). Axiom: powerful leadership proverbs. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.