When that meeting or conversation gets off to a rocky start—whether tense words are exchanged or you just don’t seem to be connecting—it’s time to push the reset button. Andrew Sobel, author of Power Questions, reveals the phrase that can turn it all around.

Has this ever happened to you? You’re talking to a client, or perhaps your boss, and you realize the conversation has gotten off on absolutely the wrong foot. You may have learned new and unexpected information from the other person that renders everything you’ve said irrelevant. You may have walked in with an assumption that was just not true. Or, you find you’re not connecting, and tension and anger start to creep into the exchange. It really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that a potentially productive business conversation has become awkward and stilted—or even worse, superheated and combative.

What do you do next? According to Andrew Sobel you have three options:

  1. Continue trying to make your point. The tension and awkwardness will likely escalate, and you’ll find that you and the other person are farther and farther apart.
  2. Bring the conversation to an abrupt end and exit stage left. Both of you will be left with a bad taste in your mouth.
  3. Salvage the situation with the judicious use of seven magic words: Do you mind if we start over?

“This question is the Saint Bernard rescue dog that brings a warming barrel of brandy into the conversational arctic,” says Sobel, co-author (with Jerold Panas) of Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others and three other books on long-term business relationships. “People are forgiving. They want things to go well, and this question disarms them and eases the way to a new beginning.”

This question is only one of the many the authors include in their book, Power Questions. They explore dozens of questions that light fires under people, challenge their assumptions, help them see problems in productive new ways, and inspire them to bare their souls (which, of course, strengthens the bonds in the relationship). And they wrap it up with an exhaustive list of additional questions—bringing the grand total to 337 power questions to help readers succeed at work and in life.

 Back to “starting over”: Sobel’s coauthor recalls the time he walked into the office of a wealthy benefactor named Allan to ask for a million-dollar donation to his alma mater’s College of Engineering. Though he knew better, Panas failed to gain rapport and explore Allan’s true interests before jumping in with the big request. When he was severely rebuked for his presumptuousness, Panas realized he had made a serious error and dug himself into a deep hole. He got up and excused himself, left the room, and 10 seconds later knocked on the door and asked the power question, Do you mind if we start over?

 Allan smiled and invited Panas to sit down. Start over they did, and after approaching the revived conversation the right way, Panas discovered that Allan was interested in making a major gift—but to the University’s theater program, not its engineering program!

 Try it yourself. The next time a conversation gets off on the wrong foot or veers off track, reset with this powerful question. Sobel offers the following pointers:

 Of course, starting over isn’t just for the workplace. It can work just as well to defuse a budding argument with your spouse or any family member or friend.

 “It’s a bold, gutsy move to restart a conversation from scratch,” says Sobel. “Yes, it feels awkward. Most of us are not accustomed to swallowing our pride, admitting in real time that we screwed up, and asking if we can make it right. But the next time a conversation goes wrong, try it. Not only will it salvage the moment, it will pave the way for a more authentic and productive relationship in the future.”

Andrew Sobel is a widely published author on the topics of client loyalty and the capabilities required to build trusted business relationships. He can be reached at andrewsobel.com. Jerry Panas is executive partner of Jerold Panas, Linzy & Partners, one of the world’s most highly regarded firms in the field of fundraising services and financial resource development. He is the author of 13 books, including the bestsellers Asking and Mega Gifts.