I’ve wondered at times lately whether the title of our new book throws people off. Comebacks are viewed by some as quips rather than what to say in difficult situations. The broader definition of comebacks includes long and short ways to respond. We focus for most of the book on ways to move forward without confrontation and to achieve your goals in the process.
Research on verbal and nonverbal communication has shown how quickly people formulate impressions, especially in American culture. Most of us don’t take long enough to truly understand other people. We think we’re too busy. It would be wonderful to change this. And, we can do so by teaching children and even adults to be more observant and slower to formulate assumptions. This ability is, in large part, what separates effective from ineffective communicators. It is also what enables the civility that has been discussed in the media and by the president in response to the tragic events in Tucson, Arizona. When you know how to respond to both accidental offense and purposeful insult, anger is less likely. This is not to say that anger is always an inappropriate or nonproductive response, but more often than not it’s an unnecessary one.
There are times when even incivility is best responded to with civility. One of those times is when you think someone spoke before giving adequate thought to a response. Why not give that person a chance to do the right thing? “That’s a stupid idea” might well seem to merit the reaction, “Not as stupid as you,” but giving the other person the chance to reconsider his comment often affords the relationship an opportunity to survive, elicits reciprocal civility from the person who went too far, and allows you to achieve your goals without being derailed by a poorly considered comment. Instead, you might reply with “New ideas often seem stupid, so I’m not surprised at your reaction. Just hear me out and we’ll see.”
Knowing that this tendency to quick assumptions exists, you have to know how to respond on your feet even if it is just to buy yourself some time.
Gender bias issues are often exacerbated by people formulating quick assumptions that go unchallenged. If you don’t want to be accused, for example, of not having leadership potential or not having what it takes, you have to be prepared to challenge these and other perceptions and labels. And, if you are told you don’t have leadership potential, consider responding with a question. “Are you referring to commanding, motivational or some other style of leadership?” is one option. This should get the person talking about specifics to which you might respond with examples of the many times you have demonstrated leadership ability.
Just because someone imposes a label or assumption on you doesn’t mean you need to accept it. Even if the person is your boss, responding with a question that requires him or her to explain an offensive view or define his choice of words buys you some time to consider how to counter it.
That’s to a large extent what Comebacks at Work provides. It’s about revising assumptions so that interactions proceed more constructively. It’s also about knowing how to recognize choice points in conversation where redirection can take place. Without these skills most of us end up accepting perceptions and labels that don’t accurately reflect our abilities. Why do that? Why let anyone take away your options because he or she didn’t take the time to know what you know about yourself?