This post is also on Huffington Post today. And you’ll find more suggestions for dealing with “If only I’d said” moments throughout this site.
No doubt you’ve been put on the spot, cornered in conversation or didn’t quite feel you could say what you wanted to say. Maybe this happened with your spouse, friend, doctor, colleague, son or daughter. There just didn’t seem to be a good way to tell him or her what you were thinking. Then, to make matters worse, you wasted hours— maybe even days—dwelling on the event and rolling it over and over in your mind. Then, suddenly in it came to you. “I should have said….”
This happens to all of us sometimes, and to a good many of us quite often. We experience a kind of “brainfreeze.” It’s when the words just don’t come to mind, which can wreak havoc with our relationships and careers.
I’ve been teaching, researching and consulting in the field of communication for over two decades and have spent a lot of time helping people learn what to say in a variety of difficult situations. One important ingredient is a repertoire of comebacks that allows us to respond effectively. No one is born a comeback expert. It takes trial and error, adherence to a set of principles about communication, and practice of an array of options. What it doesn’t do is require you to be someone other than yourself—just a more astute version. And you don’t have to turn into a communication pro overnight. The most expert among us, even those people who seem to know what to say under any and all circumstances, have their “If only I’d said” moments.
At the outset of improving your communication, it’s important to realize that each of us is at least75% responsible for how people treat us. If someone says to you, “That idea is stupid,” you’re at a choice point. You can lash back at the person or you can decide that advancing the idea is more important or that despite what he said, you’d like to maintain this relationship. One possible response: “I thought so too at first. But a lot of new ideas seem that way” and then go on to explain your idea as if this person didn’t insult you at all. In Comebacks at Work we call this strategy “giving the other person a chance to do the right thing.”
If your boss doesn’t seem to understand you, it could be that you’re not communicating clearly. It could also be that he or she is not hearing what you think is important for other reasons. Maybe you don’t want to upset or annoy your boss or you’re insecure about what to say, so you say nothing. Instead you might try a lead-in phrase like: “It seems that what you heard is not what I intended” or “Usually we’re in sync, but today we’re not quite connecting. Let me try again.”
Communication happens so fast that people say things before they’ve thought them through. If you don’t give them the chance to reflect on their error or misjudgment and instead attack or say nothing, then a mistake on their part may lead to a permanent ending to what might otherwise be a good relationship.
Maybe you deal often with someone who is insulting. These situations usually call for more direct comebacks such as, “I’m wondering if what I heard was what you meant to say?” or “If I reply in kind, we’ll both be out of line.” In order to make him or her think twice next time, you might want to say, “You’re my boss (friend), but that doesn’t mean anything goes.” If that’s too strong, there are many milder ways to make a person think twice before continuing in a negative pattern with you. There are comebacks that buy time like, “That’s an interesting twist,” “Hmmm, I hadn’t thought of it that way,” “You may want to say that again – you know, differently.”
I’ve developed a short-cut method for remembering comeback types. It’s called the R-list and includes ways to revise what others say, reframe, revisit, restate, rebuke, and retaliate. For example, skilled negotiators use revisit-comebacks to reverse downhill spirals. They might remind the other person that until the moment at hand, things were going quite well. For example: “Excuse me, but are you the same person who had me practically eating out of your hand three minutes ago? Let’s get back to that.” When the tone of a conversation goes awry, you can also revisit a moment when things were going better and put the discussion back on track.
Slightly revising what was said is often effective too. If someone says, “You’re stubborn.” Instead of getting angry you could simply say, “You’re right. I am persistent.” Stubborn and persistent describe similar ways of being, but persistent is respected more. It’s a tweaking of words. Sometimes that’s all it takes to turn a really bad day into a good one.