Accessibility links

Breaking News

Advice for What to Say If Someone Leaves You at a Loss for Words

Or download MP3 (Right-click or option-click and save link)

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: A conversation with Kathleen Kelley Reardon, a management professor whose newest book is called "Comebacks at Work: Using Conversation to Master Confrontation."

KATHLEEN REARDON: "A comeback as we're talking about here is the ability to say something to a person who has put you in an awkward situation, perhaps even an insulting situation or an untenable one, responding in a way that saves face for you and preferably also saves the relationship and helps you achieve whatever goal you're attempting to achieve at the time. So it's not just a matter of 'I get you back as good as you got me,' although there's those in the book, too, for those who want those."

AA: "Well, it's interesting, because you give some examples here like 'Tell me more.' 'Run that by me again, will you?' 'That's a twist I hadn't considered.' And you go on: 'That's intriguing.' 'Let's slow things down a bit.' I don't necessarily think of those as comebacks."

Advice for What to Say If Someone Leaves You at a Loss for Words
Advice for What to Say If Someone Leaves You at a Loss for Words

KATHLEEN REARDON: "Yeah, but, you know, they buy you time in communication because things move very fast when we're talking to each other. So if you use one of those that you mentioned, you can buy yourself some time and then think of what's the best thing to say."

RS: "But, you know, when I'm looking at these, I'm thinking that perhaps they would bring anger. It depends on your tone of voice."


RS: "That's really important."

AA: "Well, you have one here, you know, 'You don't say.' If you say it sarcastically, 'You don't say,' I mean that can anger someone."

KATHLEEN REARDON: "But maybe that's what you want to achieve. I mean, whatever nonverbal expressions or inflections in your voice you put with it changes just about anything we say, even the most innocent of comments."

RS: "How do you say that so you don't escalate the conflict?"

KATHLEEN REARDON: "Let's say you said 'I'm going to think for a moment about whether you said what I really think you said.' That really gives the person a couple of options. They can say 'What you heard was what I meant.' Or they can say 'Well, wait a minute, if you took it personally, that's not what I intended.' So it's giving the other person the opportunity to reflect and perhaps do the right thing by you, and that's priceless really in relationships.

"Because, see, we're creatures of patterns and so we get into patterns with people, and we almost do these patterns as soon as we see them. We haven't yet thought about communication in terms of choice points where you could turn things around if you gave that other person the chance to do that."

RS: "Are we even aware of the patterns that we have?"

KATHLEEN REARDON: "You know, you have to be willing to be very introspective to have this work for you. You have to hear yourself talk, and even get feedback from other people if you're conscientious about it, to discover what it is that you say to people that causes them to walk away in frustration, for example. Or what message you're sending that allows them to interrupt you at a meeting all the time."

RS: "Well, how do you go about finding that out?"

KATHLEEN REARDON: "Yeah, well, first of all you have to believe and recognize that you're seventy-five percent, at least, responsible for what happens to you every day in conversation."

AA: "Well, you relate an anecdote here in your book where you say a friend of yours at, I guess at a dinner, someone -- the host? -- or someone said 'Didn't I tell you she'd be talking about work within five minutes?' And that your friend was insulted. And you give some examples of how your friend could have responded. Do you want to read those or do you want me to read those?"


AA: "OK, you say here one is 'I'm excited about what I do, as you are.' And then you say 'Perhaps add a smile and move on by saying 'Let me just wrap up my earlier story.' Then you give two more examples. You say she could have responded 'You mean I actually went five minutes before doing that? I'll have to work on it.'"


AA: "Which is kind of throwing it back on the person who insulted her. And then the third option could have been -- I love this one -- you said 'Well, you're certainly the type of host that makes people want to visit again.'"

KATHLEEN REARDON: "Yeah, 'Are you this nice to all your visitors?'"

RS: "Meaning that you're not nice -- "

KATHLEEN REARDON: "Well, sometimes people deserve it.

RS: " -- meaning that you're not nice to the visitor."

KATHLEEN REARDON: "That's right, there has to be sarcasm in that inflection."

AA: We'll be back again with Kathleen Reardon, a management professor on leave from the University of Southern California. Her latest book, written with Christopher Noblet, is "Comebacks at Work: Using Conversation to Master Confrontation."

RS: And that's WORDMASTER for this week. Archives are at With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.