Reality Check: Lost for Words?

Do you know the “scolded puppy” feeling? If not, picture this: You’re in a conversation, and you perceive that you’re being criticized and misunderstood. Your opponent is using clever words and making excellent points. You have no response.

So you slink away, like a scolded puppy.

And then…10 minutes, 10 hours, or 10 days later, bam! You think of the perfect response! Too bad. It’s too late now.

Why, oh why, can’t I think of those perfect responses when I need them?

The advice from some of our childhoods was, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” For many situations, this is still valid. If an acquaintance asks your opinion of her less-than-flattering haircut, there’s not much benefit to letting her know that you don’t like it. It doesn’t really matter, and there is no upside to expressing your dislike.

But there are times, both in family and business relationships, when it’s important to speak up and be heard.

You may have people in your life who act as if it is their role to tell others what they should do, how they should act, who they should be with, and so on. These conversations may take on a critical tone (or at least, you may perceive it as critical.)

While I know that snappy retorts are not relationship-builders, I also know that walking away with the perception that you haven’t been heard isn’t relationship-building either. It’s especially self-defeating if you perceive that you didn’t have the courage to speak.

If you are troubled by apparently critical conversations that happen regularly in your life, then maybe it would be helpful to take preventative action! That is, think of some responses ahead of time. If you’re nervous, you can even practice—act like an actor and go over your lines.

But what can you say?

It’s handy to have some general questions or phrases at the tip of your tongue to respond to difficult situations. Sarita Maybin’s book, “If You Can’t Say Something Nice, What Do You Say?” is a helpful resource.

For example, when your mom, sister, friend, or boss says, “You can’t do that; what are you thinking…?” Your response could be, “You seem to have some concerns. What exactly are you worried about for me?”

Or, when you are told, “You shouldn’t…you don’t know… you’ll never be able to…” You could response with, “Thank you for caring about me. What is it, exactly, that you believe I won’t be able to do?”

If you need to work with someone and it’s not going well, it may be useful to acknowledge that fact. “We seem to be having some difficulty. How can we make this work?”

Finally, a phrase that comes in handy in many situations is, “Help me understand your concern/your disappointment/your disagreement…”

Notice the similarity in some of these responses; they begin with an acknowledgement and then ask for specifics. Rather than simply accepting a vague criticism, asking for specific information helps hold the person accountable for their comment.

Any conversation will be more effective if there is goodwill on the part of both people. Even if you don’t believe that the other has your best interests at heart, it doesn’t hurt to exhibit your own goodwill. The goal is to maintain your dignity and personal freedom, but also maintain the relationship.

When you ask sincere questions, you will probably get answers. Those answers may provide valuable information for you, or not. Either way, there’s no need to try to defend yourself, justify your actions, or change your position. Listen to the information, and thank the person who is offering it to you.

Are you ever lost for words? Is it helpful to have some standard responses?

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