Magic words

How can I help you? No, how can **I** help you? Also, 7 other things worth your time.

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Magic words

Hey Murph! You practiced law for a few years. Is there anything that you learned as a lawyer that helps you now?

Well yes, actually. To be fair, I first had to unlearn some bad writing habits. But I did learn about magic words.

Let’s give an example. You know the saying that a good lawyer will never ask a question in court that he or she does not already know the answer to.

That’s pro-level lawyering. But, elite-level is when you not only know the right answer, but you also know the answer that the witness will give, whether it’s right, wrong or indifferent.

What’s the trick? You use magic words, and ask your question the right way.

  • Pro example: “Mr. Jones, isn’t it true that you went to the store on January 15?”

  • Elite example: “Mr. Jones, isn’t it true that in your deposition last March, you testified under oath that on January 15 you went to the store?”

See what I mean? Boxed in.

Nowadays, I’m not trying to box people into specific answers. But during interviews, I often want to guide them to talk about the things I’m most interested in.

So, I have some magic words and phrases. Things like:

  • What was the most interesting thing that happened?

  • OK. Stop and describe it like a movie. What would we see?

  • If you were to think about the 10 most important points (or lessons, or takeaways). What would one of them be?

And that brings me to the story of Myisha Thomas.

A graduate of Coastal Carolina University with a BFA in acting, Ms. Thomas pays the bills by working during Covid-19 as a customer service rep. But to help fulfill her artistic aspirations, she posts social media videos, including some in which she reenacts her best customer service calls.

Some of these have gone viral, by my standards anyway. One in particular on TiTok dragged me in and got me to watch all of her other videos as well. The one that caught my attention first involved her using a very simple, practiced phrase — actually, even more subtly, the practiced pronunciation of a simple phrase.

It goes like this (in case you’re part of the 50 percent or more who will not click and watch that video, no matter how much I advise you to do so). Ms. Thomas is talking with a customer who is upset that her package hasn’t arrived.

But, Ms. Thomas is also able to see on her end, that the product was sent out on time via the U.S. Postal Service. So, the delay is is the fault of the Post Office, not her company.

It goes on for a minute or two, but then Ms. Thomas interjects: “Is there anything else that I can help with?”

When the customer continues, she repeats her question, this time with redoubled emphasis on that one word — that first person singular pronoun:

“Is there anything else that ***I*** can help with?”

Seriously, I laughed when I saw the simple brilliance. By shifting the emphasis in the sentence to an unexpected word, Ms. Thomas changes her query from basically:

  • “Is there anything else on the planet that you’d like to complain about?” to:

  • “Out of all the people on Earth, is there anything else you can articulate that I, specifically, one person among 7+ billion humans, can help with?"

“It is intentional,” Ms. Thomas said when I talked with her recently. “If I’ve already advised that I’m not the one who can assist with that, there’s no point in going back and forth. I say, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ I’m still trying to be polite at the same time.”

Seriously, watch her other videos and you’ll see: She has a whole series of studied phrases to use with difficult people, being firm while still being polite.

“The thing that surprised me most was the response,” Ms. Thomas told me, especially from other people who apparently work in customer service. “I’ve got people saying they learned to deescalate calls, more than they knew before.”

My friends, sometimes I feel as if I have an entire sideline of suggesting specific phrases to memorize and use in different situations.

If you have been reading my work for a while, you will have seen me suggest putting post-it notes around your computer screen, or prefacing compliments with a specific phrase, or heck — even going around and beginning every interaction you have with people by uttering a silent, three-word affirmation: “I love you.”

But it took me years of working to see and articulate something Myisha saw pretty quickly during her job to pay the bills.

Choose your words carefully. Speak with intention. When called on to lead during conversations, pick up the gauntlet and do so.

Today is Monday, May 24, 2021. Is there anything else that I can help you with today?

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7 other things worth your time

  • The government of Belarus forced down a commercial Ryanair jet en route from Greece to Lithuania, “with activists saying it was done to arrest a dissident journalist on board. European nations reacted with outrage, accusing Belarus of ‘state terrorism.’” (BBC)

  • Today must be Belarus Day on Understandably: Meet the Belarussian currency trader, Pavel Boguslavovich, who is buying up huge swaths of the state of Vermont. (Daily Beast) 

  • Wait, I thought it was California? The U.S. Census Bureau says West Virginia is the single U.S. state hemorrhaging residents faster than any other. (Associated Press)

  • At age 50 — seriously guys, this isn’t THAT old! — Phil Mickelson broke a record Sunday as the oldest player ever to win a major championship. (AP Sports)

  • OK, maybe I am old, because I remember this 100 percent from 17 years ago: Cicadas are taking over the Washington DC area. (WJLA)

  • Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak is being sued for allegedly stealing a professor's business idea: Woz U, “an ambitious plan for a 21-century educational platform.” (Insider)

  • After all that talk about employers mandating vaccines, more and more are deciding they’re just not going to do it. (Washington Post via MSN)


Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Myisha Thomas. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here

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