To Get Someone to Speak Candidly About Difficult Issues, Use These Two Language Patterns


Two Nurses Discussing Patient Notes At Nurses StationWant to get someone to open up and share honestly with you about what’s bothering them?

…rather than them become increasingly more detached and disengaged? (if they’re an employee)

…rather than them harboring hurt and resentment?

Would you like employees to talk openly about an issues between the two of you so you can talk about them, resolve them and move on?

Then get good at these two language patterns:

  1. Mention the Unmentionable
  2. The Multiple Choice Opener


I call Mention the Unmentionable and The Multiple Choice Opener my “worth their weight in gold” language patterns because of how helpful they’ve been over the years, especially in situations where I had more position power (e.g. supervisor or parent) or when the issue might be too uncomfortable for the other person to bring up without some indication on my part that it was OK to talk about.

In addition to what you can read below, you will also find a recording at the bottom of this page–made on my way to a conference–where I give examples of these language patterns with some commentary.

Two Language Patterns To Help You Surface Hidden Issues

Mention the Unmentionable—Brings up the “elephant in the living room” that the other person, because of the power differential, is unlikely to bring up, i.e. they are not going to “mention it”. When you put it out on the table, you communicate “It’s OK to talk about this.”


  1. “… and so I’m wondering if you feel like I was really off base in the way I dealt with that…”
  2. “… so are you feeling like what I’m asking for isn’t reasonable?”
  3. “Are you feeling like I was unfair in my evaluation?”
  4. “You’ve seemed upset to me since we had our performance review. Am I just imagining things or are you upset about it?”

Just because you ask them if this is what they’re thinking or feeling, doesn’t mean you agree with it or will change your earlier position, decision, or request. It DOES mean you are willing to talk about it and want to hear what the other person has to say, just like you would want someone with more power than you to treat you. Mentioning the  Unmentionable makes it more likely the person will honestly talk about what’s going on so you can work with it. “Work with it” can mean:

  1. Clarifying what you meant or why you did what you did.
  2. Discovering that your perspective was off base.
  3. Discovering their perspective is off base and you need to talk more about your perspective and how things are regarding the issue.
  4. Developing a new approach or plan.

The “Multiple Choice Approach” –The Multiple Choice Approach identifies two or more possible issues or perspectives that you think the other person might not feel comfortable bringing up, because of the power differential. It can be used on its own, or as a follow-up to Mentioning the Unmentionable.


  1. “Did you feel like I got your point of view or do you feel like I am not quite getting it?”
  1. “Brenda, I want to check in about how come that project didn’t get done on time… was it because it wasn’t clear what I wanted …or maybe I didn’t make it clear that it was a priority… or was it something else?”
  1. “Are you upset about our performance review because it’s just never fun to get a negative review, or is it because you disagree with how I rated you, or was it more about how it was delivered, or…was it something else?”
  1. Format = “Is it A, B, C or… something else?”

Just as with the Mention the Unmentionable, just because you bring up any of the possible issues or beliefs doesn’t mean you immediately agree with the other person if they say “Yeah…that’s how I feel.” It simply means that now you can talk about it, since it’s in the open. Because you can talk about it, you can work it through. If it remains underground, you cannot.


This is just a bit of what we will cover in the December 16th program in Westbrook, Maine Courageous Conversations and Constructive Feedback


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