I hate to admit this, but I’ve been known to say something stupid once in a while. It doesn’t happen often (that I know of) but when it does, I feel dumb and embarrassed. How about you? Have you ever said something you instantly regretted? Wish you could get a “do over”? Better yet, want some ways to avoid it in the first place or recover with your self-respect intact?
Maybe you’re out in public, at a party, a workplace event, with a client, customer or co-worker. Perhaps you’re trying to be light-hearted, humorous or cute. You want to be helpful but it comes out all wrong.
For example: after I gave birth to one of my children, I ran across a lady who was in the labor room next to me the day before. I was happy to see her, but after a quick glance at her tummy I asked, “Haven’t you had that baby YET?” It was a bit awkward. I should have taken a good look at MY tummy before opening my mouth!
That experience (and a few others) taught me a good lesson. Here’s how you might save yourself from a similar fate:
Count to 10. That brief pause will give your brain time to catch up with your mouth and give you the chance to get more information or reconsider what you were about to say.
Let someone else go first. If you’re in a group, resist the temptation to comment before anyone else does. You don’t win a prize for taking the lead in every conversation. (Exception: when something dangerous is about to occur.)
Imagine your image. Consider the type of person you want to portray. Do you want to be perceived as: Angry (Alec Baldwin), Sarcastic (Dr. Gregory House – Hugh Laurie), Wise (Yoda), Intimidating (Darth Vader), kind, patient or comical?
Notice when you’re nervous. Our potential to make a mistake with what we say increases if we’re upset or nervous. Rate your nervous level on a scale from 1-10 and then decide whether you trust yourself to sound kind, credible, respectful or intelligent at that point in time.
Have you been drinking? Let’s face it, when under the influence (of anything) we lose our inhibitions. At that point, anything goes. Stay off social media, ask a friend or spouse to keep an eye on you, go home early, etc.
Ask yourself, what’s at risk? Could you lose a job, piece of business, sponsorship or risk a relationship? How would you feel if your words showed up in the newspaper or featured on the 5 o’clock news? Then ask yourself, what’s the reward? What benefit will be gained?
Apologize. As soon as you realize how your words could have been misinterpreted or the impact you had on someone, say you’re sorry. Most people will overlook a lot if they feel you are sincere. Even if a few days have passed, it’s never too late to make amends.
Mention your motivation. There’s nothing wrong with explaining where you were coming from by saying, “I hope you know I was trying to be ____________ (light-hearted, sympathetic, humorous, witty, etc.) when I said XYZ.” Sometimes describing your intent, even though it went horribly wrong, will help people cut you some slack.
Ask a question. As quickly as possible after becoming aware of your gaffe, ask “Did I just say that out loud? That was stupid, insensitive, rude!” Then follow up with, “I really was trying to ______________” and explain yourself. Make sure you are accountable for what you said and the impact it may have had on others.
BUT WITH THAT BEING SAID…
I don’t want to imply we should avoid being truthful, transparent or courageous in our communication. Important issues need to be raised. People must be held accountable. Wrongs should be set right. Nobody benefits when we’re too fearful to say what needs to be said. But we also have a responsibility to consider how we come across. We can still be persuasive, powerful and influential while being sensitive to words and timing.
The mark of a true professional and a self-aware person often requires we balance two competing goals or conflicting concepts to get good outcomes. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote,
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
And finally, don’t beat yourself up if you say something stupid. We have ALL been there. Make your apologies and then move on. Don’t belabor it. There’s no need to grovel. Just consider this another important lesson learned on the way to becoming a fully enlightened being!