We have all been there: you say something mean, stupid, or inappropriate. People might shrug it off, but suddenly the whole emotion changes and you know you made a mistake. Often, situations like this can even cause us to ruminate over what we said for days or weeks after the fact; we often replay the incident over and over again in our minds, wondering what would have happened had we said this or that. Well, we can’t change what we have already uttered out into the universe, but we can set up some good habits that will ensure we take a little more time to think about what we say, BEFORE we say it.
Empathy is the practice of stepping into someone’s shoes to understand how they think and feel, while also taking a look at the unique situation the person is currently in. By being empathetic, we can better understand how the things we say can and will affect the other person. When we focus on how the other person might take what we say, it will guide us into using better words naturally.
Think about what you message you REALLY want to get across.
It’s easy to fall into the heat of the moment and let words fly freely, but when we only consider what we say, it can be easy to make mistakes and say things we regret. Often we speak about what we feel, but rather than using words to show other people how we feel, we should focus on what message we are trying to convey to them. For example: if we react to something hurtful someone says about us we respond with hostility without giving any thought to what we are saying, but when we focus on the MESSAGE we want convey, it gives us a little more time to craft our words with care. Rather than striking back with anger at a friendly jab in conversation, we can simply realize we want the person to know what they said was inappropriate. Don’t just react, but rather consider what you REALLY want to say, most of the time, you just want to express how you feel or what you are thinking. If someone says something hurtful, its our response to strike back, but that can often cause an argument and the person will often feel even more justified about what they said.
Don’t feel forced to react immediately, take a minute and think if necessary.
Imagine you are in an interview and someone asks you a loaded question. It is hard to answer, complex, and needs to be answered delicately. We often feel a lot of pressure to answer questions and respond to things immediately, but it is perfectly ok to let another person know that we need a second to consider our answer. We can acknowledge what they said or asked and simply say “Wow, I have never thought about that”, “ Hmm, I have never been asked a question like that”, or “What a great question”. Then follow up with “Do you mind if I take a second to think about it?”, if the person denies you, they are just being rude, and you acknowledging their viewpoint or question shows: you care, are willing to think about it, and that you want to give a thoughtful and relevant response. Letting someone know they asked a great question will faltter their ego, and they will be happy to take the recognition.
Imagine someone says to you, what you are about to say to them.
Imagine that the person across from you is about to say the same words to you, that you are about to say to them;:would you like hearing what you are about to say spoken to you, and how would you react if someone said what you are about to say? If you wouldn’t like hearing what you are about to say, or if you think there is a chance that you could take it the wrong way, it might be best to forgo this one and take some extra time to think about it.
Consider the response before you craft your message.
This sort of ties in with empathy, but when you are crafting the words you are about to speak to someone, you should imagine what consequences may come from what you are about to say. If you think what you are saying might evoke anger, preface your statement with “I am not saying this to make you angry, but I just need to get this off my chest”. Sometimes prefacing a statement with a warning isn’t going to help, so if you know deep down what you have to say is going to cause a problem, it might be best to hold it back for a better time. If the person you are speaking with is already frustrated and upset, it might not be the best time to hope into criticism and suggestions even if what you have to say is aimed at helping them.
Sometimes though, we can anticipate how people will react and craft our messages with more elaborate care. Imagine you are about to write up an employee for a mistake, but you know they are an excellent employee and you don’t want to lose them or make them feel under appreciated. We can preface the write up with something like: “I want you to know that you are a very valuable employee to this company and your work is almost always A+, but the way you performed on the ____ job just wasn’t adequate. I have to write you up, because it is company policy, but I want you to know I won’t let one mistake you have made influence my view of you, I know you are a great employee and you have a ton of potential. I hope you won’t let this disciplinary action discourage you from creating the same high quality work you normally do.” It is perfectly ok to sugar coat things sometimes, after all, a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.
Wait until tomorrow or a later time to discuss it, or choose to end the conversation for the time being.
If you feel a conversation shifting away from what you intended it to be, or if suddenly things are going awry, its ok to take a minute, an hour, or a few days to gather your thoughts. Emotions can often cloud our judgement and cause us to say things we will later regret. Rather than being upset or feeling awkward, we can simply excuse ourselves politely for as long as we need. If we are at a party interacting with business prospects and say something that someone reacts negatively to, its ok to excuse yourself to get a drink or to say hello to someone. Often if we leave things alone the situation will fizzle it out, but if we keep on the subject to long we will continue making things worse. Sometimes a little break is all we need to let our feelings dissipate so we can get back to the matter at hand. Come back in and say “I am sorry, I think I did a bad job at trying to say what I was trying to get across, let’s just move on from here.”
Using these tips will help you consider what you are about to say. The most important part of not saying things you will later regret is thinking about what you say before you say it: all of these techniques will get you out of reaction without thought, and into a habit of considering your thoughts and what you are about to say. Even a few seconds of consideration can be the difference between a successful conversation and a fist fight.