That short sentence may one of the most important sentences in your employee relations vocabulary.

I recall a situation some years back when an employee was frustrated with several leadership practices and copied most of the leadership team in an email detailing a number of criticisms along with steps needed for improvement. I was among those who were copied and was somewhat alarmed that this person would be so bold in the manner with which the group was addressed. The person spoke of a sincere desire to be helpful, and probably really did want to help, but the words landed as harsh and disrespectful. Perhaps that sort of well-intentioned criticism has landed on you from time to time.

Then a thing happened that has made a lasting change in my perspective on situations like that. One of those criticized leaders went to the person and said, “Help me understand.” Rather than assuming he knew what was in that person’s heart, he invited the person to share the heart behind the email.

I don’t know if you are anything like me, but I tend to form opinions (dare I say, judgments?) quickly. I hear a thing, assess the situation, and formulate a response. There are some good things about quick thinking, decisiveness, and action plans. However, no matter how much I might want to attribute such things to experience and excellent leadership qualities, I have to admit that it is often just me thinking I’m the smartest person in the room and jumping to where I think the situation should go.

The problem with that kind of “leadership” is that it ignores the Scriptures, is self-centered, and is harmful to relationships. James 1 tells us to be quick to listen and slow to speak. Oh, that I would become more like that and less of the person in chapter 3, unable to tame my tongue.

“Help me understand” reminds me that I don’t know everything. It reminds me that the person I am speaking to has real feelings and needs. They may not always be expressed with humility or kindness, but God’s command to “be kind to one another, tender hearted” does not exclude times when someone is prickly toward me.

“Help me understand” tells the other person that I’ve not come to judge but to listen. It helps me think of others as more important than myself. It opens the door for a conversation. It does not guarantee that the conversation will be pleasant or bring the results I would like, but it sets a tone of humbleness and care, and it honors the Lord regardless of how the other person then responds.

“Help me understand” is a good prayer before a difficult conversation and a good way to start a difficult conversation.

The concerns expressed by the person at the beginning of this article proved to be too difficult to overcome and the person did eventually leave our office voluntarily. But someone who was one of the objects of that criticism taught me an important HR and life lesson by responding to the criticism with kindness rather than judgment. May that be my response as I face criticism and difficult conversations in the days ahead.