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Conversation Starters

At a Loss for Words? A Handy Phrase Book for Law Firm Management

By Joan Feldman

Some people always know exactly what to say. When words fail the rest of us, these people deliver the smooth segue, the clever comeback, the perfect parting shot. How do they do it so effortlessly? Maybe they’ve taken a page from Patrick Alain. In “The Manager’s Phrase Book,” Alain has collected thousands of ready-to-use conversation starters, questions, admonitions, motivators—and some put-downs—aimed at helping you communicate more confidently.

You might scoff at the idea of using canned phrases, but who couldn’t use a little communications coaching when searching for the right thing to say—especially when it’s a personal issue, or you have to deal with someone’s bad behavior? And Alain isn’t suggesting you use the phrases verbatim, necessarily (though you’ve surely heard them). Some are cheesy and ridiculous. Some are hilarious. You’ll catch yourself thinking, “I would never say that, but I might say this….” And that’s the point. Alain advises practicing your own go-to phrases until it feels natural, so you can take command instead of constantly stumbling over your words.

Talking Points and Conversation Starters: A Few Practice Phrases

Alain is the developer of games like “Grand Theft Auto” and “Red Dead Redemption,” so it’s no surprise there’s a bit of a gaming influence in his books. Sample phrase lists for various scenarios are accompanied by a “continuum indicator”—phrases toward the top start with a conciliatory tone, while closer to the bottom they become more argumentative and direct. So, depending on your skill level, or confidence, you can start out slow and ratchet up the level of confrontation or snark as needed. Try it out: Here are five scenarios from the book.

1. How to open a difficult conversation. The continuum: From the conciliatory “I’m glad we can talk to each other so openly. By the way, do you have a moment? There are a few things I need to get off my chest,” to the blunt “I am going to talk, and you are going to listen.”

2. When someone fails to meet deadlines. The continuum: From the conciliatory “Have I put too much on your plate? Please tell me how I can help fix this,” to “talent without time management is useless,” to the harsh “Will you even fail to show up on time for your exit interview?”

3. When hygiene is an issue. The continuum: From the subtle “I read this great article on the best new men’s grooming products—care to read it?” to “I encourage you to reread the dress code policy,” to “Look, you stink, okay? Please take the time to shower every morning!”

4. When assigning and delegating tasks. The continuum: From the laissez-faire “When you’ve figured out what you need to do, let me know,” to the directive “Here is the breakdown of assignments and who does what. Let me know if anything needs to be changed.” And from the non-directive “You like this kind of stuff, right? Would you like to give it a try,” and “I’d like you to step up and assume more responsibility in this area,” to the directive, “Your assignments are fixed and non-negotiable. If you have issues, take them up with HR.”

5. How to flatter a superior. The continuum: From the subtle “I want to learn everything I can from you,” and “Have you ever written a book? You should!” to the overt, “I’ve seen you around but you are much more intimidating/intelligent in person.” (And, on the receiving end, how to handle a sycophant, from the gentle “I appreciate the kind words, but try and stay focused on your work,” to the more direct “Honestly, I feel a bit skeeved out by your obvious toadying.”)

Certainly, there are weightier works out there to help with deeper communications issues and management strategies, but “The Manager’s Phrase Book” is a handy desk reference to help trigger ideas when you are at a loss for the right words to say.

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Categories: Law Firm Leadership, Law Firm People Management, Managing a Law Firm, People Skills
Originally published May 10, 2013
Last updated January 18, 2023
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Joan Hamby Feldman Joan Feldman

Joan Feldman is Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of Attorney at Work, publishing “one really good idea every day” since 2011. She has created and steered myriad leading practice management and trade publications, including the ABA’s Law Practice magazine where she served as managing editor for a dozen years. Joan is a Fellow and served as a Trustee of the College of Law Practice Management. Follow her on LinkedIn and @JoanHFeldman.

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